The Aftermath of China’s Comedy Crackdown

On a Saturday evening last May, China’s leading standup-comedy studio, Xiaoguo Culture Media, hosted a show in Beijing. Among the performers was Li Haoshi, a thirty-one-year-old nicknamed House, who had risen to acclaim two years earlier, on Xiaoguo’s standup-competition series “Rock & Roast.” In one bit that evening, House shared a story of how he

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On a Saturday evening last May, China’s leading standup-comedy studio, Xiaoguo Culture Media, hosted a show in Beijing. Among the performers was Li Haoshi, a thirty-one-year-old nicknamed House, who had risen to acclaim two years earlier, on Xiaoguo’s standup-competition series “Rock & Roast.” In one bit that evening, House shared a story of how he had adopted two stray dogs. The dogs, he said, chased squirrels “like cannon fire.” Most dogs he’d seen were of the cute, heart-melting variety, but his dogs called to mind a military slogan: “First-rate in conduct, victorious in battle.” The crowd erupted with laughter.

Most Chinese were familiar with House’s reference. It has been a propaganda tagline since 2src13, when Xi Jinping began to frame China’s military as flag-bearers on the country’s march to superpower status. After the show, an anonymous user leaked House’s joke on Weibo, a popular social-media site, where nationalists verbally thrashed the comic, imploring officials to bring him and Xiaoguo to justice. “These second-rate traitors can’t be punished enough,” one commenter wrote. By week’s end, hashtags related to House’s bit had surpassed a billion hits.

Flippant references to China’s military, like those to top leaders, are considered off limits in official life, and such taboos have been codified under Xi, with a new criminal code outlawing the slander of political “heroes and martyrs.” The Wednesday after the show, the police placed House under investigation, and culture authorities fined Xiaoguo two million dollars for the joke. The studio’s shows were suspended indefinitely. State media flooded the Internet with diatribes against amoral artists and implored them to provide the masses with “high-quality spiritual content.” When a woman in Dalian posted a message in House’s defense, she was promptly detained.

From his bedroom in northern China, Alex, a comedian in his twenties and a friend of House’s, fretted about the end of his industry. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he told me. (He asked to use a pseudonym for fear of official reprisals.) “I’d wake up every two hours, check my phone, and think, We’re screwed.” Once the hand of the state comes down, the results are brutal. Alex had stopped contacting House after his investigation, but he’d heard from other comedian friends that House was now “looking for a job in a different industry.”

When a new genre of art attains mainstream repute, Chinese call it poquan, or breaking out of the circle. For the in-crowd, it is a Pyrrhic triumph, one that validates the medium’s soft power even as it is remolded by the iron fist. Standup comedy was the latest art form to reach this inflection point, which is familiar to many Chinese writers, artists, and musicians. Around four years ago, the lead singer of a Beijing rock band told me, culture police started showing up at concerts and screening his lyrics. These days, his band submits lyrics, recordings, and rehearsal videos to the culture bureau before each performance. If the song has no lyrics, authorities demand a written explanation of its “intent.” “You can’t half-ass it, either,” he told me, chuckling.

The House incident plunged the comedy industry—and the wider entertainment scene—into hibernation. Standup shows across the country were cancelled. Police shut down music festivals and bar gigs. By the fall, most comedy clubs had resumed operation, but the industry was settling into a new, bowdlerized state. In Shanghai, where Xiaoguo is based, authorities frequently visited shows unannounced to keep clubs on their toes. Comics who veered off script could be fined several thousand dollars. Improvisation was effectively banned. One proprietor of a Shanghai comedy club told me that “Rock & Roast” ’s run was most likely over and, with it, the irreverent sketches that had defined China’s standup spring. Standup survived the crackdown, he said, but in the process it “has lost its soul.”

Standup comedy entered China through Hong Kong in the two-thousands, and blossomed during the late twenty-tens thanks to streaming platforms and Chinese TikTok. In bar basements, shopping malls, and performance halls, young comics talked subtly and sardonically about the lack of job prospects, the rat race of education, and the pressures to marry and bear children. Using the mike as a generational megaphone, they described what early adult life is like in a decade when the economy has plateaued and the Chinese Dream—the promise that hard work and political quiescence would lead to prosperity and property—has begun to crumble.

