In the face of criticism that China’s government was overreacting by launching a criminal investigation into comedian Li Haoshi for telling a joke about the Chinese military, a pro-government Chinese blogger has defended Beijing’s actions. The blogger, who calls herself Guyan Muchan, compared the case to that of an American stand-up comedian who joked about a U.S. military veteran.
Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) found Guyan Muchan’s comparison misleading. The U.S. comedian she mentioned aroused controversy, criticism and public discussion by joking about U.S. military personnel. But unlike Li and the production company that employs him, that U.S. comedian was not fined and did not face criminal investigation.
After receiving a public complaint, the Beijing municipal culture and tourism authority announced on May 17 that jokes told at performances by Li Haoshi on the afternoon and evening of May 13 had caused “negative social influence” by “seriously insulting the PLA,” or People’s Liberation Army. A separate investigation into Li’s employer, the Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Company, cited violations of Regulations on the Administration of Commercial Performances. The bureau confiscated from the company 1.32 million yuan ($187,000) of “illegal” income made from the performances, and fined it 13.35 million yuan ($1.89 million).
On May 17, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau also announced that it had launched a case against Li to determine if his actions constituted a criminally liable offense.
What did Li actually say?
The following excerpt of Li’s joke is based on a recording circulated on the Internet.
“We picked up two wild dogs from a mountain near our home. I wouldn’t say rescue, because on that mountain those two were really at the top of the food chain and didn't need our help at all. The first time I saw them it didn’t even really feel like watching two dogs, but was more like a scene from some animal film set, with two cannonball-like dogs chasing a squirrel. Now normally when you see dogs, you think ‘cute’, ‘cuddly’ and all that; but when I saw these two, the only eight characters that came to my mind were ‘Zuo feng guo ying, neng da sheng zhang’ (‘Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.’) Classic. People are in awe when I walk those two dogs through Shanghai."
The phrase, ‘maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win’, is a quote from a speech given by Chinese President Xi Jinping to deputies of the PLA in March 2013, in which he told the army to “listen to the Party's command.”The authorities who took up Li’s case didn’t specify the legal justification. But Article 32 of China’s Law on the Status and Protection of Rights and Interests of Military Personnel explicitly states that no organization or individual shall defame, insult or slander the honor of military personnel. Article 65 further decrees that if military personnel are intentionally defamed, insulted or slandered through mass media, relevant government departments can order the offensive content to be corrected.
Xiaoguo Culture Media rushed out an apology admitting that the joke was an “inappropriate comparison” and terminated Li’s work agreement. Comedy performances by the company were also suspended across many parts of China.
What did Guyan Muchan claim about such cases in the U.S.?
Even as voices in China and abroad criticized China’s government for overreacting to Li’s joke, influential public supporters defended the government’s handling of the situation.
Guyan Muchan, a pro-Beijing Weibo blogger with nearly 7 million followers, stated in posts on Twitter and the popular Chinese social media site Weibo on May 17 that even in the U.S. there exists a red line that military personnel cannot be insulted.
Guyan Muchan cited a controversy resulting from a 2018 Saturday Night Live (SNL) episode in which cast member Pete Davidson mocked Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw - a former U.S. Navy SEAL who lost his right eye while serving in Afghanistan - as resembling “a hitman in a porno movie.”
Guyan Muchan’s post sparked discussion amongst Chinese netizens, with one user commenting that “people who praise American freedom never mention America’s red line.”
AFCL identified another case in which a U.S. stand-up comedian stoked controversy with a joke about the U.S military. The comedian, Bill Burr, was performing in Reno, in the western U.S. state of Nevada, when he said that calling catapult officers on aircraft carriers heroes was a bit of a stretch, given that they often are doing nothing more than “warrior one” yoga poses.
Are the situations faced by Davidson or Burr comparable to that of Li?
AFCL found that although both Davidson or Burr faced criticism and stirred controversy for joking about the U.S. military, neither encountered the kind of punishment faced by Li.
Davidson’s joke prompted some netizens to boycott SNL. Democrat and Republican officials condemned the remarks as inappropriate and the then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer publicly called for SNL producer Lorne Michaels to be fired.But Davidson was not fired and did not face any legal consequences, and in fact the controversy had an uplifting ending. Rep. Crenshaw himself appeared in an SNL skit one week later. In the skit, Crenshaw was given an opportunity to mock pictures of Davidson before delivering a short monologue about the importance of forgiveness and the need for solidarity amongst American civilians and veterans. In that monologue, Crenshaw called Davidson's father – a New York firefighter who died in the first wave of responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – a hero. The two men ended the skit by shaking hands in mutual respect.
In the case of Burr, an audience member did express anger at his comments and asked him to show more respect toward the military. Other audience members who were veterans supported letting Burr finish his skit.
Burr didn't apologize. In fact, he publicly berated his critics several times for trying to use the banner of patriotism to accuse him of hating America. Despite his unapologetic stance and controversial statements on other sensitive topics, Burr continues to host a podcast and perform stand-up gigs.
The fundamental reason why neither of the comedians faced legal consequences is that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution defends the right of free speech. That makes it highly unlikely that a U.S. government agency would attempt to press charges against a comic or satirist for comments made during a performance. Any ‘red lines’ that exist in humor are shaped by public opinion, not determined by law.
Guyan Muchan’s reference to U.S public opposition to stand-up comedians joking about the military appears to be based on an invalid comparison between the U.S. and China, where there is far less tolerance of criticism of state institutions. It fails to mention the key difference between the two systems: The U.S. government lacks the authority to punish comedians for the content of their performances, let alone launch a judicial investigation against them.