Chinese Comedians Abroad Walk a Fine Line with Political Humor

by Gabriel Martinez
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Comedy and Politics

Comedian Xi Diao faces a delicate dilemma when he steps on stage. While he understands the unwritten rule of avoiding politics in comedy, his connection to Chinese President Xi Jinping through their shared surname makes it a challenge to resist the temptation.

Even his very name, Xi, carries political sensitivity, as the Melbourne-based amateur comedian often quips to his audience. He humorously recounts a scenario where a group chat on the Chinese messaging platform WeChat promptly shut down when he joined it.

At 33 years old, Xi Diao, a civil engineer by profession, elicits nervous laughter whenever he dares to break one of the unspoken guidelines of Chinese comedy: refraining from any content that portrays China negatively. For most comedians, this entails steering clear of jokes about censorship, avoiding any mention of the president’s name, and sidestepping discussions on China’s stringent COVID lockdowns or sensitive social issues like domestic violence.

Xi reflects, “It is a pity, if the environment were more open, there would be world-class talent emerging.”

Mandarin-language stand-up comedy has been gaining traction, not only in China but also among its expatriate population in cities such as New York, Tokyo, and Madrid.

While comedians are notorious for pushing boundaries, most Mandarin-language comedians, as well as many of their fans, believe that certain topics have no place in the comedy club.

In China, pre-screening by censors is commonplace, with performers facing consequences for crossing political red lines. Earlier this year, an entertainment company was fined approximately $2 million when one of its star comedians, Li Haoshi, made a joke referencing a Chinese military slogan.

Comedians performing overseas generally don’t fear punitive measures, but they acknowledge that political jokes often fall flat or make audiences uncomfortable. Many are less familiar with political humor, having grown up in a country that largely censors it.

Guo Jia, a businessman who operates a comedy club in Tokyo, emphasizes, “We create content that resonates with our audience.” He suggests that discomfort with politics is rooted in Chinese culture, comparing it to sensitivities about race in the United States.

According to Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese Literature and director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame, there are certain areas comedians won’t touch, primarily due to social pressure, culture, or religion rather than government policies.

Comedians, however, do venture into challenging social norms. For example, Lin Dongxiao, a 28-year-old comedian who began his career in Toronto, uses comedy to discuss his congenital disorder, which causes him to limp, and to shed light on how Chinese society treats people with disabilities. His humor about adding his disability to his dating profile resonates with audiences, prompting laughter.

Stand-up enthusiast Wenlai Cai, a Los Angeles-based software engineer, appreciates jokes about LGBTQ life and race relations, topics strictly off-limits in mainland China. However, she believes there should be boundaries when it comes to high-level politics and political leaders, as discussing such matters doesn’t serve a meaningful purpose.

Despite some exceptions, most Chinese-language audiences find even indirect references to politics uncomfortable, as Xi Diao attests. After performing at a Chinese restaurant in Australia, he was cautioned by the owner, and he received no audience votes at a stand-up competition. Consequently, he primarily performs at English-language venues.

Zhu Jiesheng, who manages a stand-up comedy club in Madrid, reviews performers’ jokes before they go on stage, urging them to avoid content that could cross political lines. However, when a comedian insisted on telling jokes about the Shanghai lockdown, Zhu allowed it, only to find that the audience didn’t grasp the humor, resulting in backstage arguments that reinforced the notion that politics and comedy don’t mix.

Comedians are acutely aware of the potential consequences of their words. Regarding Li Haoshi, comedians argue that he should have exercised better judgment.

“Even if you do not make mistakes but someone else does, it affects the whole industry,” says Zhong Di, a 30-year-old student in Milan who also performs stand-up.

Lin, who recently returned to China to pursue a career in stand-up, suggests that the industry is still recovering from the crackdown triggered by his own joke.

Chinese nationals abroad have faced harassment for their activism, and international stars have been threatened with boycotts or performance bans by China. Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng, based in the UK, lost his Chinese social media accounts after joking about China eavesdropping through cell phones during a live show.

Vicky Xu, a Chinese-born journalist in Australia who also performs stand-up in English, notes that Chinese people have a long history of making jokes about sensitive topics. She believes that politics in China has such a significant impact on people’s lives that ignoring it is akin to “ignoring the elephant in the room.”

However, when comedians return to China, they face even stricter restrictions than they impose on themselves overseas. Lin acknowledges the importance of censorship to prevent “chaos,” but submitting his material to censors weeks before performances remains a challenge.

In Australia, Xi has no plans to stop joking about his famous namesake. “I’m nobody,” he quips, “and after all, I have an Australian passport… I will keep telling these jokes.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Comedy and Politics

What challenges do Chinese comedians abroad face?

Chinese comedians abroad face the challenge of navigating sensitive political topics and cultural differences. They often avoid political humor to prevent discomfort among audiences.

Is political censorship a significant issue for these comedians?

While political censorship is a major concern in China, comedians performing abroad generally don’t fear punishment. However, they still tend to avoid political jokes due to audience discomfort.

Are there exceptions to the avoidance of political humor?

Some comedy venues, like Women’s Idea in New York City, host uncensored shows that touch on politics. Still, most Chinese-language audiences find political references uncomfortable.

How do comedians view the impact of their words on the industry?

Comedians are aware that one person’s actions can affect the entire industry. They emphasize the importance of exercising caution in their material.

What challenges do comedians face when returning to China?

When comedians return to China, they encounter stricter censorship. Submitting their material to censors can be a challenge, and they must adhere to even tighter restrictions.

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