CDT Chinese Editors’ “People of the Year, 2023”: Comedians

To round out 2023, CDT Chinese compiled a series of year-end articles on a number of special topics, including sensitive words (part one and part two), censored articles, “rollover scenes,” and notable reports. This post introduces the “People of the Year 2023,” as chosen by CDT Chinese editors, who highlighted the increasingly precarious position of China’s stand-up comedians. 

Comedy clubs and other venues for comedic expression in China have attracted growing audiences in person and on video platforms such as Douyin. But they have also attracted the attention of government censors, who this year have shown that no joke is too innocuous to police. In one of most notable examples, covered by CDT in May, a stand up comic joked that his dogs’ pursuit of squirrels brought to mind the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which unexpectedly led to an internet firestorm, a $2 million fine, and a police investigation:

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. 

[…] 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. [Source]

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. Chinese comics, the writer lamented, “expend 80% of their energy writing jokes, and 500% of their energy dealing with censorship.”

The shrinking space for humor has become part of a broader siege against the arts by a revitalized corps of “culture cops” (wenguan) tasked with ensuring that cultural productions are in tune with the “main melody,” or the CCP’s political orthodoxy. Later that month, one of China’s most renowned contemporary painters, Beijing-based Yue Minjun (岳敏君), was targeted by online nationalists who dug up some of his old cynical-realist paintings of wide-mouthed, toothily grinning or laughing soldiers and accused him of “insulting the military” and “defaming revolutionary heroes and martyrs.” 

Poking fun at the state’s sensitivities, journalist and current affairs commentator Chang Ping penned a piece imagining how a future stand-up comedy routine might go in China around the year 2049. He riffs on forbidden topics, nationalist witch hunts, and the PLA’s soft spots, among other themes related to the CCP’s crackdown on comedy.

As a result of this crackdown, some of those seeking spaces for comedic expression have organized abroad, with young Chinese feminists leading the way. Within China, stand-up comedy performances have served as unique means for disseminating feminist thought, despite political and patriarchal restrictions on speech. Outside of China, as Shen Lu wrote for The Wall Street Journal in May, comedy shows provide a safer space for resistance along feminist and intersectional axes:

“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.”

[…] A few veteran women’s rights activists who wound up in New York launched the open-mic shows in May 2022 with their local friends as a way to cultivate community and offer young overseas Chinese an uncensored outlet for bottled-up frustration. 

[…] Amateur performers plumbed a range of topics from sex and gender stereotypes to identity, but the routines became more explicitly political after protests against Covid-19 restrictions broke out in China late last year. 

[…] Inspired by the New York open-mic show’s success, Chinese feminist groups in five other cities in the U.S., U.K. and Canada have started putting together local versions. [Source]

But even with comedy shows abroad, the CCP has found ways to enforce censorship. Wang Yuechi, known by his stage name Chizi, had all his Chinese social media accounts deleted after performing a North American stand-up tour during which he touched on human rights, Xinjiang, and Xi’s efforts to claim a third term as state president. Nigel Ng, a U.K.-based Malaysian comedian, had his Weibo account barred from making new posts after a clip from one of his stand-up shows circulated online, showing him poking fun at censorship of sensitive topics. Some venues for Chinese comedy performances outside of mainland China have also self-censored and vetted political jokes, partly out of fear.

Vickie Wang, a Taiwanese writer and stand-up comedian based in Shanghai for ten years, situated this year’s crackdown within the wider arc of Chinese comedy and society: “Young Chinese have endured years of soul-crushing education to enter a job market with record-high youth unemployment in the workforce. […] There’s plenty to complain about, and comedians excel at making misery funny.” At China Media Project, she shared her optimism about the resilience of Chinese comedy

The crackdown that followed the Li Haoshi incident has led some to declare the death of comedy in China. But the art form has weathered worse since the sounds of xiangsheng first echoed in the alleys and lanes of the imperial capital. The risks make every show’s value truly felt, every hard-earned moment of expression cherished. And thanks to the simplicity and agility of the format, I have every confidence that stand-up in China will once again rise to its feet. [Source]


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