Chinese comedian plunges into political storm after military joke goes awry

It’s natural for comedians to ad-lib during their stand-up routines. But Li Haoshi’s departure from the script at last Saturday’s Beijing show led to a police investigation and a multi-million dollar fine, creating a new dark cloud over freedom of expression in China.

Li, who goes by the stage name House, sees her dog chasing squirrels and is inspired by the People’s Liberation Army’s motto, which has been quoted by President Xi Jinping: “Fight and win, excel.” He riffed that he remembered “maintaining the action.”

The mention sparked outrage among conservative and nationalist commentators after audience members posted audio clips on social media.

Chinese authorities responded quickly. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism fined Lee’s management company $2.1 million and suspended performances in Beijing and Shanghai indefinitely.

The bureau said the “grossly insulting” joke violated a provision that the performance must not “hurt public sentiment” or “hurt national honor.” “We will never allow any company or individual to unfairly tarnish the glorious image of the People’s Army on the capital’s stage.” [and] It hurt the people’s deep feelings about the military. ”

Li, 31, is currently under investigation by Beijing police. His management company has terminated his contract and is taking disciplinary action against senior management who were supposed to approve the content before the show. Comedy and music shows have been canceled across the country for the past few days.

Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, described stand-up comedy as Western performance art, but noted that there is a “red line” that must be adhered to.

“It should be respected according to the acceptance level of the Chinese audience, basically social consensus, goodwill and Chinese law should be respected,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

The incident put the issues surrounding comedy roles, the undermining of free speech, and the intolerance of dissenting views of critics once again into the spotlight. A nation becoming increasingly authoritarian under the Xi administrationthe most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Stand-up comedy is growing in popularity Over the past ten years. The number of comedy clubs has soared from fewer than 10 in 2018 to nearly 180 in 2021, according to state media.

Maya Wang China A Human Rights Watch expert said the art form provided some Chinese youth with “pockets of freedom” but was destined to “eventually meet the iron fist of the Chinese government.”

“Pockets are getting smaller and smaller, like tiny bubbles where people are gasping for air,” she says.

Two Chinese comedians, who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, said the episode showed how dangerous their performances had become.

“Many of my colleagues are worried about losing their jobs and are now looking for jobs other than stand-up comedy,” said a Shanghai woman. “Given government censorship, performer self-censorship, and audience censorship, how much room is there for jokes?”

Manya Qetse, a Chinese scholar and editor-in-chief of What’s on Weibo, a Chinese social media tracking site, said the episode exploded online because it crossed popular issues of patriotism and entertainment. He said some posts went viral and attracted hundreds of millions of views.

“When these two meet and collide and clash, it’s always a recipe for something to spread,” she said, adding, “Leaders in the entertainment industry need to promote the love of entertainment.” There is a long-running debate about the pros and cons of the 2021 regulation. Motherland ”.

A China scholar who advises the government on social issues said Li’s use of the People’s Liberation Army motto had flooded hotlines in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities with complaints, directly quoting Xi. , said it was “impossible for the authorities to let the incident go unnoticed.” .

It also raises tensions between China and the United States over issues such as Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims to be part of China and has not ruled out the possibility of using the People’s Liberation Army to claim sovereignty one day. It was done during the

“It’s a big problem to laugh at the heroes who defended the country at this time,” said the scholar, who requested anonymity. “The punishment must be as swift and strong as thunder.”

But another comedian in Beijing said performing in public was becoming “impossible.”

“What topics are sensitive? China has not yet come to a conclusion. It is not decided by the government or the Chinese Communist Party, but by certain officials within the party,” she said. “This is not representative of the public and the performers cannot predict what the officials will think.”

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