Is political satire rising in China?

April 12, 2013

A screenshot from a recent "Daily Show" segment in which host Jon Stewart notes the show's surprise popularity on the Chinese Web.

When a pair of "The Daily Show" clips went viral in China this week, I wondered if the event signaled a greater appetite for political satire in a country that is routinely denied such critical media.

On Friday, we got another small sign of this trend: Some awfully dark jokes are spreading around Chinese social media, poking fun at the country's increasingly hazardous pollution and its residents' poor health. No, it's not a very funny subject, but targets of politically tinged humor rarely are. Bloomberg Businessweek's Dexter Roberts collected a few of the jokes, which refer to the recent spread of avian flu, the thousands of dead pigs discovered floating in a river near Shanghai and the terrible air in Beijing. Here's my favorite:

The Beijinger proudly says: “We are the most fortunate, we only have to open the window and we get free smokes." The Shanghainese quickly retorts: “What’s so special about that? We turn on the tap water and get pork rib soup!”

The New Yorker's Evan Osnos looked at some of the Chinese Web reaction to "The Daily Show" clips and writes that the positive reception "bodes well for the future of satire in China."  Osnos cites one post on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and writes: "I hope everybody sees this. Don’t mistake it for just a comedy show." Yes, precisely.

Of course, political satire is not new to Chinese culture, which, after all, is one of the world's oldest. But it is not a well-established practice in Communist-era China, where the state has tightly controlled public discourse and media for half a century. Before the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Osnos notes, one of China's most popular forms of comedy was a two-person bit called "crosstalk," which included plenty of biting political commentary. The Party, worried about free speech, formed a "Committee for Crosstalk Reform" – really – that mandated that the routines replace any criticism with praise for public officials.

The increasingly vibrant Chinese Web has been a sort of testing ground for new forms of political humor. In 2009, social media users started throwing around the word caonima to tweak censors – it literally means "grass mud horse," a popular Chinese cartoon character, but it sounds similar to an unprintable obscene insult. By typing in caonima, users force censors to either permit the thinly veiled insults or take the self-debasing step of censoring a character from a children's show. It's a kind of satirical performance art.

For the time being, China doesn't get to have its own Jon Stewart, because that sort of thing is just not permitted there. The closest equivalent might be considered someone like the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who certainly loves a good caonima reference and a humorous swipe at the party but who better represents a relatively small class of urban Chinese aficionados than the nation's millions-strong middle class. Maybe someday China will have a Jon Stewart of its own. The attention that the American original already gets on the Chinese Web suggests that, if he or she ever emerges, that's probably where it will start.

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Max Fisher · April 12, 2013