China’s communist regime fined a mainland Chinese talk show company around $2 million and suspended its performances indefinitely this week after a comedian was reported by audience members for mocking China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the regime’s military slogan.
Observers pointed out that it’s becoming harder for talk show hosts and comedians to survive in China under the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasingly restrictive censorship.
An audio clip of Chinese stand-up comedian Li Haoshi’s May 13 performance went viral recently on Chinese social media, in which he said:
“I adopted two stray dogs, they were wild dogs picked up from the mountains near my home. When I saw these two dogs for the first time, they were chasing squirrels like fired cannonballs, so 8 large characters flashed in my mind, ‘Excellent style of work, able to win battles’—very good.”
To “listen to the party’s command, have an excellent style of work, and be able to win battles” is the slogan CCP leader Xi Jinping introduced in 2013 to encourage the Chinese military.
Li, whose stage name is “House,” saw his comments reported by a number of audience members on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, with some netizens commenting that his remarks were an insult to the PLA.
A view of the Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co. “Fun Factory” stand-up comedy club in Shanghai, China on May 17, 2023. (Wang Gang/VCG via Getty Images)
Both Li and Xiaoguo (Fun Factory)—the talk show he works for—publicly apologized for the joke on May 15. However, since then the Chinese military’s social media account “Jun Zhengping,” the official account of the Army of the Western Command, and official media such as Beijing Daily, People’s Daily, and Xinhua News Agency have published articles criticizing Li for overstepping the mark.
On May 17, the Beijing Bureau of Culture and Tourism issued a statement on its WeChat account accusing the Shanghai comedy company Xiaoguo (Fun Factory) and its host Li Haoshi of changing the content of the performance without authorization during the May 13 performance, and claiming the host “seriously insulted” the PLA.
The bureau confiscated 1.325 million yuan ($188,700) of what it termed “illegal gains” and imposed a fine of 13.35 million yuan ($1.9 million) on the company. All Fun Factory performances in Beijing are suspended indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the Shanghai Bureau of Culture and Tourism also suspended the company’s performances in Shanghai.
On the same day, the Beijing Chaoyang police issued a notice saying that they are investigating Li Haoshi for “seriously insulting” the PLA, which had had a “bad impact on society.”
According the BBC’s Chinese-language edition, Li was taken away by the police on Thursday morning, May 18.
— BBC News 中文 (@bbcchinese) May 18, 2023
Fun Factory issued a statement saying that it will comprehensively rectify its performance business nationwide, and terminated its contract with Li.
All performances on Fun Factory’s app have been removed. Li’s accounts on Chinese social media platforms have also been deleted.
‘Dancing With Shackles On’
Citizen journalist Huang Ziyin told The Epoch Times on May 16 that under the CCP’s autocratic rule, it is impossible to have a true comedy culture on Chinese talk shows. “That’s why talk shows, an artistic form, find it hard to survive in China. Because if you are not careful, you will cross the red line of the party.”
In mid-February, Chi Zi (Wang Yuechi), a well-known mainland stand-up comedian, was also banned by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department for making fun of sensitive topics—such as China’s COVID-19 control policy—during his North American tour.
Huang said: “Under censorship and self-censorship, these stand-up comedians can’t create hilarious jokes, and stand-up comedies will not flourish. The same is true for works in the Chinese TV and film industry. Whether the content or form of expression, the path is getting narrower and narrower, because the space given by the political system is shrinking.”
Chinese stand-up comedian Li Haoshi (House). (Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Chen Weijian, the editor-in-chief of Beijing Spring, an overseas monthly magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy, and social justice in China, told The Epoch Times on May 16 that while Li Haoshi was reported for insulting the military, his true misconduct was in his accidentally mocking Xi Jinping. Li was then accused by “Little Pinks” (a Chinese term for pro-communist Chinese) of insulting the great leader.
Chen believes that in China, artistic performances such as talk shows may be difficult to perform in future. “Under the authoritarian environment of the CCP, the development of Chinese talk shows in recent years is like ‘dancing with shackles on,’ and the official media has repeatedly warned them that ‘telling jokes should be moderate.’”
‘Little Pinks’ Assist CCP In Its Censorship
Citizen journalist Ning Jing spoke to The Epoch Times on May 16. “The most frightening thing is those ‘Little Pinks’ who have made grave accusations against the comedian on social media,” Ning said. “They don’t know that they are depriving others of their right to speak and express themselves, and at the same time they are also depriving themselves of their own right to speak in the future, as well as depriving future generations of Chinese people’s right to speak freely.”
“They also help the CCP patrol every corner like the internet police, and then report others without any qualms. The Cultural Revolution is about to return, not only in real life, but also on the internet. Hard times are coming to the Chinese people, and they may soon be back to the era of holding Mao’s quotations and Little Red Book in their hands.”
Mainland artist Tong Yimin told The Epoch Times that under the CCP’s censorship environment, not only talk show performers, but all artists and intellectuals find themselves in a fearful environment, devoid of creative space and freedom.
Chinese comedian Guo Degang performs crosstalk, a traditional Chinese comic talk show, in Changchun in China’s Jilin Province, on March 9, 2008. (China Photos/Getty Images)
In the past, companies or groups such as Fun Factory and the “cross talk” (traditional comedy double-act) company Deyun Club have been continuously suppressed by the authorities.
“The CCP’s censorship and control has stifled social creativity and innovation. Penalties on actors and companies have restricted the creation and development of literary workers and artists, and hindered the diversity and prosperity of cultural creation,” Tong said.
Li Yun and Luo Ya contributed to this report.