Translation: Chang Ping Riffs on Beleaguered Comedians, Stray Dogs, and the PLA

In mainland China, August 1 is known as PLA Day or Army Day, and commemorates the establishment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1927. This year, the celebration of the PLA’s 96th anniversary coincided with a major (and possibly corruption-related) shake-up in the PLA’s Rocket Force; some Central Military Commission guidelines for enhancing “Party-building” in the military; and a Ministry of State Security exhortation to mobilize the masses to assist with counter-espionage work.

The PLA, somewhat counterintuitively, has also become associated with a crackdown on stand-up comedy. The comedy clampdown began in early May of 2023, after comedian Li Haoshi, who performs under the moniker “House,” touched off an online firestorm with a joke comparing feral dogs with soldiers by referencing a PLA slogan coined by Xi Jinping: “Forge Exemplary Conduct, Fight to Win!” House was accused of “disparaging the People’s soldiers” and blacklisted from performing; his employer, comedy studio Xiaoguo Culture, was fined nearly $2 million dollars and prohibited from putting on any comedy shows for the foreseeable future. The harsh punishment has exerted a chilling effect on China’s already-beleaguered comedy circles. It seems likely that artists and performers who poke fun at the military, either intentionally or inadvertently, will continue to draw the ire of ardent nationalists and be subject to criminal or civil punishments.

In a piece originally published by Deutsche Welle (DW) and archived at China Digital Space, journalist and current affairs commentator Chang Ping touches on these topics and more, as he flashes forward and imagines how a stand-up comedy routine might go in China, circa 2049. A full translation of the piece appears below, with explanatory links and endnotes added by CDT editors.

Thank you, thank you. What a crowd! I’m Villa, a stand-up comic just like my dad, House (Li Haoshi). It’s 2049, and we’re celebrating the founding of a “Newer China.” What I’m about to do is called “stand-up,” or “stand-up comedy.” Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it—the last stand-up performance in China was in 2023. In those days, the TV sensation sweeping the nation was China’s “Two Sessions“: the “National People’s Clownfest” and the “Chinese People’s Parody and Comedy Conference.”

It sounds like two different things, I know—one where insiders roast each other mercilessly, and one where performers entertain the audience with jokes. But in fact, the “Two Sessions” were produced by a single company and directed by a single boss. There was even a kind of voting that they called “whole-process People’s  democracy,” but when it came down to it, the “Kings of Comedy” were always chosen by unanimous vote.

I know some of you are thinking, “What?” or wondering what I’m doing telling neihan duanzi, jokes that rely on subtext, in this day and age. We’ve had a whole “Revolution of our Times,” so now if we want to voice an opinion about the government, we can just come out and say it. No need to hem and haw, right? But back then, comedians had to waste a lot of time figuring out how to be funny without offending anybody. That’s where the ingenuity came in. A Chinese literary lion once told an anecdote about Goethe and Beethoven out for a walk together. When they saw the Empress’ retinue approaching. Beethoven ignored it and kept walking, head held high, but Goethe took off his hat and bowed. Back in the day, Chinese people must have felt like it was easy to be brash and disrespectful like Beethoven, but to grovel like Goethe took real courage. 

People get nostalgic, I know. This one older comic was telling me how great things were back in the day—by which he meant a couple decades ago, six or seven years after the comedy ban came down. You could stage a whole comedy show without anybody in the theater laughing: audiences weren’t sure if fun was even allowed, or if laughing was disrespectful to the performers, or if a laugh would get them investigated by the Beijing “culture cops.” Not that the performers cared whether the audience was laughing or not—it wasn’t their job to care. All they had to worry about was making sure that their popularganda was edutaining enough. It was the ultimate in “political co-rekt-ness.” That generation of performers sacrificed everything for the cause of building the Newer China—a lot of them are still in the loony bin. I heard a doctor talking about one of the more serious cases once: A former commander of the culture cops goes out for a stroll and this guy’s just staring and staring at him. Stares at him for three days straight. Finally, on day four, the commander had to call a doctor to help him put his pants back on. Tragic stuff! 1

There used to be three types of comedy: tragicomedy, tragedy, and venti. The moment a performer stepped onstage, wham, the audience was bawling for joy. One big international polling firm, Ipsos, did a “Global Happiness” survey. They looked at 32 countries, and the one with the highest “Happiness Index” was China, with 91%. The U.S. (with 76%) came in 14th, and Japan (with 60%) came in 29th. South Korea (with 57%) was third from last. If they’d been able to rank Taiwan as an independent country, I bet it would’ve come in dead last.

I know what you’re thinking: If Chinese people didn’t know whether they were allowed to laugh, or even how to laugh, how come their “Happiness Index” was so high? Because they were laughing in secret! If you’re living in China, you’ve got to know how to laugh in secret!

