Ad-libbing during a stand-up routine is second nature to a comedian. But when Li Haoshi deviated from the script at a concert in Beijing last Saturday, it led to a police investigation, millions of dollars in fines and a renewed sense of gloom over free speech in China.
Li, performing under his stage name House, said watching his dogs chase squirrels reminded him of the People’s Liberation Army motto which was also quoted by President Xi Jinping: “Fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct”.
The reference sparked outrage from conservative and nationalist commentators after a member of the public posted the audio clip on social media.
Chinese officials reacted quickly. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism fined Li’s management company $2.1 million and suspended its performances in Beijing and Shanghai indefinitely.
The “seriously insulting” joke violated regulations that performances must not “injure national feelings” or “injure national honor”, the office said. “We will never allow any company or individual to gratuitously denigrate the glorious image of the People’s Army on the stage of the capital [and] hurt the deep feelings of the people towards their army.
Li, 31, is currently under investigation by Beijing police. His management company has terminated his contract and is taking disciplinary action against senior management who are supposed to approve the material before it is performed. Comedy and music concerts across the country have been canceled in recent days.
The Global Times, a major nationalist newspaper, described stand-up as performance art from Western countries, but noted a “red line” that needed to be observed.
“He should respect the Chinese public based on their level of acceptance, and basically he should honor social consensus, goodwill and Chinese laws,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
The incident has re-illuminated questions about the role of comedy, the weakening of free speech and the intolerance of dissent in what critics see as the increasingly authoritarian state under Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
Stand-up comedy has grown in popularity over the past 10 years. The number of comedy clubs jumped to nearly 180 in 2021 from less than 10 in 2018, according to state media.
Maya Wang, China expert with Human Rights Watch, said the art form offered some young Chinese “pockets of freedom” but was destined to “eventually meet the iron fist of the Chinese government”.
“Pockets are getting smaller and smaller, like little bubbles where people end up running out of air,” she said.
Two Chinese comedians who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity said the episode showed how treacherous their craft had become.
“Many colleagues are worried about losing their jobs and are now looking for jobs outside of stand-up,” said a woman in Shanghai. “With government censorship, self-censorship of performers and censorship of the public, how much room will there be for the joke?”
Manya Koetse, sinologist and editor-in-chief of Chinese social media tracker What’s on Weibo, said the episode exploded online – some posts attracted hundreds of millions of views – because it intersected with popular issues of patriotism and entertainment.
“When the two meet and they collide and they clash, it’s always a recipe for something to go viral,” she said, noting a long-running debate over the merits of a 2021 settlement stating that “entertainment industry executives should promote a love for Homeland.”
A Chinese scholar who advises the government on social issues said the incident was “impossible for officials to let go” because Li’s use of a PLA motto had led to a flurry of complaints from officials. direct lines to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities and had directly quoted Xi.
It also came at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington over issues such as Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims as part of China and has not ruled out using the PLA to assert a its sovereignty.
“It’s a big deal to make fun of the heroes who are defending the country right now,” said the academic, who requested anonymity. “The punishment must be as quick and strong as a thunderbolt.”
But another comedian in Beijing said public performances were becoming “impossible”.
“What types of subjects are sensitive? There was never a conclusion in China. It is not decided by the government or the CCP but by specific party officials,” she said. “It is not representative of the masses, and the interpreter cannot predict the thoughts of an official.”