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Chinese Netizens Are Seeking the Truth Behind the Mysterious Death of a Chengdu High School Student

The “Chengdu 49 Middle School Incident” has been dominating discussions on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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The death of Lin, a student from Chengdu, has become a national issue this week, leading to a wave of online rumors and theories on what might have happened to him. Some even claim the protests that erupted in response to the student’s death were set up by “foreign forces.”

The mysterious death of a high school student in Chengdu has been trending on Chinese social media and in mainstream media over the past few days, with bloggers and netizens looking for the truth behind the incident.

The 16-year-old Lin Weiqi (林唯麒), a student of Chengdu No. 49 Middle School, fell to his death around 18:40 on Sunday, May 9.

Lin’s parents allegedly were not notified about their son’s death until over two hours later, at 21:00, and were not allowed to enter the school, see their son, nor talk to teachers. And where was the surveillance video showing how this incident took place?

The case started getting major attention on social media after Lin’s mother (later switching to username @四十九中林同学妈妈) posted about her son’s death and the dubious circumstances surrounding it on Weibo on Monday morning. In the post, the mother suggested it took over an hour for an ambulance to reach her son’s school.

The case set off a stream of wild rumors. There was online speculation about corporal punishment and abuse taking place in the school, with one theory suggesting Lin had been pushed to his death by a chemistry teacher. Netizens speculated that the school was trying to cover up the incident.

The school responded to the issue on May 10, confirming that a student from their school fell “from height” in their school’s ‘Zhixing’ building. According to the school, they immediately called the police after the incident, and have now set up a special team to assist in any ongoing investigations.

The official Weibo account of Chenghua district of the city of Chengdu (@平安成华官方微博) issued a statement on the evening of May 11, ruling out any criminal elements to the death of Lin.

As reported by South China Morning Post, a joint statement by the district propaganda department, the police and the education bureau then stated that investigators had come to the initial conclusion that “the student took his own life due to personal problems.”

On the night of May 11, students gathered at the school and protested for the truth to come out. Videos shared on social media show dozens of students carrying flowers and chanting “Truth! Truth!”

Other videos show chaotic scenes of the rare demonstration, where protesters and police guards clashed.

On May 12, the popular Wechat blogging account ‘Yi Jie’ (熠杰) published a lengthy post about the incident and its aftermath. The article claims that Lin committed suicide by jumping after an argument with his girlfriend. The reason Lin’s parents were not allowed to enter the school after their son’s death, Yi Jie writes, is because the forensic investigation was still ongoing.

Any rumors of teachers pushing students down the stairs or abusing students are false, the article says. Although the school could surely improve its crisis communication, the fact that it did not handle the communication about the incident in a professional way does not mean there is a ‘cover up’ going on.

The article, that was soon spread around on Weibo, also questioned the authenticity of the mother’s account, writing that three different cell phones were used to log in to Weibo and publish various posts, suggesting that the mother either has three different mobile phones or that there are different people in charge of her account.

Although he does not believe there is anything concealed behind the death of Lin, the blogger Yi Jie does have a theory about the ensuing protests, claiming those who demonstrated belonged to an “organized group” linked to “hostile forces.” Yi Jie even connects the protests to the CIA, claiming the protesters were paid to be there.

By Wednesday, many netizens were unsure of what to believe anymore. The hashtag “Chengdu 48 Middle [School]” (#成都49中#) had 1.6 billion views on Weibo at the time of writing.

“No wonder many people do not believe [what happened], I don’t believe it either. It’s always that the news is blocked once it comes out, it’s always that the surveillance camera records were lost, it’s been like that for many years. It’s not a method to protect social stability anymore,” one Weibo user writes.

Others blame Lin’s mother for causing all rumors: “After reading so much, I get the feeling we were cheated by that parent. This is not the first time that a victim’s family has gone crazy with public opinion, and it’s not the first time that I’ve fallen for it.”

There are also many who sympathize with Lin’s parents: “The loss of a child, it’s something that needs so many years to recover from. There’s so much pain. I just hope they’ll find answers.”

Update May 13

On May 13, Chinese media published a reconstruction of the May 9 incident, which attracted much attention online, with one page about the news (#监控还原成都49中学生坠亡前轨迹#) getting 1,3 billion views.

People’s Daily‘s post including the video received over 100,000 comments and 2,7 million likes.

