China cracks down on stand-up

Dr. Jennifer Young, University of Groningen

A chilling effect is once more creeping across China affecting both music and comedyChina is again clamping down on freedom of expression and appears increasingly concerned about the power of satire as a form of political critique.  Whilst there had been somewhat of a boon of political satire in the last twenty years, Xi Jinping’s premiership has seen a tightening of state controls curbing the mass media entertainment output which differs from official state discourse of ‘positive energy’ (Chen and Gao 2023).[1] This curbing came to international attention recently following one of China’s comedy promoters receiving a massive fine by the authorities.

A recording of Chinese comedian Li Haosh’s joke, told in his live shows, was uploaded to the internet and went viral. A complaint about the joke was brought to the Beijing Cultural Law Enforcement Agency  which launched an investigation into the comedian’s routine and his account was removed from China’s Weibo Social Media platform.  Before his Weibo account was suspended, Li uploaded a post expressing deep remorse and regret at this joke. He also cancelled his performances to ‘deeply reflect’ and ‘re-educate’ himself.  The show’s promoter Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media was fined more than £1.6 million and suspended indefinitely from holding any performances in Beijing. Li’s contract with the promoter has been terminated.

The joke itself is in relation to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to China Daily the joke had ‘angered the People’s Liberation Army and had an adverse impact on society’. The joke appears to have broken a law passed in 2021 banning insults against military personnel (Protection of the Status and Rights and Interests of Military Personnel of China).

Turning to the joke itself, the punchline played on the PLA’s motto which echoed a phrase used in 2013 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in which he described the qualities he expected from the PLA. In his joke, Li said that he had adopted two stray dogs who liked to chase squirrels, they had chased a squirrel like a missile launched into the air, and their behaviour reminded him of [PLA’s motto] 作风优良, 能打胜仗 literally meaning they “can defeat enemies while maintaining excellent discipline and moral conduct”.

In reaction to this, the PLA’s ‘Theatre Command’ posted on social media that the soldiers were angry about the ‘provocative and insulting’ joke. It has been reported that Li has been placed under police investigation.  A Chinese woman who posted support online for Li was put into detention under a rule allowing police to hold people without charge for up to fifteen days for minor public order offences. An overseas Chinese Comedian commented on What’s on Weibo, that such official censorship creates self-censorship and mutual censorship: “I feel that all areas of creativity and expression have no room for survival.” Usually it is the promoter who checks the content of their shows before they are submitted to the authorities for approval, however it has been reported that Li’s comment was not included in the material sent for approval.

Fining the promoter such a significant amount of money is a highly effective way to cause a wider chilling effect, as it will not just affect one performer. Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media is one of the biggest stand-up promoters in China, they now will doubtless be very nervous about representing any comedian who might not toe the party line, or use jokes which have not been given the seal of approval by the censorship board. Indeed, they will no longer want to represent comedians who might perform political material which could earn the ire of the Communist party. 

Detaining someone for supporting a comedian online will additionally have the chilling effect of stopping audiences speaking out and protesting about this curbing of freedom of expression.  This will narrow any public discussion about the importance to democracy of free speech, especially political satire, which plays a vital role in challenging the orthodox and provoking political debate.

[1] Dan Chen & Gengsong Gao (2023) The transgressive rhetoric of standup comedy in China, Critical Discourse Studies, 20:1, 1-17, DOI: 10.1080/17405904.2021.1968450