"The Daily Show" is not big in China. But when the popular Chinese Web portal Sina posted an eight-minute segment from the show discussing the latest North Korean provocations, it racked up an astounding 2.8 million views and counting, as well as tens of thousands of comments, many of them praising the show. That appears to make it one of the most-watched "Daily Show" clips ever. It also raises questions about whether China's flagging support for North Korea might reflect popular sentiment as well as Beijing's own geopolitical calculus.
On "The Daily Show's" own Web site, the segment received 102,000 views for its first half and 58,000 for the second. That's normally a respectable audience. In "The Daily Show's" history, only one video on the show's official Web site has ever attracted more views: a 2008 segment about Fox News's coverage of Sarah Palin and gender issues.
It also mocks North Korea's over-the-top state media and portrays Kim as an adolescent girl, in a reference to the poster for the 2006 film "Little Miss Sunshine." The clip is full of other references that might not be obvious to a Chinese viewer: South by Southwest, Windows 95. Others, such as a sense of U.S. national fatigue after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, would seem to better resonate in the American context than the Chinese. China is not mentioned once. In other words, it's not the sort of thing you'd expect to go massively viral in China.
So what explains the enormous popularity? The "Daily Show" segment, without meaning to, may have hit on growing frustration among Chinese citizens, particularly middle-class urbanites, with their misbehaving ally. Chinese state media, though it has allowed some measured disapproval of Kim's latest threats, has held back from so roundly mocking the country and its supremely mockable regime. The voraciousness with which Chinese viewers are watching the segment suggests that their appetite for such coverage, for publicly criticizing an ally that has become something of an embarrassment, far exceeds what they're getting.
China is more than just North Korea's most important ally: Kim's regime relies economically and politically on Beijing, which provides everything from fuel to international support. But, as the Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao wrote last year, there is a strong feeling of disapproval in China toward its longtime ally, a sense that this "ungrateful" country is taking and taking from Beijing and, in return, only embarrassing a China that is very concerned with how it's perceived abroad.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made some thinly veiled but pointed criticism of North Korea in a speech over the weekend, saying that no single country should be allowed to threaten global stability. Analysts have taken this as a sign that China is showing greater willingness to publicly chastise North Korea and rein in its ally, although they also find no sign that China appears willing to change its overarching strategy of propping up the Kim regime.
It's the decision makers in Beijing who will ultimately decide policy toward North Korea and who, in some ways, are the people outside of Pyongyang with the most ability to influence how the country behaves. Still, even if they are not directly accountable to their billion-plus citizens, popular attitudes do enter into their calculus. And it certainly appears that a certain class of the Chinese public could be even more upset with Kim, and even more willing to move away from North Korea, than even Xi did in his speech. Given how deeply Kim relies on China, he should be worried.
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