The reconstruction is based on surveillance camera videos and police investigation, starting at 18:16 on Sunday night when Lin leaves a classroom on the 4th floor of the school building, going down the stairs to the 3rd floor on 18:17.

Surveillance cameras captured Lin leaving the 4th floor via the stairs and recorded how he was heading down the western hallway on the 3rd floor, walking on through various parts of the school, reaching the basketball court at 18:23, and then walking on to the building’s water pump room, where he stayed for over ten minutes.

A security camera recorded how Lin stayed in the corner of the room, holding a knife in his right hand and cutting himself in his left wrist.

After Lin leaves the room, he keeps on walking through the school’s hallways, reaching the fifth floor by 18:39. The next ten minutes have not been captured by security cameras, since Lin was located in blind spot areas outside of the vision of the installed security cameras. One camera from another building does capture a person’s silhouette falling from the building at 18:49.

“There are blind spots in the surveillance footage. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the parents to initially doubt [the incident]. I think it’s the duty of the public security authorities to explain the course of the events of the incident and the crucial time points to the public,” one popular comment on Weibo said.

Others think the record has been set straight by this reconstruction, and are hoping Lin can now rest in peace.

The idea that the death of Lin was used by ‘evil forces’ for their own agenda, which was previously also raised by the Yi Jie blogger, is still circulating on Chinese social media – a theory that is supported by many.

The term “color revolution” is recurring in these discussions, with some netizens suggesting that foreign forces, such as the CIA, are trying to get local people to cause unrest through riots or demonstrations to undermine the stability of the government. There are people who believe those demonstrating in front of the Chengdu school were paid to do so.

“Certain hostile countries are watching all the time. Be alert,” one person wrote on Weibo.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 
For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
 

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

From Comedy to Controversy: Behind the Li Haoshi Incident

Exploring the dynamics that led to the social storm involving Chinese comedian ‘House’ Li Haoshi.

Manya Koetse

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The Li Haoshi scandal sheds light on a complex interplay of factors, including the working conditions within the Chinese comedy industry, the expectations placed on performers in China’s entertainment realm, and the significant role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese nationalism. A deep dive by What’s on Weibo.

Humor is no joking matter. While the business of humor can be competitive and challenging no matter where you are in the world, there are some special considerations and implications for working in humor in China.

This week, Chinese comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who performs under the name ‘House’, experienced firsthand that there are strict limitations to what can be openly satirized or joked about in China today. When one of his jokes about two stray dogs described them by referencing a famous People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slogan, he found himself at the center of a social media storm. One related hashtag received over 1.1 billion views on social media platform Weibo this week.

The phrases used in the comic skit, with Li saying they came to mind while watching the dogs chasing a squirrel, were: “Forge exemplary conduct, fight to win.” The lines are part of the PLA slogan “Follow the Party! Fight to win! Forge exemplary conduct!” (“听党指挥,能打胜仗,作风优良!”), which was used by Xi Jinping in 2013.

Li Haoshi was not just socially canceled by angry netizens who defended the honor of Chinese soldiers and slammed the comedian for being so unpatriotic, he also saw his career go up in flames. His shows were called off, he was banned from social media, his employer was fined more than $2 million, he was blacklisted under orders of the China Performing Arts Association (CAPA), and he is now under official investigation.

Following the controversy, there were different views on Chinese social media regarding the issue (read more here). Although the majority of commenters argued that the PLA is never to be joked about, some people also lamented that online discussions lacked nuance.

This scandal sheds light on a complex interplay of factors, including the working conditions within the Chinese comedy industry, the expectations placed on performers in the Chinese entertainment world, and the important role played by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese nationalism.

 

HUMOR AND STAND-UP COMEDY IN CHINA

 

Humor has played a prominent role in Chinese language and culture for centuries, manifested through a diverse array of jokes and humorous texts. Professional comedians, who served to entertain the aristocrats, have been around since as early as 800 BC.

Although humor has always been there, it has not necessarily always been appreciated. Confucianism has played a significant role in devaluing humor in China, as it formally regarded humor and satire as inferior forms of aesthetic expression. Chinese rulers who did not tolerate criticism or dissent also could not appreciate jokes or comics which, in any way, went against their rule and authority (Sullivan & Sullivan 2021, 102; Yue 2008, 403-413).

