A Chinese comedian was severely punished on Wednesday for making a joke about the People’s Liberation Army and his production company fined roughly two million dollars. This incident demonstrates that Chinese censors are now turning their attention to the small but growing world of stand-up comedy in China, which until now has enjoyed a certain measure of freedom.
On May 17, Chinese authorities imposed a record fine of 14.7 million yuan ($2.13 million) on the production company that employed comedian Li Haoshi and opened an investigation against him.
Li, whose stage name is "House", "seriously insulted the army" and thus dealt a heavy blow to "national honour" and "patriotic feelings", said the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism which imposed the fine on Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media.
Six words too many
"This is the first time that a joke about the army has been punished in China," said Olivia Cheung, a specialist in contemporary Chinese political history at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
This is a severe punishment for a joke that "may seem totally harmless and not necessarily very funny", said Marc Lanteigne, a Chinese studies professor at the Arctic University of Norway.
The joke in question invoked Li's two adopted stray dogs chasing a squirrel: "Normally, when you see dogs, you find them very cute at first. But when I looked at them, six words came to me: 'Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win'."
Reports do not indicate whether it made the audience laugh. However, what is known is that the scene was filmed and posted on social media, where it triggered an avalanche of comments.
The problem is that "it is a direct and literal reference to what has been the official slogan of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) since 2013," said Lanteigne. "Xi Jinping himself came up with the slogan and has used it on numerous occasions to refer to the modern army he established," said Cheung.
The first part of the slogan, about discipline, refers to the government's campaign to bring the army into line in the mid-2010s. "The army had a reputation for being very corrupt before Xi Jinping came to power, and he boasts that he put an end to this and brought discipline back into the ranks," explained Cheung.
There is also the idea that the PLA is now "able to win victories" as a result of the modernisation reforms implemented by the Chinese president. "It was, and remains, one of Xi Jinping's priorities and he believes that the Chinese army now deserves the utmost respect thanks to his efforts," said Cheung.
The crime of insulting Xi Jinping
Li thus tripped up twice over. First, he made the mistake of joking "about a subject that affects the president personally", said Cheung. Second, he compared the army to dogs. This is a risky choice, as these animals are seen in China as "cute but dirty, and better not to have too many around", said Lanteigne. This is not the kind of metaphor that the government wants to see being used in any sort of media to describe the military.
However, some Chinese people felt that imposing a two million dollar fine was excessive and took to social media to question the "double standards" demonstrated by the authorities, reported the New York Times. These internet users recalled that a company selling false negative Covid-19 test certificates during the lockdown period was only fined the equivalent of $10,000 dollars.
"It's clear that this is not just about punishing the comedian for his joke, but about making an example of him for everyone in order to establish a new red line that must not be crossed," said Lanteigne.
He sees this punishment as part of a "tightening of restrictions on freedom of expression in recent years". China has long had a reputation for being heavy-handed when it comes to censorship, but it "began cracking down even harder during the health crisis", added Lanteigne.
The Chinese authorities realised during the height of the Covid crisis that there were still issues with their information control strategy. Censorship failed to silence the people of Shanghai, who were confined for more than two months in the spring of 2022 and criticised the authorities in the viral video "Voices of April".
In this respect, stand-up comedy was still a haven of relative freedom of expression in China. This form of humour only recently burst onto the Chinese media scene. For a long time, stand-up comedy was perceived as less dignified than other traditional forms of live performance, as it "is considered a Western import", explained Lanteigne.
Thwarted freedom of expression in Chinese stand-up
As a result, there were only a few dozen stand-up clubs in the country where comedians could perform in 2018, wrote the China Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper. In other words, not enough to worry Beijing. Since then, they have rapidly increased in number, with comedians performing on 179 stages across the country.
One of the reasons for the craze is the popularity of television shows like "Rock & Roast", which make millions of viewers laugh every week. China's "zero-Covid" policy has been a boon for comedians, who are now popular with TV stations eager to brighten up the lives of Chinese people under confinement, reported the Financial Times.
Li has benefited from the buzz, appearing several times on "Rock & Roast", helping to "make him a star", according to the New York Times.
This star status made him the ideal target for Beijing to get its message across. The authorities used to tolerate "caustic" humour "as long as the criticism was aimed at local authorities and referred to the minor administrative hassles of everyday life", said Lanteigne.
But when it comes to subjects of national importance – such as the military – comedians are now required to "abide by laws, maintain ethical values and provide the public with nutritious spiritual food", said the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism.
This record fine is, in a way, the price of the success of stand-up comedy in China. Comedians’ voices did not carry far when there were only a few hundred of them in 2018. But now that there are officially more than 10,000, Beijing has decided to designate them as actors of official propaganda, as are the state media and film industries.
Li was hit hard by this new reality. Despite his apology, the China Association of Performing Arts, the body that manages live performance in China, has called for a total boycott of all his shows.