Republic Alert

Chinese Communists Panic over Growing Popularity of ‘Western’ Stand-Up Comedy

The Chinese Communist Party appeared to belie panic over the growing popularity of stand-up comedy, an allegedly “Western” artform, in the country on Wednesday, celebrating a criminal investigation against such a comic for a joke mocking a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slogan.

The Chinese state-run Global Times insisted that stand-up comedy – a medium traditionally used to mock society’s most powerful or its most accepted norms and customs – “should abide by Chinese law and social norms” if it hopes to continue to exist under communism. The newspaper bizarrely claimed that the 2022 Academy Awards incident in which actor Will Smith battered comedian Chris Rock live on stage for a joke about his wife proved that Americans also believe in “red lines” for stand-up comedy, falsely suggesting the public took Smith’s side in the altercation.

The sudden crackdown on stand-up comedy mirrors the Communist Party’s reaction to the growing popularity of rap music among Chinese youth in 2018, following the debut of the reality TV series The Rap of China. Beijing banned rap music on television, silenced or co-opted popular rappers to spread communist propaganda, and began churning out unlistenable government hip-hop music, effectively shutting down any youth interest in the genre.

The incident that launched a new war on stand-up in China reportedly occurred on Saturday, when comedian Li Haoshi, known by the stage name “House,” jokingly compared his adopted dogs to PLA soldiers.

“During the show, House … said that watching his two dogs chase squirrels ‘reminded him of the phrase zuofeng youliang, nengda shengzhang,’ meaning they ‘can defeat enemies while maintaining good moral conduct,’ which is a typical slogan of the PLA,” the Global Times detailed.

House appeared to be remarking on the apparent passion and discipline of his dogs, but the Chinese government interpreted the joke as being at the PLA’s expense.

A logo of Xiaoguo Comedy is seen outside a theatre in Shanghai on May 17, 2023. Chinese authorities fined a comedy company millions of yuan and threatened further legal action after one of its members made an oblique joke about the People’s Liberation Army during a stand-up set. (STR/AFP via Getty)

China’s Ministry of Culture fined Xiaoguo Culture Media, the production company that put on the show featuring House, upwards of $2 million on charges of “harming society” on Wednesday. The Global Times reported that China’s “cultural law enforcement” agents had opened an investigation into Xiaoguo generally and that Xiaoguo was forced to issue a statement assuring the public it had “strongly criticized the comedian and has suspended him from all following performances indefinitely.”

House himself issued a public apology on Monday on the Chinese regime-controlled social media site Weibo.

“I’ve used a very inappropriate metaphor in my performance and that caused bad feelings among the audience,” his statement read, according to the Chinese state-affiliated outlet Sixth Tone.

Reuters noted that, following the apology, House appeared to have been banned from Weibo. He and his management did not respond to requests for comment and his current status is unknown.

The Chinese government also banned Xiaoguo Culture Media, an up-and-coming comic house that had organized a tour around America as recently as this January, from staging shows in Beijing. Chinese state media outlets said that investigations into all of the company’s employees, presumably looking for anti-communist sentiments, are ongoing.

In an infuriated article on Wednesday, the Global Times insisted that “imported” stand-up comedy (Xiaoguo’s comedians are Chinese) “should abide by Chinese laws and social norms.”

“True, stand-up comedy is commonly known as an art of satire, where a lot of people or events can be joked about, and those targets of satire in most cases can just laugh it off as long as the jokes are well-intended,” the Global Times asserted. “However, these jokes, sometimes quite offensive, must have limits, even in the US, the home of stand-up comedy.”

The state propaganda outlet used the Smith Oscars incident as evidence that Americans also have “red lines” in comedy, implying the public agreed with Smith’s offense to Rock’s joke.

“Aside from the violence, this incident made people reflect on what can and cannot be joked about, as there should apparently be boundaries, although the red line varies from country to country, based on each country’s unique history and culture,” the Global Times falsely claimed. In reality, Americans expressed widespread disgust with Smith and mocked the incident with jokes. Unlike the Chinese government, the administration of President Joe Biden did not intervene to prevent Chris Rock from continuing to tell jokes in public following the incident.

The Global Times conceded that its concern stemmed from stand-up comedies rapid success in the country.

“As a performance art from Western countries, stand-up comedy has expanded fast in China, gaining large numbers of audiences for both online and offline events,” the state publication noted. The Times insisted that this popularity requires the imposition of a “red line” and that the notoriously irreverent medium should “honor the social consensus, goodwill and Chinese laws.”

China’s state-run CGTN network published a feature article on the country’s stand-up comedy crazy in early May, applauding Xiaoguo Comedy’s success.

“From small, underground clubs to national fame, stand-up comedy has well and truly gone mainstream in China,” CGTN proclaimed. “The talk show craze shows no sign of slowing down and has continued to maintain steady growth in recent years.”

CGTN featured interviews with Xiaoguo Comedy’s organizers, who said young Chinese people in particular are attracted the genre because it is relatable and compelling.

The Chinese government allowed the company to create a presence on YouTube and other international platforms that the communists typically ban Chinese citizens from using without special permission. Much of Xiaoguo’s YouTube content centers around jokes about Chinese parents pressuring their children, dating in communist China, and the bizarrely useless content that appears on the Chinese application Tiktok.

The company’s future is now uncertain as the regime appears to have lost trust in its ability to refrain from generating content offensive to totalitarian communists.

“We will never allow any company or individual use the Chinese capital as a stage to wantonly slander the glorious image of the PLA,” Beijing’s cultural bureau said this week in announcing a ban on Xiaoguo shows.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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