China’s government can’t take a joke, so comedians living abroad censor themselves

by Madison Thomas
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Comedy and Politics

The Chinese government’s intolerance for humor has led comedians living abroad to self-censor their content. Xi Diao, a comedian based in Melbourne, acknowledges the difficulty of avoiding political topics due to sharing his last name with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Even his name can be politically sensitive, leading to jokes about being censored on the Chinese messaging service WeChat merely for joining a group chat.

Xi, a 33-year-old civil engineer, often elicits nervous laughter when he breaks an unspoken rule of Chinese comedy: refraining from saying anything that portrays China negatively. For most comedians, this means avoiding jokes about censorship, not mentioning the president’s name, and steering clear of topics like China’s strict COVID lockdowns or social issues such as domestic violence.

Mandarin-language stand-up comedy has gained popularity not only in China but also among the expatriate population worldwide, with clubs sprouting up in cities like New York, Tokyo, and Madrid. While comedians are generally known for pushing boundaries, many Mandarin-language comedians, along with their audiences, agree that certain topics should not be broached in the comedy club.

In China, jokes are subjected to pre-screening by censors, and performers who cross political boundaries face penalties. Overseas, comedians may not fear punishment, but they often find political humor unfunny or uncomfortable, given their limited exposure to it while growing up in a heavily censored environment.

Comedians like Lin Dongxiao (stage name “Guazi”) use their performances to discuss societal issues, such as congenital disorders and how Chinese society treats people with disabilities, providing both entertainment and social commentary.

While some venues like Women’s Idea in New York City host uncensored comedy shows that touch on politics, most Chinese-language audiences are uneasy even with indirect references to politics. Consequently, comedians like Xi have found themselves performing mainly at English-language venues.

Comedy club owner Zhu Jiesheng in Madrid reviews performers’ jokes and discourages politically sensitive material, as he believes that politics and comedy do not mix well. Comedians are acutely aware that they can face consequences for their words, and even if they do not make mistakes themselves, others’ actions can impact the entire industry.

China’s track record of targeting its nationals abroad for activism and threatening international stars with boycotts or bans further contributes to the cautious approach taken by comedians. Nigel Ng, a Malaysian comedian based in the UK, lost his Chinese social media accounts after making jokes about China’s surveillance.

Vicky Xu, a Chinese-born journalist in Australia who also performs stand-up in English, highlights the historical prevalence of political jokes in China’s entertainment industry and emphasizes the significance of discussing political issues, considering their impact on people’s lives.

When comedians return to China, they face even stricter censorship, requiring them to submit their material weeks in advance. Despite these challenges, some comedians, like Xi Diao in Australia, remain committed to joking about their famous namesake and continue to exercise their comedic talents.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Censorship

What challenges do Mandarin-language comedians face in their performances?

Mandarin-language comedians face the challenge of self-censorship, avoiding sensitive political topics, and ensuring their content doesn’t make China look bad. This includes steering clear of jokes about censorship, the president’s name, and social issues like COVID lockdowns and domestic violence.

How does censorship affect comedy in China?

In China, jokes are subject to pre-screening by censors, and performers who cross political boundaries face penalties, including fines. This strict censorship creates a limiting environment for comedians within China.

Why do many Mandarin-language comedians abroad avoid political humor?

Comedians abroad, while not fearing punishment, often avoid political humor because they and their audiences may find it unfunny or uncomfortable due to limited exposure to such content while growing up in China’s heavily censored environment.

Are there venues that allow political humor?

Some venues, like Women’s Idea in New York City, host uncensored comedy shows that touch on politics. However, most Chinese-language audiences remain uneasy with even indirect references to politics.

How do comedians handle censorship when performing in China?

When comedians perform in China, they must submit their material weeks in advance to comply with strict censorship. This adds an extra layer of challenge for comedians seeking to entertain while adhering to political restrictions.

More about Censorship

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