Can China Handle Political Satire?

Chinese American entertainer Joe Wong is on a mission to spread a culture of stand-up comedy in China, perhaps itself an amusing notion. He first arrived to the U.S. from China in the mid-1990s for graduate school in his 20s, and earned a doctorate in biochemistry. But after working in biotech for a few years, he began trading a future in science for his passion for performance. His breakthroughs came while performing on the late-night Boston comedy club circuit with many jokes focused on the American immigrant experience. He attracted national attention with appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman and even ribbed U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in 2010.

Now the bilingual comedian lives back in China, where he hosts his own amusing television show. Wong recently told The Wall Street Journal, “There’s definitely a chance for edgier humor in China. Recently I went to a few events and roasted some corporate CEOs and celebrities in China, and I found that Chinese people actually love to make fun of themselves nowadays. China is fast becoming the largest economy in the world and its leaders will have the confidence to allow room for political satire. When will this happen? Nobody knows. In America back in the 1950s, a couple couldn’t walk into the bedroom together in a sitcom and actors were not allowed to say the word ‘pregnant.’ Nobody talked about JFK’s sexual dalliances in the 60s.” Standards do change.

But in modern China, just how much freedom of expression is there, and can you really get a laugh out of the Party or a state-owned entity’s expense? Just weeks ago, one of China’s leading TV presenters and talent show hosts was reportedly suspended after a video showing him mocking Mao Zedong at a private dinner went viral. China’s state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), vowed to investigate the presenter and issued a statement that said his remarks had “caused serious social impact.”

China’s traditional brand of comedic performance has come in the form of something vaudevillian called xiangsheng, or cross talk. But some say an increase in social media platforms, and the anonymity they afford, have been spicing up satire in China as well as allowing for more critical dialogue. But exactly what one can poke fun at is still a curious topic in the authoritarian state. You can now openly criticize things like pollution and wealthy personalities, like China’s richest man, Li Hejun, who recently lost billions of dollars in a single day. But at least for the moment, satire of political officials is off limits. A culture in which the rich and powerful are able to be satirized is one that is more likely to be held to account, and we hope China is moving toward this end.

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