This is no joke

Humour and politics are always a dangerous mix in authoritarian states and no more so than in China. A recent high-profile event that involved the punishment of popular stand-up comedian Li Haoshi (above) and XiaoGuo Comedy, China’s largest talk show company and who had hired Li along with many other well-known stand-up comedians, proves that delivering a wrong punchline can have dire consequences: XiaoGuo has been fined colossal amounts of money (13.35 million yuan; $1.8 million) and Li possibly faces years in jail.

Performing under the English stage name House on 13 May, Li quipped that he adopted two stray dogs that turned out to be extremely energetic and capable. Once set free in the mountains, the dogs chased a squirrel like a missile launched into the air. Li then said he was so impressed that eight words came into his mind immediately: 作风优良, 能打胜仗, literally meaning they “can defeat enemies while maintaining excellent discipline and moral conduct”, which is a typical slogan to praise China’s People’s Liberation Army in the Xi Jinping era. The punchline served its purpose and caused roaring laughter. However, some audiences felt very uncomfortable with Li’s insult to the PLA. His joke was recorded by one of the disgruntled audience members and posted on Sina Weibo, the most popular Chinese social media platform. The disclosed video soon sparked public outcry among netizens against Li and his company.

People accused Li of intentionally tarnishing the image of military soldiers and mocking Xi’s political slogan. They believe Li’s punchline alluded to a scene in the Red Classic propaganda film produced in 1956, Battle on Shanggan Mountain, in which People’s Voluntary Army soldiers in the Korean War chased squirrels for fun in between battles. Moreover, the eight words he used to praise the stray dogs are the exact words Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the plenary meeting of the PLA delegation in 2013, which has now become a political slogan of the PLA.

As anger spiralled online, Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily, two of the biggest state media outlets, issued online commentaries, criticising the comedian and reiterating that insulting the PLA is intolerable. The China Association of Performing Arts called for its members to boycott Li, according to the Management Measures for the Self-Disciplines of Arts in the Performing Arts Industry. Though Li and XiaoGuo both quickly apologised on social media, their apologies gained no forgiveness from either the public or the government. On top of the hefty fine, XiaoGuo was banned from future performances. Li’s Weibo account was banned. The Chaoyang Branch of the Beijing Municipal Public Security filed a case to investigate the comedian due to what they perceived as the very harmful social impact that the incident caused. Li is likely to be accused of violating the Law on the Protection of the Status and Rights and Interests of Military Personnel of China, issued in 2021, and likely to face criminal prosecution.

Operating under strong censorship in China’s cultural industries, performing arts that rely on humour have always walked a fine line between pleasing both audiences and regulatory bodies. While open political criticism on stage has never been possible, traditional two-people comic talk shows called “cross-talk”, alongside more conventional comic skits, became popular amongst Chinese audiences on tv and on radio. From the 1980s to early 2000s they managed to carve out space to poke fun at social ills, even on the stage of the annual Spring Festival Gala live broadcast by the China Central Television, which has millions of viewers. For example, a cross-talk show called The Thief PTY Ltd satirised the prevalent social phenomenon of bureaucracy and nepotism, while star comedian Zhao Benshan’s comic skit Uncle Niu’s Promotion aired at the 1995 Spring Festival Gala and lampooned the social malaise of civil servants feasting on public funds. In this particular skit, a villager was “promoted” to director of a public service department due to his ability to hold down alcohol. These critical comedy works became classics for millions of Chinese audiences.

But the small space for fun has been squeezed in the last decade under Xi, as artists are expected to promote “positive energy” and morally educate the public. This has directly caused the decline in popularity of cross-talk and comic skits, as well as the CCTV Spring Festival Gala iself.

It was against this backdrop that stand-up comedy shows sprang up and gained popularity, especially in metropolitan cities such as Beijing and Shanghai and especially amongst millennials.

Watching stand-up comedy has become a popular middle-class leisure activity in China. In 2021 alone, China had 18,500 stand-up comedy shows and the box office income had reached 391 million yuan ($55.4 million). This represents phenomenal growth for a burgeoning industry, considering live stand-up comedy only really started to emerge in China around 2014. In the years that have followed open mics and stand-up comedy competitions have gained huge traction offline and also on. Take the show Rock & Roast as an example. In Rock & Roast, amateur comics compete against each other to become "talk king". An average of 70 million viewers watched the two-hour programme in 2019, up from 50 million in 2017, and its Weibo page attracted up to six billion views by 2021.