The Two Forbidden Topics

We had kind-hearted leaders in those days, wonderfully kind. They couldn’t bear to see poor people suffering, so they turfed the “low-end population” out of Beijing and forbade the media from reporting on anything to do with poor people.

Naturally there were still some incorrigibles who insisted on talking about, singing about, and even caring about the poor. The authorities encouraged the public to report these incorrigibles, and so many people snitched on them that we ran out of reporting slips and everyone had to walk around holding blank sheets of white paper. History remembers this as the “White Paper Movement.”

Some people will tell you that stand-up comedians weren’t allowed to talk about anything. Actually, for a law-abiding comic, only two topics were off-limits: this and that.

My dad House was one of the law-abiding ones. If he’d gone on stage and just stood in silence for five minutes, someone would have ratted him out, because wouldn’t his silence be read as “expressing support for the White Paper Movement”? So he had to say something. Other comedians tried to fill his head with nonsense about stand-up comedy being a transgressive art form, but my father didn’t fall for it. He wasn’t trying to offend people—but he had no qualms about offending dogs.

He and my mom had adopted two stray dogs. Feral dogs, more accurately. Back then, in May of 2023, those dogs only understood two languages: if you shouted at them, they knew you were angry; if you cooed at them, they knew you were getting ready to feed them, and they’d jump up and put their paws on you. They had no idea they were about to hit Weibo’s “Trending Topics” list and become the mutts heard ‘round the world—and they never could have imagined that 20 years later, after the founding of the Newer China, there would be statues of them in the National Comedy Museum.

Just a couple of feral dogs, quietly living their little feral-dog lives. My mom and dad rescued them: “rescued,” quote-unquote, as if those dogs didn’t already have a penthouse view from the tip-top of the local food chain. You know how most dogs are cute and lovable? Not these ones. They were fighters, not lovers—if they caught sight of a squirrel, they’d be off chasing it like highly trained special forces. My dad was watching them do just that when a phrase flashed into his mind: “Forge Exemplary Conduct, Fight to Win!”

And the rest is history—you learned about it in your school textbooks. But here’s the Cliffs-Notes version: some so-called “audience member” recorded the routine and reported that particular joke for “insulting the People’s soldiers.” It turned into a whole thing, and shot straight up the Weibo “Trending Topics” list.

If the Veterans Had Guns, Who Would They Take Out First?

My father apologized. So did his management company, Xiaoguo Culture. But it wasn’t enough for the “Patriotic Big V’s” who wanted to see him thrown in jail for insulting the military. Their rallying cry was: “Like and Retweet, everyone! We’re gonna make ‘em pay!”

These days, of course, the same people are always talking about how their freedom of speech was infringed upon, how much they hated authoritarianism, and how they strove for a democratic China. The same thing happened with the first Cultural Revolution, too. But at the time, they were the ones saying that comedy wasn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card and talking about how Li Dan, the head of Xiaoguo Culture, ought to have his comedy-making tools confiscated and be stripped of his comedy privileges for the rest of his days.

The Beijing culture cops got so many complaints from the public that they had to set up a special task force to investigate the case. It didn’t take them long to determine the appropriate punishment for Xiaoguo Culture: confiscation of 1.32 million yuan ($184,000) in revenues, a fine of 13.35 million yuan ($1.86 million), and the indefinite suspension of all of its performances in Beijing, on the grounds that “elements in one performance were grossly insulting to the People’s Army, thus exerting a malign influence on society.”

My father once saved up 120,000 yuan ($16,700) to get into investing, thinking he was going to be the King of Trades and a legendary A-share dealmaker. “Retail investors would worship me, funds would fear me, the Securities Regulatory Commission would investigate me, but turn up no wrongdoing.” My father’s dream was to take his millions and retire to the pastoral life, turning his back on the bloodbath of the stock market with one final message: “Warren Buffett, eat your heart out!” 

As it happened, history would remember him for a different six words: “Forge Exemplary Conduct, Fight to Win.” Eight characters at 1.83 million yuan (over $250,000) a pop, all payable to the government.

In the days and months that followed, the question my father kept coming back to was, would that money go to the soldiers he’d “insulted?”

Online, some people said that if the veterans he’d insulted could take up arms again, it’d be curtains for House and for Xiaoguo Culture. Government officials, however, knew perfectly well who would be first on the to-do list of any armed veterans. Hey, Patriotic Big V’s, any of you ever try asking the “People’s soldiers” who you “love and respect” so much what they thought? You don’t know who they’ve really got it in for? Well, no matter. We all found out in the end.

 “Are You Saying All Soldiers Aren’t Dogs?”

In the comments under a Weibo article about Xiaoguo Culture and House being accused of insulting the PLA, one internet user from Dalian, @花花花未央HWY, voiced her disapproval of House’s blacklisting, and added: “Are you saying all soldiers aren’t dogs?

In those halcyon days, naturally she got reported, too. The Dalian police uncovered her identity and arrested her for posting “inappropriate online comments about the troops.”

