On May 18, police in China arrested the popular stand-up comedian Li Haoshi for using the People’s Liberation Army’s slogan in a joke describing the agility of his dogs.
Li, performing under his stage name House in Beijing on May 13, joked about his two adopted stray dogs chasing a squirrel. They appeared to be “at the top of the food chain,” and their agile movements reminded him of the slogan “excellent work ethics, fighting to win battles,” he added. Chinese President Xi Jinping has used that phrase to praise the People’s Liberation Army, after which the army adopted it as its slogan.
Li’s army reference sparked public discussions, while the authorities accused him of “deeply insulting” the Chinese army.
China’s state-run Global Times newspaper weighed in on the controversy on May 17:
“Stand-up comedy is known as having a lot of satire, where a lot of people or events are joked about; however, these jokes must have limits, even in the US, the home of stand-up comedy. At the Academy Awards ceremony in 2022, when Will Smith heard stand-up comedian Chris Rock mock his wife's hair loss, Smith was so irritated that he went up on stage and slapped Rock in the face.”
That comparison is misleading.
The incident involving Will Smith and Chris Rock was personal and resolved without state involvement or criminal charges. That is drastically different from the consequences for Chinese comedian Li Haoshi, who is now arrested and facing criminal charges.
During the 94th Academy Awards Ceremony in March 2022, actor Will Smith went on stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock for telling a joke about Smith’s wife’s shaved head, something she has had to do since 2011 due to a medical condition.
Smith later issued an apology to Rock and the Academy and was banned from attending Academy events for a decade. Chris Rock, the comedian who told the joke, was not punished in any way.
Li’s fate is completely different.
In a matter of less than a week, Li Haoshi has lost his job, was arrested by the police, and may face criminal charges in an apparent implementation of the Chinese government’s censorship policies.
“Due to the negative social impact caused by a performance insulting the People’s Liberation Army, the police have opened an investigation into the comedian surnamed Li (male, 31) involved in this incident,” Beijing’s Chaoyang district police announced on May 17 on its official Weibo account.
On the same day, Li and his agent were fired from their jobs.
Li’s now former employer, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media, one of China’s most famous comedy companies, has been subjected to a financial penalty of more than $2 million and has been indefinitely banned from performing in Beijing. The company issued a statement, saying that it will suspend all in-person performances nationwide.
“We will set up a separate screening department to check every detail of our performance, and completely stay away from contents that violates regulations and disrupt public order,” the statement said, “we will make sure every member of our company be cautious about their content, so nothing touches the political red line and the public bottom line due to ignorance.”
Two days earlier, on May 15, Li expressed “deep remorse and regret” in a social media post.
“I take full responsibility and have called off all future performances to exercise deep self-reflect and reeducation,” he said on his Weibo account, which had 136,000 fans but has since been deleted.
In an earlier interview with Voice of America, Alex Shi, a Chinese stand-up comedian in her 30s, said that compared with anything-goes Western standup comedians, Chinese comedians remain cautious about the topics they choose and avoid crossing a red line that would draw official ire.
“I think there’s an unwritten rule that we shouldn’t talk about anything that’s vulgar or too extreme,” she added.
Of course, even in the U.S., the home of stand-up comedy, there are limits on the things that comedians can talk about. Promotion of violence is usually not tolerated by the American public.
An incident involving stand-up comedian Kathy Griffin is an example of this.
In 2017, she posted a photo featuring herself holding a bloody replica of then-President Donald Trump’s head. In reaction, she received death threats, cancellations of her performances and was fired from her job co-hosting CNN’s coverage of the New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City.
She was also investigated by the United States Secret Service, which as The New York Times noted at the time, “routinely investigates comments that might be deemed threatening to a president.”
Griffin later said that the Secret Service and a United States Attorney's Office considered “charging me with a crime — this is real — of conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States.”
However, unlike Li, no federal, state or local government agency in the U.S. ever took any punitive action against Griffin.
In fact, on November 4, 2020, a day after the U.S. presidential election, Griffinreposted the photo she originally posted in 2017 featuring herself holding a bloody replica of Donald Trump’s head.