05/18/2023, 20.00
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Irony and army don’t mix, Chinese authorities silence stand-up comic

by John Ai

A joke about Xi Jinping's military motto has landed Li Haoshi in hot waters, possibly behind bars even though charges have not yet been laid. The production company he worked for has been fined almost two million dollars and has suspended its shows. China cracks the whip of censorship a bit harder around the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – China’s official media and the People’s Liberation Army have targeted a stand-up comic for poking fun at the military. But this is no joke.

The police have in fact opened an investigation into the affair, while the production company that employed the comic has had to cancel all its shows and has a fine of almost two million US dollars to pay.

This comes as China intensifies its crackdown on the entertainment industry; now comics must be more careful about what they say and do.

It all started last weekend when Li Haoshi mentioned two stray dogs that he had adopted chasing squirrels, which reminded him of the motto "have a good style of work, be able to win battles" (作风优良,能打胜仗).

In China, these words generally refer to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and are attributed to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in 2013 said that China needed to build a strong military that "listens to party commands, is capable of winning battles, and possesses a good style of work.”

On social media, some people reacted saying that Li had insulted the military. Heated discussions online, and eventually, official media picked up  the story, including the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, the People’s Daily, as well as the official state news agency Xinhua and other military-connected media.

Li posted an apology on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, saying that he took full responsibility. He noted that any similarities were inappropriate and that he would suspend “all performances, engage in deep self-retrospection, and learn from scratch.”

Despite this act of contrition, the PLA was not taking it. The Beijing Cultural Law Enforcement Agency announced an investigation against the Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture and Communication Company (上海笑果文化传媒有限公司), which had organised the show.

The company was fined 13.35 million yuan (US$ 1.9 million) and all its shows were scrapped. Subsequently, it announced that it had "suspended its activity indefinitely" and would step up the education of its actors.

For LI, this was the end of his career, and will likely cost him his freedom. Official media reported that police in Beijing had launched a probe, but no charges have yet to be announced.

Usually, entertainment companies censor shows’ contents and submit them to the authorities. Sources say that the controversial remarks were not in the material originally sent to the censorship board.

In 2021, the National People's Congress passed a law banning insults against military personnel.

Soon enough, journalist Luo Changping was given a seven-month sentence that year for "insulting the martyrs” over comments he made about the soldiers who died during the Korean War (1950-53).

Online, some believe that Li's jokes were not meant to insult the military, but that they happen to coincide with the anniversary of the 16 May 1966 Notification, which marked the start of the Cultural Revolution.

In the future, the authorities are likely to turn the screws of censorship even more on live performances, especially on improvisational theatre, to prevent uncensored speech, stifle satire, and stop criticism.


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The Cultural Revolution (Timeline)
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