“Are you saying all soldiers aren’t dogs?” My father said he had no answer to that question. Some people said the “People’s soldiers” weren’t feral dogs; they were the Zhao family private guard, lapdogs of the ruling class. And as everyone knows, one or two of the prettier ones were the very model of a singing major-general. 2

All my dad knew for sure was that the soldiers weren’t the feral dogs he’d been talking about.

He’d been perfectly clear: The feral dogs he was talking about “had a penthouse view at the tip-top of the local food chain.” Could you say as much for the “volunteer army” that had to hunt squirrels for food while serving in the trenches of the Korean War? Or the “old veterans” of the Sino-Vietnamese War, who spent years trying in vain to get anyone to hear their petitions? If you asked those veterans, some would say, “What’s a ‘penthouse?’” or “What’s a ‘food chain?’” or even “What’s ‘food?’” And some would ask what it would take for them to be feral dogs, too. You couldn’t be the kind of feral dog my father was talking about if you didn’t have family connections: at the time, there was no prouder boast than “My dad is a feral dog!” It was the next best thing to “wolf warrior.”

Some people who couldn’t tell a joke made a quick 14.67 million yuan (nearly $2 million dollars) off someone who could. Talk about mighty hunters—they must have come from a long line of feral dogs! My father rarely singled people out in his act: he’d been raised better than to get personal. But those so-called cultural law enforcement officers weren’t very nice people, so they didn’t count as such. 3

They couldn’t take a joke, so they shut down the entire comedy industry and blamed it on the troops. Taking the blame was what the troops were there for—the ones who couldn’t sing and look cute, at least. No wonder they ended up getting “liberated” by Taiwan.

Later, my father reflected that the inadvertent role he and his dogs had played in history, the permanent association he’d drawn between “the troops” and “feral dogs,” may well have arisen from nothing more than simple jealousy on the part of certain people.

For whatever reason, there will always be certain people who go around looking average yet feeling confident 4—having “four matters of confidence,” in fact. 5

And those six words that got my dad in trouble? He certainly wasn’t the first to say them. 6 They’d been the subject of newspaper articles, but never got much traction online. But as soon as my dad uttered them, suddenly they were on everyone’s lips. The contrast must have stung a bit, for the “average-yet-incongruously-confident” crowd.

After it all blew up, official media outlets ran articles stating their positions on the matter. The People’s Daily Weibo account sermonized: “Having things one does not disrespect, things one doesn’t say, and lines one doesn’t cross is a professional baseline, and should become the industry consensus.” Being a professional comedian, my father could tell right away what that was making fun of—“Universal Values!”

Thanks, ladies and gents, you’ve been a great audience. This is Villa, signing off! [Chinese]

About the author: Chang Ping is a seasoned journalist, editor, and current affairs commentator. He is also the chief curator of the online “June 4 Memory and Human Rights Museum” at He currently lives in Germany.

Translation by Mick Barry.

  1. A riff on a joke by Yang Bo, another stand-up comic managed by Xiaoguo Culture, who joked about being stuck inside during the 2022 Shanghai lockdown: “Everyone’s acting weirder and weirder. A middle-aged man in the building opposite kept staring at me. This went on for three straight days. On the fourth day, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I decided to change back into men’s clothing.”
  2. Singer Peng Liyuan (Xi Jinping’s wife) and Miao singer Song Zuying (widely rumored to have had an affair with Jiang Zemin) both rose through the ranks of the PLA song-and-dance troupe, and eventually held civilian ranks equivalent to Major-General. In 2018, Song Zuying was investigated for corruption and her name struck off the list of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) attendees.
  3. A riff on a stand-up routine by comedian Xu Zhiyuan, also represented by Xiaoguo Culture: “I was raised to know that it’s not polite to single people out, so I generally don’t get personal. But it’s okay to single out you-know-who: he doesn’t count as a person.”
  4. A riff on a stand-up routine by comedienne Yang Li, also represented by Xiaoguo Culture, that poked fun at the male ego. This is the line that went viral, and provoked howls of outrage from some men who were offended by the joke: “Men are lovely and mysterious creatures. You can never know what’s going on in their tiny little brains. You have to wonder: how can a man look so average, yet still have so much confidence?”
  5. Xi Jinping’s stated “Confidence Doctrine,” also known as the “Four Matters of Confidence,” holds that the CCP should be “confident in our chosen path (道路自信), confident in our guiding theories (理论自信), confident in our political system (制度自信), and confident in our culture (文化自信).” More recently, there has been talk of a fifth matter of confidence, “historical confidence,” referring of course to the CCP’s own interpretation of history.
  6. In a March 11, 2011 speech to a PLA delegation at the Twelfth National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping declared: “We must strive to build a People’s Army that obeys the Party’s command and will forge exemplary conduct, and fight to win.”


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