China’s comedy boom gave expression to the vast numbers of young Chinese embracing the culture of sang (literally, mourning), a life style of willful underachievement and self-sabotage. Such was the tone of Wang Mian, the guitar-strumming champion of “Rock & Roast” ’s third season. In his viral performance “Song of Escape,” Wang limns a morning ritual in which he and a stranger regularly jockey for the last shared bicycle for their respective commutes. One day, the stranger asks why Wang never puts up much of a fight. “Because I don’t want to go to work!” Wang cries. “I don’t want to go to work and edit PowerPoints!” The audience burst out laughing.

“We’re just venting our troubles,” Vickie Wang, a Taiwanese comic who began doing standup in Shanghai, in 2src18, told me. “When you’re laughing along with everyone at a club, you feel, like, Oh, I guess I wasn’t the only one suffering after all.” In 2src2src, Yang Li, a comic from the northern province of Hebei, struck a generational chord among female “Rock & Roast” viewers. “Men are so mysterious,” she said, facetiously. “How can they be so average yet so confident?” The gag “average yet confident” became a meme among Yang’s fans but triggered male netizens, who reported her to authorities for stoking “gender opposition.” She has so far skirted official censure.

One evening late last year, I went to see a show on the second floor of a department store in Shanghai’s French Concession. Twenty- and thirtysomethings filed into a theatre adjoining a hair salon and a pet store. I sat in the fifth row, near the back wall, where a staff member was operating a camcorder. The recording, I later learned, was sent to the local culture-and-tourism bureau for inspection.

Spotlights beamed onto center stage, and Shuyi, a lanky man with wire-rimmed glasses leaped atop it. (Shuyi is a pseudonym; like Alex, he feared state reprisal.) He introduced himself as the m.c. before surveying the crowd on their home provinces—roughly forty per cent of Shanghai residents come from elsewhere in China. “Is anyone here from Henan?” he asked. As spectators raised their hands, he shot off a quip invoking the regional stereotype. “They’re not treated very well online, are they?” he joked. (Netizens often caricature the people of Henan as thieves.) When he got to Xinjiang, a round, frumpy man in the back raised his hand. Shuyi asked him what had brought him to Shanghai. “To kill people!” he shouted. The crowd eked out a nervous laugh. Shuyi muttered something incoherent, then moved on with the show.

Comedy m.c.s enjoy an exception to the improvisation ban, but they tend to steer clear of risky exchanges. Instead, they expend their time going over house rules (no recording, no interrupting comics in the middle of their sets) and offering other self-protective disclaimers. “We’re just here to laugh, all right? Don’t turn things over in your head too much,” Shuyi warned. With his arms folded, eyes glaring in disapproval, he imitated a make-believe spectator reacting to the jokes. “If he says something like that, that comic’s going to jail,” he jeered.

Of a dozen comedians I spoke to in recent months, most told me that their fear was not of the censor but of the spectator. As standup broke out of its in-crowd—for the most part, young urbanites familiar with the Western variety—it began to reach a diverse audience that included nationalists, Internet trolls, and those who struggled to separate a joke from a sincere opinion. Alex recalled that, one night, after a show, an audience member reported him for touching on gender-related issues. “They claimed I had violated the rights of women,” he told me. The police arrived and left only after the staff showed the officer that the joke had been approved by the culture bureau. “It’s not authorities doing it. It’s people doing it,” Jake, a comic in Shanghai who also asked to go by a pseudonym, told me.

When a spectator reports a comic for political misconduct—what Chinese call jubao, “to inform against”—it sets into motion a machine with a long, tragic past. During the Cultural Revolution, children reported on parents, and students reported on teachers. And, during China’s economic rise, the system was inundated with complaints from consumers about unscrupulous businesses, and unscrupulous businesses about their competitors. These days, the machine lies at the heart of the country’s variant of cancel culture, one animated not by feminism and anti-racism but by hypernationalism and an allergy to insult. “You can’t offend people in China,” Jake told me. “In American comedy, if someone’s offended, ‘Free speech, bitch’ ”—there is at least some recourse to First Amendment principles. “The stuff we have to work around is, ‘Oh, I didn’t like the fact that someone asked me what university I went to,’ ” he said.

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