News Update


China’s growing comedy scene feels censorship chill

Chinese stand-up comedian Li Haoshi, well known by his stage name House, made a joke about his adopted pets in the middle of May.

He said from a stage in a crowded Beijing venue that his dogs “fought to win, forged exemplary conduct”—a word that Chinese leader Xi Jinping frequently uses to describe the military.

The audience laughed, but one of them subsequently said on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, that he felt uneasy since it was an insult to the “people’s army.” It was promptly denounced as a “serious insult” to the Chinese army by state media and officials. Li was imprisoned, and his employer, Xiaoguo, one of the most popular stand-up comedy troupes in China, was fined close to 15 million yuan ($2.1 million; £1.7 million).

The aftermath has significantly harmed China’s young but vibrant stand-up comedy culture. Under Mr. Xi’s increasingly censorious rule, other public forums for expression have decreased, but stand-up comedy has flourished, allowing young people to perceive their joys and frustrations in a humorous perspective. Is that sliver of freedom currently in jeopardy?


13 comics and two managers were called by the BBC to learn how Li’s incarceration was affecting his business. However, nobody wished to be interviewed.

Stand-up comedy, a relatively recent import from the West, has recently gained popularity among young Chinese as a form of entertainment. Open mic nights have proliferated in cities all over the nation, attracting audiences and budding comics; the cheapest tickets are less than five yuan ($0.7; £0.5). According to a survey by the China Association of Performing Arts, there were over 18,500 live performances in 2021, bringing in close to 400 million yuan. The quantity of shows increased in 2022 even as strict lockdowns were imposed throughout China.

“Stand-up humor is similar to anesthesia. It cannot be replaced, claims *Iris, a 30-year-old Shanghai interior designer. She’s been a longtime admirer and claims it gave her unusual solace and a sense of community during Shanghai’s torturous 65-day lockdown last year. The city gained notoriety around the world for its onerous and onerous rules that led to a food crisis and increased popular resentment.

“During the lockdown, everybody wanted to chat about how they were feeling. Everyone knew they couldn’t talk about it, so it would have provided fantastic material, she adds.

Despite this, jokes were told. A subtle one about receiving vegetable “blind boxes” comes to mind for her. The term “blind boxes” was a clear allusion to the current fad in China for collecting toys packaged mysteriously. But it was also a jab at how people in Shanghai were only permitted to eat veggies sent by the community and were not permitted to leave their homes, not even to go grocery shopping.

In April 2022, Shanghai, China, had a phased lockdown because of COVID-19. Image source: GETTY IMAGES
Stand-up comedy attracted large crowds amid China’s extensive and severe lockdowns, image caption
But even before Li’s incarceration, the sector had to face multiple levels of control due to its success.

A comedy show scriptwriter said in a since-deleted Weibo post that a corporation had contacted her last year and provided her a big list of prohibited subjects. Senior Party officials, extramarital affairs, homosexuality, gambling, poverty, and the pandemic were all mentioned. After that, a number of meetings were held to talk about the jokes’ potential effects and how sensitive they were. It might offend who? The scripts were then given to the appropriate departments, but nobody would comment much or even offer specific advice.

“The industry must invest 80% of its resources in producing content and then devote 500% of its time and resources to combating censorship. It is a tremendous waste of resources and of young, the humorist said.

However, this hasn’t stopped comics from “playing edge ball,” a Chinese expression for delicate topics that avoid censorship. They made it through by making fun of China’s various problems, including gender inequality and youth unemployment, as well as its divisive Covid policies. The jokes provoked discussions and frequently became trending topics on Weibo.

“How can he be so confident when he looks so ordinary?” The female comedian Yang Li accidentally coined the phrase “ordinary but confident men” when she discussed male confidence in a 2020 program.

Traditional clichés, including the social pressure to get married, were simple targets. “Some of the neighbors are very obnoxious. They encourage others to get married after they do. The institution of marriage is mysterious. As in a pyramid system, once you are in, you need to bring in more members, the comic Yan Yi Yan Yue said.

But some subjects remained taboo. Chi Zi’s social media accounts were swiftly deleted when he criticized Mr. Xi’s infamous zero-Covid policy and the Party’s censorship during his US tour in February.

In Beijing, China on May 19, 2023, a person passes a location where a stand-up comedy company called Xiaoguo Culture Media Co used to perform. Tingshu Wang for Reuters
Li worked for the entertainment business Xiaoguo, which shut down its venues after getting a performance ban.
Chinese comedians are cautious due to their fear of retaliation, yet others claim that this prudence lessens the humor’s bite.

They are chatting about unimportant subjects. The government or the party cannot be questioned on any matters, claims *Lan D, a Chinese technician living in Ireland who is 25 years old.

She wanted to see a live performance by Xiaoguo in Shanghai when she went home early this year for the first time in three years since the pandemic began. But she regretted that they had all been postponed: They are like my’snacks’ in politics. I am unable to stop.

Will the beloved performances, however, survive the current storm? “There will be a chilling effect,” predicts Dr. Sheng Zou, a media and popular culture expert at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The industry’s self-censorship will undoubtedly increase as a result.”

Iris and other young Chinese people are less upbeat. She occasionally worries that Chinese stand-up comedy won’t survive.

However, she wants to be proven wrong. She declares, “I want to hear Chinese people roast China,” adding that for the business to thrive, concessions must be made.

“If House [Li] had been making fun of the People’s Liberation Army for three hours, it would have made more sense. But all I heard were those words.

She now thinks that Li’s joke wasn’t worth the difficulty it brought about, not just for him but for the entire business. She claims that until he delivered the joke, she had never heard of the military catchphrase it alludes to, and she didn’t realize it was politically charged until a friend who is a Communist Party member informed her of it.

“Stand-up comedy is like to dancing in chains. But they are prepared to speak as long as there is even the slightest chance for them to do so. And that is heartwarming.

In order to safeguard their identity, names have been changed.


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