Word(s) of the Week: Forge Exemplary Conduct, Fight to Win (作风优良，能打胜仗 zuòfēng yōuliáng, néngdǎ shèngzhàng)
On Saturday at the Century Theater in Beijing, a stand up comic joked that his dogs’ pursuit of squirrels brought to mind the People’s Liberation Army. It drew laughs. An internet firestorm, a $2 million fine, and a police investigation followed.
Li Haoshi, who performs under the stage name House, used the phrase “Forge Exemplary Conduct, Fight to Win” to describe his dogs’ hunting prowess. It’s a PLA slogan coined by Xi Jinping in 2013. An audio recording of the show reveals the crowd laughed. Later that evening, an anonymous audience member took to Weibo to allege that Li had disparaged “the People’s soldiers.” After a storm of online commentary, Li apologized for his “incredibly inappropriate metaphor.” Soon after, the authorities stepped in. The Beijing Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau accused Li of “severely insulting” the PLA, indefinitely suspended all shows by the Shanghai comedy studio that employs him, confiscated the profits from the show in which he made the offending joke, and fined the studio nearly $2 million. Shanghai’s culture bureau also suspended all of the comedy studio’s performances. Shortly after, Beijing police announced that they had opened an investigation into Li. CDT has translated the relevant portion of the set that landed Li in hot water. In context, the joke seems rather tame:
Upon moving to the cosmopolitan city that is Shanghai, I realized that everything must be done in the international style. So, I adopted two stray dogs. Technically speaking, they weren’t stray dogs. They were two feral dogs I scooped up from the wilderness near my house. I didn’t rescue them or anything—with their position on the food chain they absolutely did not need rescuing. Think of it as more of a Wife Swap situation, like they’re trying out city life for a while. These dogs were really the top of the food chain out there. The first time I saw them, I didn’t think I was looking at dogs. It was a scene straight out of Animal Planet. They were chasing a squirrel like they’d been shot out of a cannon. Most dogs are cute. They melt your heart, yadda yadda yadda. Not these guys. When I saw them, the phrase that flashed through my mind was: “Forge Exemplary Conduct, Fight to Win.” They’re simply the best. Walking down the Shanghai streets with them is really something else, the majesty! The only problem is they’re actually too athletic—with a body like mine I can’t keep up. [Chinese]
It is possible that Li’s joke had more bite to it than meets the eye. A famous scene from the 1956 propaganda flick “Battle on Shangganling Mountain” depicts People’s Volunteer Army soldiers chasing after a squirrel. Online, those angry with Li pointed to the “Shangganling” scene to accuse him of mocking “martyrs” of the Korean War. The accusation has serious weight. In 2022, ex-journalist Luo Changping was sentenced to seven months in prison for a Weibo post about the 2021 propaganda blockbuster “The Battle at Lake Changjin” in which he called some Chinese soldiers who froze to death during the Korean War “idiots.” As of publication, the Beijing police have not provided an update on their investigation of Li.
Li had many defenders online, some of whom have also found themselves in legal trouble. Censorship repeats itself: the first time as farce, then again as farce. A Dalian woman who took to Weibo to defend Li was arrested by local police after a fellow netizen reported her for posting the question, “Aren’t all of the ‘People’s soldiers’ dogs?” Liberal state-media outlet Sixth Tone posted, and then deleted, an article that noted the crowd laughed and clapped after hearing the punchline, and that also documented online defenses of the joke. An essay decrying the tendency to turn the “free airing of views” into a sensitive matter was censored. “The free airing of views” is a phrase associated with the brief loosening of ideological strictures in 1957 that was followed by the Anti-Rightist Campaign, during which many of those who spoke up were brutally suppressed. Even quotidian non-political jokes were censored. One essay imagined a hypothetical stand-up performance where the comic begins the set with ten ridiculous caveats stating their respect for everyone and everything. The article concluded: “Okay, everyone. Due to time constraints, that’s a wrap. I’ve got another 90 terms and conditions to go through, so I encourage everyone to buy tickets to my next set. Another nine sets and it’ll finally be time to tell those jokes we’re so eager to hear.” That essay, too,was deleted by censors.
Some commentary made it past censorship. A WeChat author republished portions of a 2017 Chinese-language translation of a book of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s jokes, leading with the phrase: “Comedy is a legitimacy crisis followed by the sudden appearance of a cornucopia.” A separate satirical WeChat account joked, “Here’s a stand up routine more suited for Chinese babies,” and added, “If Xiaoguo [Li’s employer] had put this on, they wouldn’t have had a problem. They still don’t get it”:
The tight suppression of comedy within Beijing has created a massive demand for trenchant political comedy performed outside of China’s borders. At The Wall Street Journal, Shen Lu reported on one of New York City’s hottest comedy acts, a monthly Mandarin language open-mic show that riffs on everything from sex to immigration to Xi Jinping’s authoritarian vision:
The dark humor taps into growing frustration among young Chinese people living overseas, many of whom have found themselves unexpectedly politicized by what they see as Xi’s reversal of the budding openness that defined China during their childhoods. Together, they are writing a new playbook for a kind of resistance that is almost impossible in their home country.
[…] “Many people in China have a lot to say but can’t,” said Susan Zhang, who regularly performs at the open-mic events in New York. “When we take the stage, we have to speak up.”
[…] Performers and organizers of the open-mic events said they ultimately aspire to a democratic future for China, though they concede the prospects for such an outcome are vanishingly thin as long as Xi is in power. Chinese platforms that had hosted the show’s social-media accounts have taken them down.
[…] For that reason, some people perform with face masks when the media are present at the open-mic events. Photographing, filming and recording of performers aren’t allowed. Staff members clear media and social-media coverage requests with each performer and watch for suspicious behavior in the audience. [Source]