One of China’s leading comedy show companies has been fined £1.68m after a joke by one of its comedians at a standup show in Beijing about stray dogs went viral over the weekend.
In his routine, Li Haoshi, known by the stage name House, told of watching two stray dogs he had adopted chase a squirrel. The phrase that came to mind, he said, was: “Fight well, win the battle” – a punchline based on an eight-character slogan that is associated with China’s People’s Liberation Army.
In an audio recording that was shared online, the audience can be heard breaking into loud laughs. But a member of the audience reportedly made a complaint, and as the joke spread on to the less humorous world of the Chinese internet, Li was criticised for what many interpreted as a disrespectful comment about China’s military.
Two days later, Li was suspended from the Xiaoguo Culture Media firm in Shanghai, which said that the joke was inappropriate. Li posted an apology to his 136,000 Weibo followers saying that he felt “deeply guilty and regretful” about the joke. His account has since been suspended.
China’s ministry of culture and tourism bureau said on Wednesday that the company must pay a fine of 13.35m yuan, and also forfeit 1.35m yuan in “illegal gains” for the joke.
“We will never allow any company or individual use the Chinese capital as a stage to wantonly slander the glorious image of the PLA,” the bureau said. The authorities also said that the show should have been stopped as soon as the offending joke was made.
On Wednesday, police in Beijing said that they had opened an investigation into Li.
Some nationalists among Chinese internet users agreed. Discussing the controversy on WeChat, a messaging and social media platform, one commenter wrote: “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is sacred and inviolable! The clown will be severely punished!” The platform is awash with vlogs criticising Li and insisting that some topics should not be joked about.
On Weibo, a hashtag related to the incident was viewed more than 2bn times. Some commenters have been more supportive, or defended the standup industry in general.
Standup comedy has become increasingly popular in Chinese cities in recent years, with comedy clubs opening up across the country. But comedians operate on an understanding that there are certain no-go topics, such as anything that criticises – or pokes fun at – the government.
Adam Hopkins, a British standup who has previously performed in China, said that in recent years gigs at bigger venues have required comics to submit full transcripts of their sets before a performance, to check for any problematic content. Still, he noted, the process “is subjective”. And a joke that might land well in a venue of comedy-lovers might not play as well on social media, or in the eyes of the government.
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