Scholars Dan Chen and Gengsong Gao critically analysed the popularity of stand-up comedy and its politics in China in an article published in Critical Discourse Studies in 2021. They argue that stand-up comedies carefully transgressed and expanded the boundary of state rhetoric by providing alternative views on social issues of common concern in a subtle way. Their popularity for both performers and viewers was partly tied to their ability to be an arena in which people could speak more freely.

Sadly the incident of Li Haoshi shows the limitation of such “transgressive rhetoric”, as well as the shrinking of the tiny areas of freedom for making jokes in China today. With the tightening control and regulation of artistic creation and of artists, more and more red lines have been drawn. Under Xi, Party-endorsed heroes, role models and official narratives of revolutionary events have become much more sensitive topics than they used to be. Ultimately they cannot be easily mocked or deconstructed. People who cross the line see their works or speeches labelled as “historical nihilism” and get punished.

The Li incident is not the first time comedians in China’s rising stand-up scene have found themselves in hot water. In 2019 former Chinese men’s football team captain Fan Zhiyi mocked the disappointing performance of the Chinese men's basketball team in the 2019 Basketball World Cup in an episode in Rock & Roast Season Five and was criticised by Xinhua News Agency for “hurting the feelings of basketball fans”. A month later Beijing authorities fined the organisers of a small Beijing show 50,000 yuan, (around $7,700 at the time) for “using vulgar terms in its performance which violate social morality”.

But the punishment of Li and XiaoGuo represents an escalation and will definitely impact China’s burgeoning stand-up comedy industry and the boundaries of making jokes both on stage and off. Whether Li’s case will be judged within the legal framework is still unknown as the government seems to be weighing up the pros and cons of penalties to be meted out. How Li will be punished is therefore particularly noteworthy for those who care about freedom of speech, the rule of law and the comedy landscape in China.

Editorial: Laughter tracked

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Punch and Judy puppets. Credit: Sid Williams / Flickr

Punch and Judy puppets. Credit: Sid Williams / Flickr


A COUNTRY'S SENSE OF humour is a nebulous thing. But when it starts to disappear, something serious is afoot.

And so it is in Spain right now. Comedy, it turns out, is touching a nerve, as it often does, and rather surprisingly the lawyers are getting involved. Comedy is not only a threat, but under threat.

What’s bizarre is, this is Spain, a modern democracy, a solid, sensible country at the centre of Europe. Locking people up for making a joke, that’s something you might expect from an authoritarian and struggling state. But Spain?

Well, it turns out, this is Spain in the 21st century. The list of comedy offences is not short. Spanish comedian Dani Mateo was told to testify before a judge in May for telling a joke referring to a monument built by Franco’s regime as “shit”. He told the joke during a satirical show. Now it doesn’t sound like the best joke in the world, but hell, we defend his right to tell it. And Mateo is not alone in the Spanish comic fraternity. There’s Facu Díaz, who was prosecuted last year for posting jokes on social media; Cassandra Vera, who was sentenced to a year in prison for making jokes about a former Spanish president; and three women who were accused of a religious hate crime for mocking a traditional Easter procession. Puppeteers whose Punch and Judy show included a sign for a made-up terrorist organisation carried by a witch spent a year fighting prosecution, unable to leave the country for weeks, receiving anonymous threats and having to report regularly to the police. On and on it goes, as Silvia Nortes reports for us on page 85.

So why does any of this matter? Well, jokes are a barometer of public mood, and as British comedian Andy Hamilton told this summer’s Hay Festival, you can even use them to test how much the public like or dislike a politician or public figure. He remembered making a joke about then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and being told by one of her staunchest supporters to expect a wave of outrage. On checking, he found just three complaints, and that’s when, he said, he knew Thatcher was on the way out. Similarly, a recent joke about former UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove received a big fat zero moans in the BBC complaints box. Hamilton reckoned this was a sign of just how little the public cared about Gove.

So jokes do take the temperature of the nation, and one of many reasons politicians fear them is, as Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Politicians fear being made fun of, and fear that a satirical representation of themselves may take root in the electorate’s brain. They fear the public seeing their weaknesses. Some may remember that the classic satirical British TV puppet show Spitting Image reduced each member of the cabinet to a single ridiculous idea, a spitting former Home Secretary Roy Hattersley or a tiny David Steel tucked in the top pocket of David Owen (joint leaders of the SDP-Liberal alliance). Not good for their egos, not good for their future prospects. Steel said later that the sketch definitely affected his image.

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Joke-telling is not the only ingredient in the comedy cupboard that upsets the powers that be. Historically, exaggerated portraits, as Edward Lucie-Smith writes in issue 197 of Index on Censorship, have long been used to diminish or enhance a public character. The most obvious creators of exaggerated portraits are newspaper cartoonists, who sometimes feel the long arm of the police on their shoulders as a result.

