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Critical Essay: “The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland”

The essay suggests that the recent popularity of Zibo BBQ is a symptom of a society that’s all about consumerism and empty social spectacle.

Manya Koetse



Fast, fun, BBQ travel is a major topic on Chinese social media these days. One WeChat essay recently attracted attention for arguing that the hype surrounding Zibo barbecue is a symptom of a “sick society” in which people are disconnected from meaningful topics. While serious social issues are muted and superficial marketing tricks are blasted all over the internet, China’s “hypocritical youth” actively participate in the societal emptiness they say they reject.

Everyone is talking about Zibo. The old industrial city in Shandong suddenly became the hottest city in China earlier this year when big groups of young people hopped on trains to seize the post-Covid travel opportunity and enjoy a BBQ-filled weekend.

As described in our previous article on Zibo, the town achieved hit status through a combination of factors: its appealing local barbecue culture, the city’s hospitality to students in difficult zero Covid times, the 2023 spring travel craze, smart city marketing, and the social media trends surrounding Zibo which further fueled the hype.

The Zibo BBQ craze. Image via

Ever since April and throughout this Labor Day holiday, Zibo managed to crawl into Chinese social media’s top trending lists on a daily basis. And now Zibo has also become part of a bigger travel trend by Chinese younger generations that is all about fast, frugal fun (read here).

But despite all the videos showing BBQ parties, travel excitement, and smiling visitors, the Zibo hype is not all about roses, and there are also voices criticizing the craze.

One of these voices is that of the author of a recent article titled “The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland” (“淄博烧烤走红是社会荒芜的表现”), which was posted by Chinese Professor of Journalism and Communication Liu Yadong (刘亚东).

Liu Yadong is a senior journalist and former editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily (科技日报). He is now a professor at Nankai University and the Dean of School of Journalism and Communication.

Although the article is attributed to Liu in most Weibo discussions, the article originally appeared on the WeChat account Jiuwenpinglun (旧闻评论), authored by ‘Picture-Taking Master Song’ (照相的宋师傅), pen name of prominent Chinese journalist Song Zhibiao (宋志标).

The article includes some hot takes on China’s recently hyped Zibo travel culture, which is strongly connected to social media governance and city marketing initiatives. The aurthor argues that the Zibo craze is a symbol of “societal illness” that uses temporary hypes, facilitated by social media, to cover up existing problems and, most of all, is a sign of a society that is devoid of true value.

It also criticizes those netizens/young people that jump in on the hype. Despite claiming to go against various top-down policies, they willingly and collectively are driving the hypes that are supposedly also part of dynamics that are strategically used by those in power to maintain influence.

Here, we provide a full translation of the short essay, translated by What’s on Weibo. Some parts are loosely translated or slightly edited for clarity, the Chinese original is included for your reference.

“The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland” [TRANSLATION]

“Zibo barbecue has gone viral overnight, and with giant steps, we’re seeing a preposterous scene unfold: crowds of people are flocking to Zibo, long lines are forming in front of the BBQ stalls, the municipal government is making emergency preparations in various ways to facilitate “two-way travel” for young people coming to the city. This immersive scene is unfolding at the barbecue grills, while we are seeing Zibo’s ‘northeasternisation’ (东北化)* and the accelerated desolation of society. *[‘Dongbei-ization’ or ‘northeasterisation’ is a term used to refer to the phenomenon where people are leaving the northeastern provinces of China and moving to other provinces or regions which are then ‘northeasternized.’]

This desolation of society does not refer to a lack of people or empty streets. On the contrary, the contemporary social wasteland is crowded, grimy, and lively. The youth, in particular, are unconsciously marching in the same direction, and with fervor, they are chewing on Zibo BBQ ‘soul food’ as if they were devouring their own souls. In this existence, we are witnessing the demise of certain parts of themselves and our own.

Many people really want to explore the reasons why Zibo became such a hype, and they can list various factors, but they all stay at the instrumental level and do not go beyond it. This kind of result of up-and-down marketing of [China’s] cultural tourism industry is not so much because of collusion between local officials and traffic-generating mechanisms, as it is a random and hollow expression of society’s desolation. Society is sick, and the hyping of things like barbecue is just a symptom of that.”





It’s especially the young people that are unconsciously moving in the same direction and, full of enthusiasm, they are chewing on Zibo BBQ ‘soul food’ as if they were devouring their own souls.”


Pulling stunts like turning barbecue into an online sensation and tourism bureau directors dressing up etc., help places to be covered by a huge filter, and it enables local authorities’ supervisory departments to shift their cultural and creative thinking to the short video era. One of the characteristics of the short video era is the shrewd operation that appears to conform to the lifestyle of the lower classes, grabbing their attention and using large-scale deception to cover up the rapid social barrenness of everyday life.

