Why China Loves ‘The Daily Show’

After another escalation of provocative rhetoric from Jon Stewart mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the country’s clear use of photoshop in propaganda on the April 2 episode of The Daily Show. The clip was posted to Chinese Web-portal Sina, where it quickly gathered nearly 3 million views. The Washington Post’s Max Fisher analyzed China’s reception to the bit in a blogpost earlier this week:

“The Daily Show” is not big in China. But when the popular Chinese Web portal Sina posted an eight-minute segment from the show discussing the latest North Korean provocations, it racked up an astounding 2.8 million views and counting, as well as tens of thousands of comments, many of them praising the show.[…]

[…W]hat explains the enormous popularity? The “Daily Show” segment, without meaning to, may have hit on growing frustration among Chinese citizens, particularly middle-class urbanites, with their misbehaving ally. Chinese state media, though it has allowed some measured disapproval of Kim’s latest threats, has held back from so roundly mocking the country and its supremely mockable regime. The voraciousness with which Chinese viewers are watching the segment suggests that their appetite for such coverage, for publicly criticizing an ally that has become something of an embarrassment, far exceeds what they’re getting.

While there has been suspicion that the Chinese government is growing uneasy with North Korea, there doesn’t appear to be evidence that the official stance will soon change as Chinese media isn’t providing the criticism that Jon Stewart did in early April. After noticing the popular reception of his clip in China, Jon Stewart put together a special segment for his newfound audience, which has also been garnering hits in China:

In a follow-up for the Washington Post, Max Fisher again asks what’s behind The Daily Show’s success in China, noting that it might prove wrong the widely-held assumption that China’s middle class is apolitical:

Maybe it has to do with China’s restrictive media, which tend not to venture into the kind of cutting that has made the show so popular at home. The population of young, urban, middle-class, Web-savvy Chinese is growing rapidly. […]It stands to reason that they’d also be interested in the sort of news coverage that so appeals to young, urban middle classes around the world. But they can’t get it from the Chinese media, so they have to go elsewhere.

Jon Stewart, in other words, seems to have stumbled upon one of the most underserved media markets in the world. He’s right: He, or someone, should be doing a China-focused “Daily Show.” Unfortunately, something as freely critical and openly mocking as “The Daily Show” is unlikely to get past China’s censors anytime soon.

The good news is that maybe, just maybe, the apparent popularity of “The Daily Show” in China undercuts the oft-repeated concern that young, middle-class Chinese aren’t interested in politics, that they’re preoccupied with consumerism and getting ahead. That’s a view I’ve heard far more from frustrated Chinese than from foreigners, so I’m in no position to challenge it, but it is important to note at least this possible sign of greater interest in politics and the world.

Also see prior CDT coverage of of China’s relationship with North Korea. For more political satire, see CDT’s Drawing the News series.