In the early days of modern China, following the collapse of the Qing dynasty, there was a notable resurgence of various forms of humor and jokes that spanned two decades, including cross-talk (xiàngsheng 相声) and skits (xiǎopǐn 小品). It was during this period that the Mandarin word “yōumò” (幽默) was introduced, derived from the English term “humor.” This term was coined by the renowned Chinese writer and translator Lin Yutang (林语堂), who faced the challenge of finding an exact Chinese translation for the English word (Hsu 2015, 2).

For decades, from the founding of People’s Republic of China to the Anti-Rightists Movement and the Cultural Revolution and beyond, there was not much yōumò around. As described by David Moser (2004), the constraints imposed by the Party and political sensitivities severely limited the content and topics that comedians could explore.

The comparatively relaxed political atmosphere of the post-Mao era gave rise to novel forms of humor and comedy. In subsequent years, influenced by the United States, “stand-up comedy” (tuōkǒuxiù 脱口秀) also gained popularity. Initially originating in small bars or cafes in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, this comedic genre swiftly spread across the nation.

But similar to numerous other performance forms in China, stand-up comedy faces challenges in maintaining its spontaneity and provocative nature. Performers and comedy clubs are required to obtain licenses and gain script approval, while also navigating strict boundaries regarding politically sensitive topics that are strictly off-limits (Sullivan & Sullivan 2021: 102).

This does not mean that stand-up comedy is not thriving in China. On the contrary, the genre has only become more popular over recent years as stand-up comedy performers skillfully navigate the boundaries of what is acceptable by employing different techniques, such as irony, self-deprecation, and surreal humor to offer alternative perspectives within the permitted discourse (see: Chen and Gao 2023). In doing so, Chinese stand-up comedy has evolved beyond its American influences and embraced more traditional Chinese comedic language techniques from xiàngsheng and other performing arts.

In today’s landscape, Chinese comedians face a multitude of boundaries beyond just political ones. Operating within an environment where cultural and commercial factors hold significant sway, it becomes almost inevitable for popular performers to encounter controversy at some point in their careers. Authorities, audiences, sponsors, or companies may take offense at the content of their comedic expressions, adding further complexity to their navigation of these boundaries.

Li Dan, Papi Jiang, and Yang Li previously also faced criticism for their “inappropriate” or “vulgar” jokes.

The online comedian Papi Jiang (Papi酱), for example, saw her videos being taken offline in 2016 for containing “vulgar language and content,” after which she vowed to choose her words more carefully in the future. Female stand-up comedian Yang Li (杨笠), also known as the “punchline queen,” was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel in 2021 for her jokes that allegedly insulted men. The popular talk show host and comedian Li Dan (李诞) sparked controversy for promoting female underwear brand Ubras with a slogan that was deemed sexist.

In such a working environment, it is difficult to fathom that the 31-year-old Li Haoshi, who had previously appeared on the immensely popular stand-up comedy competition show “Rock & Roast” Season Four, was unaware that his reference to a PLA slogan would surpass the acceptable boundaries. However, like many comedians, he may simply have been testing the limits.

 

THE POWER OF PERFORMERS

 

Another factor that comes into play when exploring the reasons behind the ‘House’ scandal is the special role attributed to Chinese performers.

Although Chinese performers and renowned names in the cultural industries have always been seen as fulfilling an exemplary role, this notion holds even greater significance in the era of social media, where Chinese performers and celebrities wield tremendous influence in an online environment with over one billion internet users. The rapid growth of online entertainment-focused apps and platforms has also created opportunities for unknown performers to achieve overnight fame.

There have been various studies about celebrities in China. One study from 2019 by Sullivan and Kehoe highlights the complexity of China’s celebrity scene. Because while the industry flourishes, it still operates under strict regulations imposed by both the state and industry stakeholders. Additionally, moral values play a significant role in shaping the industry. Sullivan and Kehoe argue that the state, through media and cultural industries, retains control over the symbolic economy within which celebrities operate (2019, 242).

Channeling public opinion and safeguarding social stability are priorities for Chinese authorities, and the influence of Chinese celebrities is often used to promote Party ideology and policies. While authorities encourage Chinese famous performers to act as positive role models, negative news surrounding the country’s popular stars is often perceived as having a “negative social impact” or a “bad influence on public morale.”

There are some some noteworthy instances that exemplify the significance of moral values and the role of Chinese celebrities as role models. One such example occurred in 2019 when Roy Wang (Wang Yuan 王源), a young Chinese singer and actor widely regarded as one of the country’s most influential teenagers, found himself embroiled in controversy after being caught smoking during a restaurant dinner in Beijing.

