Comedians are used to improvising. Li Haoshi’s off-script performance in Beijing last Saturday prompted a police probe, millions of dollars in fines, and increased concern about free expression in China.
Li, known as House, said that seeing his dogs chase squirrels reminded him of the People’s Liberation Army slogan, which President Xi Jinping has often cited: “Fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct.”
An audience member released the audio recording on social media, inciting conservative and nationalist pundits.
Chinese authorities replied promptly. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism penalized Li’s management business $2.1mn and stopped its performances in Beijing and Shanghai indefinitely.
China’s free expression is shaken by military slogan punchline.
The agency stated the “severely insulting” remark broke rules against “hurting national feelings” or “damaging national honour.” “We will never allow any company or individual to wantonly denigrate the glorious image of the People’s Army on the capital stage [and] hurt the deep feelings of the people towards their army.”
Beijing police are investigating 31-year-old Li. His management business canceled his contract and is disciplining upper management who approve stuff before performance. Recently, comedy and music shows across have been canceled.
The Nationalist Global Times called stand-up comedy a western performance art with a “red line.”
The daily said in an editorial that it should respect the Chinese audience’s degree of acceptability and honor social consensus, goodwill, and Chinese rules.
Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, is accused of restricting free speech and intolerance of dissent under the incident.
Over the past decade, stand-up comedy has expanded. State media reported 180 comedy clubs in 2021, up from 10 in 2018.
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Human Rights Watch China analyst Maya Wang said the art genre gave young Chinese “pockets of freedom” but will “eventually meet the Chinese government’s iron fist”.
“Little bubbles where people gasp for air,” she continued.
Two anonymous Chinese comedians told the Financial Times that the experience illustrated how dangerous their art had become.
“Many colleagues are worried about losing their jobs and are looking for jobs outside of stand-up comedy,” claimed one Shanghai lady. “How much room will we have left for jokes?”
Manya Koetse, a Sinologist and editor-in-chief of the Chinese social media tracker What’s on Weibo, said the show had burst online—some messages had hundreds of millions of hits—because it touched both patriotism and amusement.
She noted a longstanding discussion about a 2021 legislation requiring “entertainment industry leaders to promote a love for the motherland.”
One Chinese researcher who advises the government on social issues called Li’s use of a PLA motto “impossible for officials to let go” since it sparked a surge of complaints to Beijing, Shanghai, and other hotlines and explicitly referenced Xi.
It also occurred during heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims as part of China and may use the PLA to seize.
“Laughing at the heroes who defend the country at this time is a big problem,” added the scholar, who requested anonymity. “The punishment will be lightning-fast and powerful.”
Another Beijing comic claimed public performances were becoming “impossible”.
“What are sensitive subjects? China never concluded. She stated party officials decide, not the government or CCP. “This does not represent the masses, and the performer cannot predict the thoughts of an official.”