Comedian Pulls Back Curtain On Censorship Process After Army Joke Incident

The (talk) show is over. Comedian Li Haoshi, who made a joke involving the People’s Liberation Army last weekend, has been detained by Beijing police according to a report from BBC’s Chinese news service. As of publication, no other outlets have been able to verify the BBC’s reporting. While Li may still have his freedom, his stage career is likely over: the Chinese Performing Arts Association blacklisted him. Many of those who have spoken in Li’s defense have been censored. In the aftermath of the Li Haoshi Incident, one writer took to Weibo to write about their experience navigating censorship while writing for a standup comedy studio in Guangzhou. Their post was also censored. CDT has translated the censorship-related sections of the post, which finished with the writers’ lament: Chinese comics, they wrote, “expend 80% of their energy writing jokes, and 500% of their energy dealing with censorship”:

Before I started, my liaison at the studio forwarded me a document introducing the company’s culture and a long list of taboo topics. The list was created by the company itself, based on its understanding of industry trends. It made clear that all content about leaders, officials, extramarital affairs, homosexuality, gambling, poverty, and the pandemic was forbidden. This was not up for debate. All such content would be cut from scripts. Writing about those topics would be a waste of time, because they must be summarily avoided. 

[…] The most frustrating part of the job was preparing for official censorship. Every day, we’d spend a lot of time in meetings discussing it: “This gag is absolutely hilarious, but is it too risky? Should we soften it a little?” or “Does this content reference anything else that might get us in trouble?” “Will this joke get bad press? Is there any chance it gets reported to the police?” “This touches on a trending social issue, will it be too sensitive?”

[…] This in-house censorship process exhausted me. After I wrote a well-received joke about “health codes,” we had five meetings about whether discussing “health codes” counted as discussing the taboo topic of “the pandemic.”

[…] There was also a joke about “how to tell if someone on the bus is from Chaoshan” that satirized men from Chaoshan as “sexist, superstitious mommy’s boys.” We held two meetings about it and decided to ax the joke about sexism because we feared we’d be reported as “feminazis” (Keeping in mind the backlash faced by the feminist comedienne Yang Li [after she joked about overly confident average men.])

[…] Once our internal censorship process wrapped up, not a single word was potentially offensive (or so we thought). The script passed on a unanimous internal vote. The next step was submitting the script to the relevant government organs for a formal censorship review. 

The censorship process is never smooth. No matter what, the censors always jam you up for a bit. Anything less, and they’d look unprofessional. But their feedback is always vague: they never provide any specific commentary or suggestions for revisions. It’s on us to hold more meetings, try to figure out the offending bits, and revise the entire thing from the inside out. 

[…] The way I see it, comics expend 80% of their energy writing jokes, and 500% of their energy dealing with censorship. It’s a tremendous waste of resources. It’s also a waste of youth—there’s nothing funny or valuable about it. [Chinese]

Li Haosi is not the only high profile comedian to run into trouble in recent days. Nigel Ng, a UK-based Malaysian comedian, had his Weibo account suspended after a clip of him mocking Xi Jinping in his new show went viral. Ng once deleted a video from his Youtube channel that he shot with a prominent China critic after it caused a backlash in China. It is unclear what spurred his sudden reversal on criticizing China. It also seems that all foreigners are, at least temporarily, banned from performing on stage live in Beijing. A screenshot posted to Twitter purports to show that all bands and shows with foreign members have had their sets canceled. 


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