The incident surrounding Wang’s smoking quickly ignited a firestorm on Chinese social media. The controversy stemmed from two main factors. Firstly, Beijing had implemented a ban on smoking in all public indoor spaces since 2015, making Wang’s actions a violation of the law by lighting up in a restaurant. Additionally, as an influential teen icon, Wang held the responsibility of being a role model to his numerous fans, amplifying the impact of his behavior.

The idea that China should “raise the bar” for becoming a celebrity was widely propagated in 2021. In that same year, the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) officially released new guidelines for Chinese performers aimed at promoting adherence to the principles of “social morality.” According to these guidelines, performers could face a permanent ban from their profession if they fail to comply.

The guidelines are meant to “promote the healthy development of the performer industry” and lay out the “practice norms,” which stipulate that performers, among other things, should abide by national laws and regulations, should honor their contracts and comply with copyright laws. But they also stipulate that they should “love the motherland and support the Party’s line and policies” (“热爱祖国,拥护党的路线方针政策”), “persevere in the orientation that literature and art should serve the people and socialism” (“坚持文艺为人民服务、为社会主义服务的方向”), and “actively uphold a positive image” (“积极树立正面形象”).

By joking about the PLA, Li Haoshi violated some of the rules laid out by CAPA. His severe punishment not only demonstrates to the public that Chinese performers/celebrities should abide by the same laws as ordinary citizens – if not be held to even higher moral standards, – it also serves as a cautionary message to other entertainers, urging them not to overstep boundaries and to uphold their responsibility as public figures to positively impact public morale.

 

THE SACRED PLA

 

In addition to Li Haoshi’s position as a stand-up comedian and his role as a performer/celebrity, another significant aspect of this controversy revolves around the status of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in contemporary China. PLA soldiers are revered as the heroic “soldier sons of the people” who display unwavering loyalty to the Party and the nation.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in 1927, with Mao Zedong counted among its founders. It played a crucial role in the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In addition to its core duty of protecting the country and conducting military operations, the PLA is also involved in other tasks such as peacekeeping efforts and disaster relief. However, its primary and most significant role is to serve as the military branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ensure the CCP’s continued leadership in China. By safeguarding China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity, the PLA carries both a military and symbolic significance.

The PLA plays a major part in Chinese nationalist discourses, while simultaneously also playing a central role in driving nationalism in China. Whether it is the social media spectacle of China’s Taiwan military exercises or ‘100.000 soldier loving girls‘ during the Wuhan floods, the PLA acts as “a bridge between nationalism as an abstract ideological concept and as an everyday concern of the people for the security of their country” (Ji 2004, 248).

Military propaganda, often disseminated online, is important in reinforcing the image of PLA soldiers as guardians of the nation. When four Chinese PLA soldiers were killed during a border clash with Indian troops in 2020, Chinese state media outlets made noteworthy efforts to shape the ways in which the soldiers are to be remembered, blending political and personal elements while lauding their unwavering patriotism. In doing so, they posted their photos along with phrases such as “The place where I stand is China” and “I will defend the motherland with my life.”

Those insulting the PLA can face serious consequences under the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law” which was introduced in 2018. In 2021, former Economic Observer journalist Qiu Ziming (仇子明), along with two other bloggers, were the first persons to be charged under the new law as they were detained for “insulting” the Chinese soldiers. Qiu, who had 2.4 million fans on his Weibo page, made remarks questioning the number of casualties China said it suffered in the India border clash. He was sentenced to eight months in prison.

Li Haoshi’s faux-pas is particularly sensitive because the lines used in his joke indirectly made a comparison between PLA soldiers and stray dogs, while also placing words famously used by Xi Jinping in a ridiculous context. Additionally, as highlighted by Chinese bloggers and China Digital Times editor Alexander Boyd, Li’s joke potentially alludes to a scene from the 1956 Chinese war movie Battle on Shangganling Mountain (上甘岭) during the Korean War, where soldiers were depicted chasing after a squirrel. The intention of the scene was allegedly to showcase the kind-hearted nature of the brave soldiers of the Volunteer Army.

Some people believe that Li Haoshi was purposely alluding to that scene with his joke, and in doing so, insulted China’s Korean War ‘martyrs,’ which is illegal under the martyr defamation law. That would be a serious offense. In 2022, former investigative journalist Luo Changping was sentenced to seven months in prison and ordered to make a public apology for insulting Chinese soldiers portrayed in a blockbuster movie about the Korean War.