In our exclusive interview with legendary South African cartoonist Zapiro, he talks not only about the power of cartoonists, but the pressure on them not to offend or upset. In an interview with South African journalist Raymond Joseph, Zapiro said: “We provoke thought, even if that thought is pretty outrageous. Others can do it too. We just occupy a space where you can really push the boundaries.” Zapiro faced a six-year court battle with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma over one of his cartoons. But Zapiro is just as feisty as ever, and reckons he is bolshier than the generations that have come after him.

Cracking down on comedy is just one way to command and control society. This issue’s special report examines others as we study the long shadows Russia’s 1917 revolution cast within and without its national borders.

From the beginning the early Soviets were not particularly fond of disagreement. Shortly after their rise to power, between October 1917 and June 1918, around 470 opposition publications were closed down. Lenin was clear how the nation should work. He believed that journalists, novelists and opinion formers were either with him, or against the state. If they were against the state, they shouldn’t be allowed to write or outline their views. “Down with non-partisan writers,” he argued. This is a view very much in favour with many other rulers today, including Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and, recently, US President Donald Trump.

That idea of groupthink, honed by the Soviet Union, satirised by George Orwell, continues to haunt writers in former communist countries today. In Uzbekistan, as Hamid Ismailov outlines, the Soviet Union may have fallen, but the thinking remains the same. Writers with arguments that contradict President Shavkat Mirziyoyev are either neutralised by being employed by the state as advisers and consultants, or leave the country, or fail to be published.

In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia most of the media, apart from a few brave exceptions, fall into line with government positions. For instance, in February this year, according to the Index-led Mapping Media Freedom project, major Russian national television channels abruptly reduced the number of times they mentioned the US president. This followed a Kremlin order to cut back on “fawning coverage” of Trump.

In all the recent furore over “fake news”, prompted by almost incessant use of the term by Trump to undermine any reporting he didn’t like, it’s worth pointing out that tricks to get the public to believe something that is not true have been used throughout history. In fact, as Jemimah Steinfeld investigates (page 114), the Roman emperor Augustus was a master of manipulation well before PR handbooks were written.

And open the pages of a treasured book in our office and you’ll see an early version of photoshopping at work. Photographs featured in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, show how people were “disappeared” from official Soviet portraits in the 1930s as they fell out of favour. Belarusians have been experiencing government attempts to get them to believe false stories for decades. In his report on page 52, Andrei Aliaksandrau unpicks the tricks used over the years and holds them up to the light.

And there’s some excellent thoughtful pieces in our fiction section too, with two new short stories written for this publication: one by Turkish writer Kaya Genç, and the other by British writer Jonathan Tel. The final slice is a new English translation of a much older story, by Russia’s “Comrade Count” Alexei Tolstoy.

To finish, a sad note. Our regular, and fantastic, Brazil correspondent Claire Rigby has died suddenly. Claire did amazing reporting for us, and we will miss her.


Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship magazine. She recently won the editor of the year (special interest) at British Society of Magazine Editors’ 2016 awards

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text="From the Archives"][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="80569" img_size="213x289" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][vc_custom_heading text="Provoking the president" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]June 2016

Legendary South African cartoonist Zapiro talks about being sued for millions by Jacob Zuma, fighting for “Lady Press Freedom” and death threats.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="90636" img_size="213x289" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][vc_custom_heading text="Funeral of laughter" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]January 2000

Oscar Collazos reports on the Colombian mourners after the assassination of comedian Jaime Garzon, who told insolent truths to the world.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="89185" img_size="213x289" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][vc_custom_heading text="You must be joking! " font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]May 2005

Israeli comedians who dare to make jokes around the Shoah run foul of their country's ultimate taboo: this is no laughing matter.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row content_placement="top"][vc_column width="1/3"][vc_custom_heading text="100 Years On" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]Through a range of in-depth reporting, interviews and illustrations, the summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores how the consequences of the 1917 Russian Revolution still affect freedoms today, in Russia and around the world.

With: Andrei ArkhangelskyBG MuhnNina Khrushcheva[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="91220" img_size="medium" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3" css=".vc_custom_1481888488328{padding-bottom: 50px !important;}"][vc_custom_heading text="Subscribe" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Student reading lists: comedy and censorship

Index on Censorship has had a longstanding interest in the issue of freedom of expression relating to satire. Drawing on Index on Censorship magazine's more than 40-year-archive, this reading list compiles articles looking at the relationship between comedy and censorship, including a recent piece by Samm Farai Monro aka Comrade Fatso, founder of Zambezi News, Zimbabwe’s leading satirical news programme.

