China’s comedy crackdown sparks fears of Cultural Revolution 2.0

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When stand-up comedian Li Haoshi, better known by his stage name House, was detained this month for telling a joke riffing off a Chinese military slogan, the authorities gave an unusual reason for cracking down on performers like him: “bukekangli,” or “force majeure.”

The legal phrase, often called an “act of God” when applied to natural disasters, is more commonly used to refer to catastrophes like armed conflicts and severe weather events, and was it liberally used during the many cancellations that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing also tried to explain away that suspected spy balloon’s journey over the United States earlier this year as being due to “force majeure.”

In this phrase, Chinese authorities have found a convenient excuse for cracking down on all sorts of events they find unsavory or unhelpful to their narrative about a strong and united China.

Japanese monk-musician Kanho Yakushiji had a concert this month that was canceled 30 minutes before curtain’s up. The audience was told it was due to force majeure.

Rock band Shanghai Qiutian was forced to cancel a performance on May 17 — the day comedian Li was detained — for the same reason. “Keep on rocking in a free world,” the band said to their fans on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

Ladies Who Tech, an event for female entrepreneurs, was canceled this month due to … yes, you guessed it.

The same pattern has been replicated at concerts, comedy nights and conventions around the country over the past month.

The vague and apparently nonsensical reasoning works in the Chinese Communist Party’s favor, a Shanghai-based cultural commentator said. “Why bother with clarity when you can strike fear with ambiguity?” he said, withholding his name for his and his family’s safety.

Other parts of Chinese society seem to be seizing on the excuse du jour. The Beijing LGBT Center cited force majeure when announcing this month it was closing its doors after 15 years. The event outside the center’s control, in the eyes of many supporters, was a government-ordered shutdown.

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In other instances, bands and performers are turning to the phrase to explain why they have to cancel their concerts — although music commentators suspect it’s really due to low ticket sales.

On Weibo, users have questioned the use of this legal term for clearly political means.

“Can we be a bit honest? Typhoons, floods, blizzards and earthquakes can be called force majeure,” one commentator said. “But if you didn’t pass censor reviews, couldn’t get the right venue, didn’t sell enough tickets or were forced to cancel by someone, you just say it frankly instead of attributing everything to force majeure.”

But this new wave of crackdowns and closures — in a country where artists, academics, filmmakers and writers have become all too familiar with censorship — is hitting China’s comedy scene hard. Stand-up shows first took off in big cities among a mostly young and educated audience about five years ago, but have since expanded to smaller cities, partly driven by social media and TV presence of the star comedians.

Across the comedy circuit, organizers are now checking their own lineups and scripts to see if their content could bring on an “act of God” moment like the one that brought Li’s career — and his liberty — to an abrupt end.

Earlier this month, the comedian Li was cracking up a full house in Beijing, telling the story of a pair of stray dogs that he adopted. The sight of the dogs chasing after a squirrel, Li said in an audio recording of the show, evoked someone who could “forge exemplary conduct and fight to win,” he said.

He was satirizing a slogan for the People’s Liberation Army that Xi Jinping coined in 2013, soon after he became China’s top leader.

The joke was reported to the police, and Li lost his job and was detained for investigation. The company that hired Li, Xiaoguo Culture, one of China’s most successful comedy groups, was fined more than $2 million and had its activities indefinitely suspended nationwide.

Beijing’s cultural and ideological police — a law enforcement team under Beijing’s municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism — explained that it was tough with penalties because it “will never let any company or individual … do a hatchet job on the glorious image of the PLA.”

Since Li’s arrest, nationalist trolls have also targeted well-known Chinese artist Yue Minjun, accusing him of insulting the PLA in a series of paintings that he created in 2007. And Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng, who performs as Uncle Roger, was banned on the microblogging site Weibo, where he has 400,000 followers, for joking about Xi and China’s surveillance regime.

Together, these actions have sent a chill across the country’s live entertainment industry, which is worried that content creators will be subject to greater public scrutiny and tighter self-censorship.

“The repercussions will be felt not only in stand-up comedy, but for all performing arts for a long time to come,” said Zhang Yi, chief executive of Chinese analytic firm iiMedia Research.

Stand-up comedy was already the most censored of art performances even before Li’s detention. Comedy troupes have submit to their scripts to censors for approval weeks or months before each tour. Since 2022, stand-up comedians have been required to film themselves reciting the submitted script before their actual performance, word by word, for censors’ reference, the state-run Zhejiang Daily reported.

A level of censorship extends abroad, too.

“There are a lot of things that you can’t talk about anymore: Our expression hasn’t changed, it’s just that the red line is getting closer,” said a Chinese stand-up comedian who performs in the United States.

Fear is still present even for Chinese comedians performing overseas. Those who have plans to return home feel pressured to practice self-censorship, fearing seemingly harmless jokes might trigger a backlash in China, said the comedian, who also asked not to be named for fear of running afoul of Chinese authorities.

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Chizi, a Chinese performer formerly managed by Xiaoguo, was sharply criticized at home earlier this year after mentioning on a North American tour that the Chinese government refused to issue a passport for his Uyghur friend. He has not returned to China.

Li remains in police custody and has not been formally charged. But some lawyers say that criminalizing a joke is going too far, even for Xi’s Chinese Communist Party.

“Li obviously had no criminal intent: he was using a slogan to describe his dogs, not comparing dogs to the military,” Hao Yachao, a criminal defense lawyer based in Beijing, wrote in a since-deleted post.

If Li is charged and found guilty, an entire industry and generation will bear the cost of ever-stricter censorship, Hao said. “One gets reported today for telling an improper joke onstage, and tomorrow someone might be punished over an improper joke at home.”

Some fear an arbitrary interpretation of arts and the blurring lines between private and public spaces could encourage people to turn upon each other, creating a “Cultural Revolution 2.0.”

During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, intellectuals, business owners, dissidents and others deemed disloyal to the Communist Party were sent to the countryside, often after being ratted out by friends or family members.

“When we look back, we will realize this is another watershed in China’s censorship history,” said a Shanghai-based cultural commentator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was concerned for his and his family’s safety.

“From an official point of view, the Party, the government and the military are the Holy Trinity that should always be respected and awed,” he said. “If you joke about them even implicitly, it means that you need to be taught a lesson.”

Comedians themselves have trouble coming up with any jokes about this moment. In fact, they can’t help but be serious.

“Stand-up comedy is an outlet of unique ideas,” said the Chinese comedian currently in the United States. “But in China, the authorities don’t want people to have different ideas. They don’t encourage independent thinking.”

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