Whether or not Li intended to make such a connection or put much thought into his joke remains uncertain. However, many netizens are angry with Li for various reasons. Chinese nationalists defend the honor of their hero soldiers, while others blame Li for not respecting the boundaries within which he should operate.

Furthermore, Li’s colleagues, Chinese stand-up comedians, are also upset that he took the risk of making a politically incorrect joke, which has put the entire industry under scrutiny. This incident has created more tension for other performers in an already challenging work environment.

On Chinese social Q&A platform Zhihu, one experienced stand-up comedian performer from Shandong shared his view on the matter, suggesting that Li has brought harm to their industry:

For commercial performances, our lines have to first have to go through a script reading meeting, they will then go through 4-6 open rounds of ‘polishing,’ and then go through the script polishing of the copywriters working for the show. (..) Moreover, the words and phrases we use in our jokes must have a contextual understanding and source. Therefore, there is no way that Li Haoshi was not aware of the history and origin of the sentences he used.

At the same time, all of our jokes in commercial performances require approval. Therefore, Li Haoshi obviously knew that this particular joke wouldn’t pass the approval, so he intentionally didn’t submit it. This is not a case of ignorance, it is simply being malicious.”

Overall, Li Haoshi’s case serves as a warning to others to be cautious with their words, whether used during performances, talk shows, interviews, or online.

Jokes are not to be taken lightly in a media environment where every line carries weight. When humor becomes such a serious matter, it becomes increasingly challenging to stay funny.

By Manya Koetse

References (other online sources hyperlinked in text)

Chen, Dan, and Gengsong Gao. 2023. “The Transgressive Rhetoric of Standup Comedy in China.” Critical Discourse Studies 20 (1): 1-17.

Hsu, Pi-ching. 2015. Feng Menglong’s Treasury of Laughs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ji, You. 2004. “Nationalism, the Chinese Defence Culture and the People’s Liberation Army.” In: Leong H. Liew and and Shaoguang Wang (eds), Nationalism, Democracy and National Integration in China, pp. 247-268. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Moser, David. 2004. “Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese the Chinese Humor Form of Xiangsheng.” Danwei.org http://www.danwei.org/tv/stifled_laughter_how_the_commu.php, accessed via https://www.academia.edu/5929719/Stifled_Laughter_How_the_Communist_Party_Killed_Chinese_the_Chinese_Humor_Form_of_Xiangsheng [20 May 2023].

Sullivan, Lawrence R. and Nancy Sullivan. 2021. Historical Dictionary of Chinese Culture. New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield

Sullivan, Jonathan, and Séagh Kehoe. 2019. “Truth, Good and Beauty: The Politics of Celebrity in China.” The China Quarterly 237 (March): 241–256.

Yue, Xiao Dong. 2008. “Exploration of Chinese Humor.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 21 (4): 407-421.

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China Arts & Entertainment

A Joke Too Far: 3 Social Media Views on Chinese Comedian Li Haoshi Getting Canceled over PLA Pun

From Weibo to WeChat, from Douyin to Zhihu, Li Haoshi’s joke has sparked widespread conversations, and opinions vary.

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There is a delicate balance between humor and controversy, and Chinese comedian Li Haoshi recently discovered the consequences of crossing that line. In a punchline that took aim at China’s People’s Liberation Army, Li found himself at the center of a significant controversy. Is Li deserving of his ensuing cancellation? On Chinese social media, opinions are divided.

A Chinese comedian’s politically incorrect joke is the topic that everyone has been talking about this week, even making international headlines.

Li Haoshi (李昊石), a comedian who performed under the stage name ‘House’ with the famous Chinese comedy company Xiao Guo company (笑果文化), recently faced accusations of making offensive remarks towards the Chinese army during one of his shows. As a result, he has been subjected to a ban on social media platforms and has also been prohibited from participating in future performances.