Students and academics can browse the Index magazine archive in thousands of university libraries via Sage Journals.

Comedy and censorship articles

Student reading lists

Censorship in the arts
Comedy and censorship
Journalism and censorship
Ken Saro-Wiwa
Minority groups and censorship
Threats to academic freedom
About the student reading lists
Technology and censorship

Comedy of Terrors: Zimbabwean satirists challenge power by Samm Farai Monro
Samm Farai Monro, June 2015; vol. 44, 2: pp. 78-82.
Samm Farai Monro, aka Comrade Fatso, talks about founding Zimbabwe’s leading satirical show, and how the nation’s comedians challenge politicians and take on longstanding taboos

Out in Africa by Scott Capurro
Scott Capurro, March 2001; vol. 30, 2: pp. 190-194.
Stand up comedian Scott Capurro explores the limits of stand-up comedy in South Africa

Laughter Lines by Arthur Matthews
Arthur Matthews, March 2015; vol. 44, 1: pp. 86-88.
Co-writer of comedy sitcom, Arthur Matthews discusses censorship in comedy and satire in Ireland

Opiate of the Masses by Saeed Okasha
Saeed Okasha, November 2000; vol. 29, 6: pp. 106-111.
“No matter what form it takes, comedy is a political act in the first degree. It serves as an outlet for frustrations and is a way of putting impossible and incomprehensible situations into perspective. Egyptian society today is urgently in need of such therapy”

Comfort Zones by Scott Capurro
Scott Capurro, November 2000; vol. 29, 6: pp. 134-138.
Stand-up Comedian Capurro provides commentary on how political correctness stifles comedy

South Korea: A Serious Business by Andrew H. Malcolm
Andrew H. Malcolm, July 1978; vol. 7, 4: pp. 62.
A brief look at how comedy was strictly censored in South Korea, as the “serious government has cracked down on humour.”

Side road, dark corner by Edgar Langeveldt
Edgar Langeveldt, November 2000; vol. 29, 6: pp. 86-89.
A stand-up comedian in Zimbabwe describes the dangers comedians face for covering controversial topics, including an account of his own violent attack in 1999.

They shoot comedians by Jamie Garzon
Jamie Garzon, January 2000; vol. 29, 1: pp. 132-133.
Transcripts of television satires by journalist and humourist Jaime Garzon. In August of 1999, Garzon was executed on his way to the Radionet studio.

How to Win Friends and Influence an Election by Rowan Atkinson
Rowan Atkinson, May 2005; vol. 34, 2: pp. 117-120.
Atkinson, a foremost British comedian, opposes the government’s proposed law of Incitement of Religious Hatred in a speech given at the House of Lords, as he considers its dire effects on his profession.

Dark Magic by Martin Rowson
Martin Rowson, February 2009; vol. 38, 1: pp. 140-164
Author and cartoonist Martin Rowson expounds on satire, discussing how breaking cultural taboos often stimulates the best political satire

Confronting fear with laughter by Martin Smith
Martin Smith, January 1992; vol. 21, 1: pp. 8-10.
Smith writes about the terror that Burma’s army has inflicted, specifically mentioning the comedian Zargana, who was punished for his bold, pointed jokes.

Comedy is everywhere by Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera , November 1977; vol. 6, 6: pp. 3-7
Banned novelist, playwright, and short story writer Kundera writes on committed literature, the death of the novel, the nature of comedy, and more topics.
“Comedy isn't here simply to stay docilely in the drawer allotted to comedies, farces and entertainments, where ' serious spirits' would confine it.”

Egypt: Shame on the censor by Karim Alrawi
Karim Alrawi, December 1983; vol. 12, 6: pp. 40..
Discusses the charges filed against the comic actor Said Saleh
“We can only assume that Said Saleh has been made an example of for the shameful act of making people laugh.”

The reading list for comedy and censorship can also be found at the Sage website.

Stand Up For Satire in Support of Index on CensorshipIndex on Censorship has been publishing articles on satire by writers across the globe throughout its 43-year history. Prior to our event, Stand Up for Satire, we published a series of archival posts from the magazine on satire and its connection with freedom of expression.

14 July: The power of satirical comedy in Zimbabwe by Samm Farai Monro | 17 July: How to Win Friends and Influence an Election by Rowan Atkinson | 21 July: Comfort Zones by Scott Capurro | 24 July: They shoot comedians by Jamie Garzon | 28 July: Comedy is everywhere by Milan Kundera