Ad-libbing during a stand-up routine is second nature for a comedian. But when Li Haoshi wandered off script in a Beijing gig last Saturday, it led to a police investigation, millions of dollars in fines and a renewed sense of gloom over free expression in China.
Li, performing under his stage name House, riffed that watching his dogs chasing squirrels reminded him of the People’s Liberation Army motto that has also been cited by President Xi Jinping: “Fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct.”
The reference sparked outrage among conservative and nationalist commentators after an audience member posted the audio clip on social media.
Chinese officials quickly responded. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism fined Li’s management company $2.1mn and suspended its performances in Beijing and Shanghai indefinitely.
The “severely insulting” joke violated regulations that performances should not “hurt national feelings” or “damage national honour”, the bureau said. “We will never allow any company or individual to wantonly 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.”
The 31-year-old Li is now under investigation by Beijing police. His management company has terminated his contract and is taking disciplinary action against senior management who are meant to sign off on material before it is performed. Comedy and music gigs across the country have been cancelled in recent days.
The Global Times, a nationalist broadsheet, described stand-up comedy as a performance art from western countries but noted a “red line” that needed to be observed.
“It should respect the Chinese audience based on their level of acceptance, and fundamentally, it should honour the social consensus, goodwill and Chinese laws,” the paper said in an editorial.
The incident has returned the spotlight to questions over the role of comedy, weakening free speech and 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 boomed to nearly 180 in 2021 from fewer than 10 in 2018, according to state media.
Maya Wang, a China expert with Human Rights Watch, said the art form offered some young Chinese “pockets of freedom” but was destined to “eventually meet the Chinese government’s iron fist”.
“The pockets become smaller and smaller, like little bubbles where people end up gasping for air,” she said.
Two Chinese comedians who spoke to the Financial Times on the condition of anonymity said the episode showed how treacherous their craft had become.
“Many colleagues are worried about losing their jobs and are looking for jobs outside of stand-up comedy now,” said one woman in Shanghai. “With government censorship, performers’ self-censorship and audience censorship, how much room will we have left for jokes?”
Manya Koetse, a Sinologist and editor-in-chief of the Chinese social media tracker What’s on Weibo, said the episode had exploded online — some posts drew hundreds of millions of hits — because it cut across popular issues of patriotism and entertainment.
“When the two meet and they collide and they clash, that is always a recipe for something going viral,” she said, noting a long-running debate on the merits of a 2021 regulation stipulating that “entertainment industry leaders should promote a love for the motherland”.
One Chinese academic 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 resulted in a wave of complaints to hotlines in 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 one day assert sovereignty over.
“It is a big problem to laugh at the heroes who defend the country at this time,” said the academic, who asked not to be named. “The punishment is bound to be as quick and strong as a thunderbolt.”
But another comedian in Beijing said public performances were becoming “impossible”.
“What kind of topics are sensitive? There has never been a conclusion in China. It is not decided by the government or the CCP but by specific officials in the party,” she said. “This is not representative of the masses, and the performer cannot predict the thoughts of an official.”