The show in question took place on May 13th and while the performance officially was not allowed to be filmed, some attendees recorded the particular joke that caused controversy and then exposed House on social media. According to a Zhihu user who claimed to have secretly recorded the entire show, the joke went as follows:

“Shanghai is an international metropolis where everything is aligned with international standards. After I moved to Shanghai, I adopted two stray dogs. Strictly speaking, they weren’t stray dogs. We found them on a nearby mountain, and they were wild dogs. We can’t really say we rescued them because they were at the top of the food chain in the mountains and didn’t need our help. We were more like a makeover show, experiencing city life. These two dogs were indeed the top predators on the mountain. When I first saw them, it felt like I was witnessing a wildlife documentary. The two dogs would chase a squirrel like a missile launched into the air. Normally, when you see dogs, you find them cute, and your heart melts. You think of these words. But when I saw these two dogs, only eight words flashed in my mind: ‘Good discipline, capable of winning battles’ (作风优良, 能打胜仗). They were truly exceptional. I walked proudly on the streets of Shanghai with these two dogs. The only problem was that they had so much energy. My physical fitness couldn’t keep up.”

The triggering aspect of this joke lies in the eight words “zuò fēng yōu liáng, néng dǎ shèng zhàng” (“作风优良, 能打胜仗”: “Good discipline, capable of winning battles”). This slogan has long been associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (中国人民解放军, PLA) as a standard used to describe and motivate the army. The lines, used by Xi Jinping in 2013, are used together with another phrase, namely that of “tīng dǎng zhǐhuī” (“听党指挥”), meaning “to obey the Party’s command” or “follow the Party’s leadership,” together encapsulating the principles of the Chinese military.

“Obeying the Party’s command – Capable of winning battles – positive work ethic” – these famous phrases were used in a comical context by Chinese comedian House. (Image source).

Using the army’s slogan to describe two wild dogs is considered offensive to the PLA’s “sacred and inviolable” image.

The joke was considered such a serious faux pas that Party newspaper People’s Daily posted about it on social media platform Weibo two days later, claiming that performers in talkshows should be cautious with their words and be careful to stay within appropriate boundaries.

They also suggested that there should be consensus within the industry on where the bottom line is on which jokes can and cannot be made. People’s Daily used the phrase “tuōkǒu mò tuōguǐ, wán gěng xū yǒu dù” (“脱口莫脱轨,玩梗须有度”), which can be translated as: “Do not deviate when speaking freely, and use jokes [memes/punch lines] with moderation.”

The word used for ‘talkshow’ is tuōkǒuxiù 脱口秀, a Chinese term that literally translates to “talk show” but actually mostly refers to stand-up comedy shows and a type of popular form of entertainment in which performers showcase their humorous storytelling skills in an engaging and often improvisational manner.

Li Haosi’s controversial joke garnered more significant attention from Chinese state media. After People’s Daily initial post, they made another Weibo post addressing the issue. The post began with the hashtag “There is a sense of security called the soldier sons of the people” (#有一种安全感叫人民子弟兵#), which is a widely used phrase to describe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and highlight the close relationship between the military and the Chinese people.

A second post by People’s Daily about the Li Haoshi controversy paid tribute to China’s PLA soldiers.

In the post, People’s Daily expressed their support for the PLA and condemned any action or statement that might be seen as disrespectful or offensive towards the military and the soldiers who serve as the guardians of the Chinese people (“人民子弟兵不容冒犯”). They tagged their post with the hashtag “People’s Daily Discusses ‘House’ Offending the Soldiers Sons of the People” (#人民日报评House冒犯人民子弟兵#), which has since received over 670 million views on Weibo.

As the controversy surrounding Li Haoshi escalated, fuelled in part by Chinese state media, it has also became a prominent topic of discussion among the general social media userbase. From Weibo to WeChat, from Douyin to Zhihu, Li Haoshi’s joke has sparked widespread conversations. Within these online discussions, there are three prominent and recurring viewpoints that we will explore here.

 

1: TOLERANCE & MORE FREEDOM OF SPEECH

“You ‘wolf warriors’ and ‘little pinkies’ are only good at conducting witch hunts! It is actually you who should be canceled.”

The notion of talk shows being regarded as “an art of offense” (“一种冒犯的艺术”) is widely discussed on Chinese social media these days. Evaluating the boundaries between ‘acceptable humor’ and ‘crossing the boundaries’ continues to be a topic of discussion, with some advocating for performers’ artistic freedom of expression and speech, arguing that “there is no offensive art, but all kinds of genuine art can be offensive.”

In a since-deleted WeChat article, one Chinese blogging account expressed readers’ concerns regarding the Li Haoshi controversy. A major concern raised was not just about freedom of expression for performers, but about freedom of expression within this topic itself, suggesting that the online discourse surrounding the ‘House controversy’ allows very limited space for actual debate and offers no opportunity for people to discuss the different perspectives of the story.

On Weibo, some individuals express similar concerns about the lack of nuance in the discussion. Apart from censorship or top-down control, they worry about a general discussion environment that leaves no space for opposing opinions. One person commented: “You ‘wolf warriors’ and ‘little pinkies’ are only good at conducting witch hunts! It is actually you who should be canceled.”

“The more people comment, the more extreme they get,” another person wrote. Meanwhile, the comment sections of various popular posts discussing the issue were either disabled or heavily filtered, to the extent that none of the 244 listed comments were visible.

 

2: CROSSING A RED LINE

“It is very simple. Making jokes is not the same as malicious slander.”

Many people do not agree with those advocating for a more tolerant approach to the Li Haoshi controversy. A seeming majority of Weibo users argue that ‘talk shows’ should not serve as a sanctuary for “inappropriate speech.” They assert that public speeches have inherent “bottom lines” that cannot be crossed. Performers should be aware of these existing red lines, and should not use their profession as an excuse to express problematic statements.

One popular blogger (@胜利主义章北海) argued that comedians are already well aware that they have certain boundaries; offending their audience would rob them of their income, and they are also careful not to insult their boss or colleagues: “They would not dare to [offend them]. They are conscious of these boundaries. So why would they dare to offend the PLA?”

Many agree with this stance: “It is very simple. Making jokes is not the same as malicious slander.”

In these online discussions, the United States is often cited as an example due to its strong emphasis on free speech. Some Chinese netizens note that even in the U.S. and other Western countries, there are also topics or jokes that would be considered off-limits and could lead to consequences such as being canceled.

The Weibo account “Xu Ji Observation” (@徐记观察, previously recognized for positive online content and the promotion of the “mass line”) mentions how some people in America were condemned for even hinting at disrespecting the military. American quarterback Tom Brady was widely criticized in 2021 after comparing playing football to military deployment, and Pete Davidson was slammed for making fun of an American representative and war veteran who had lost one eye during his deployment in Afghanistan. Both Brady and Davidson had to apologize.

Although many people agree with Xu Ji’s observation, others argue that the comparison is not entirely fair, as the consequences faced by Chinese performers who get ‘canceled’ go beyond a simple apology. In China, as exemplified by Li Haoshi’s current situation, an apology alone is unlikely to resolve the matter (read more about China’s canceled celebrities here).

 

3: ALWAYS HONOR OUR SOLDIERS

“”We can do without talk show hosts or celebrities, but we cannot do without our soldier sons of the people!”

There is also a large group of netizens who argue that this discussion should not be about ‘freedom’ versus ‘boundaries’ at all, but instead should focus on the mere fact that the Chinese comedian deliberately insulted the “soldier sons of the people,” and in doing so, committing a crime according to the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law.”

Although Chinese state media have led narratives surrounding this controversy in which they stress the ‘sacredness’ of the PLA, its mission, and duties, there are many netizens who say they feel the same. House’s joke has triggered anger among Chinese social media users who emphasize the dedication of the PLA and condemn any jokes targeting them.

In many online posts, bloggers highlight the heroic actions of the PLA in the past and, using patriotic images of soldiers with national flags, remind people about how they selflessly rescued people during the Wenchuan Earthquake or persistently guarded the South China Sea.

One popular comment said: “We can do without talk show hosts or celebrities, but we cannot do without our soldier sons of the people!”

While online discussions surrounding the Li Haoshi controversy are ongoing, Chinese authorities have concluded that the joke constitutes a legal violation. As of May 18th, House’s social media account has been suspended, he has been boycotted by the China Association of Performing Arts, and the Beijing Police have announced their intention to investigate the case due to House’s alleged “severe insult to the People’s Liberation Army during his performance, causing a highly negative societal impact.”

Furthermore, Xiao Guo, the company representing House, has received an official warning and has had over 1.35 million yuan ($190,000) in “illegal gains” confiscated, along with a fine of 13.35 million yuan ($1.8 million) imposed by the police. In response to this penalty, the company has canceled all scheduled performances in China and terminated their contract with Li Haoshi.

Read more related articles:

◼︎ “Love the Motherland” – New Moral Guidelines for Chinese Performers Come Into Force
◼︎ Chinese Comedian Li Dan under Fire for Promoting Lingerie Brand with Sexist Slogan
◼︎ Female Comedian Yang Li and the Intel Controversy
◼︎ 25 ‘Tainted Celebrities’: What Happens When Chinese Entertainers Get Canceled?
By Zilan Qian and Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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