In this everyday life, a large number of more valuable topics are first decoupled from power, and then detached from the people closely related to them. In this process, these meaningful topics receive blows from two directions: firstly they are restrained and smeared by authorities, and then they are ridiculed and abandoned by the public. The erosion of our basis of values is similar to the process of desertification, and it is achieved through manipulation and conformation.

It seems that we can’t regard the people in this social wasteland purely as tools. They happily laugh in front of the barbecue stalls, they skillfully jumble up words and use special characters on social media to be influenced and influence others. For a moment, they forget about the ubiquitous risk of unemployment, and without a sense of history or awareness of problems, they fantasize about the next paradise.

The satirical thing is that while the young generation prides itself in ‘lying flat’ and in rejecting the policy lines [that encourage them] to have more kids, struggle, buy houses, etc, they vigorously participate in a movement to create a landscape of social desolation. The social wasteland provides them with a life kit where one thing after the next comes dashing up and then speeds away. This makes the wastage of the hypocritical youth especially evident, and because they are overly exploited, they are particularly ill.”






“The people in this social wasteland aren’t just tools as they happily laugh in front of the barbecue stalls. For a moment, they forget about the risk of unemployment, and without a sense of history or awareness of problems, they fantasize about the next paradise.”


“The short video and click-through economy originated on the internet, and with the aid of the social wasteland, they have given birth to plastic flower-like gardens. The official attitude is very straightforward. On the one hand, they tame the flow of serious topics, directing and filtering their moral assessment; and on the other hand, they utilize it [the short video & click-through economy] to their advantage, harnessing the power of traffic to soften underlying anxieties.

Recently, cultural tourism chiefs in all parts of the country, according to the symbols of their local culture, competed with each other in [online] costume shows put together due to safe traffic flows.* These costume shows, realized for the sake of clicks, ended up straight in the social corner of topics such as the Zibo BBQ stalls – because there are no social topics to compete with, – and similarly resonated with spirit-lacking audiences. *[for more information on this trend, see our article about the cultural tourism chief video hype here.]

The “Zibo BBQ hype” and the trend of “cultural tourism chiefs costume” may appear as noteworthy accomplishments for cultural tourism bureaus, but the growth of such “light industry” is insufficient in addressing real issues, let alone the ongoing financial crisis affecting different regions. It is ineffectual in resolving the predicaments of economic development. While it is hailed in a desolate society, it may only serve as a temporary distraction, numbing the senses and blinding people from reality.

In the process of society becoming more desolate, the concept of “yān huǒ qì” (烟火气)* is almost destined to be emphasized, and it carries a feeling of nationalism and forlorn. Its visual effect is quite impressive, providing the illusion for both young and old in a desolate society, while dulling the strict street order enforced by the city police, giving people a feeling of intoxication. With the twinkling of the neon lights and the smoke filling up the air, the world can be anything.
*[Yān huǒ qì is a 2022 buzzword, initially means the smoke and fire produced from cooking food, but after ‘zero Covid,’ the phrase has come to be used to capture how restaurants and the hospitality sector across China seeing vitality again.]

Not long ago, ‘yān huǒ qì’ was a rhetoric to decorate the facade of the controlled economy, but now its existence has become like a common understanding between the government and the people. This rhetorical resonance, recited from above and echoed from below, has unexpectedly masked the perspective the term ‘yān huǒ qì’ represents, [namely that of] those in power overseeing it.”







“Have you considered that the desolation of society does not necessarily make it safer? In fact, it may just be another extreme form of a risky society. It is only ignored because the script of click-through traffic plays around the clock.”


“Similar to the intensity of a desert storm, the attention span of a desolate society is also brief, and the pace of the attention economy is fast. In a desolate society, the density of life for its members is low, and they can bear with or ignore their quality of life, but they cannot endure a short-lived infatuation. As the Zibo barbecue hype gained momentum, the countdown to the conclusion of the Ding Zhen craze* had already commenced. *[read about the hype surrounding Ding Zhen here.]

Some people believe that eliminating social diversity will also eliminate certain unpopular hidden dangers. However, have you considered that the desolation of society does not necessarily make it safer? In fact, it may just be another extreme form of a risky society that is ignored because the script of click-through traffic keeps playing around the clock. While you can control the click-through traffic, the logic of a decaying society remains uncontrollable.

Ultimately, the Zibo barbecue hype is very boring. It offers little solace to the government’s concerns about development or the public’s pressures for survival, unless we define a drunken and reckless lifestyle as positive. While we cannot fully blame the click-through economy for the desolation of society, it does contribute to numbing society’s awareness of how it operates, and the warning signs of a hollow society are all around us”.




Online Responses

The short essay is a critique of China’s youth, the online media sphere, and the click culture that goes from one hype to the next. But it is also a serious critique of Chinese authorities and the dynamics in place to mute serious social issues while blasting superficial trends.

The author suggests that everything is becoming less diverse (places like Zibo are ‘northeasternized’) and that society is actually so empty that people are constantly trying to fill the holes of their attention with the next meaningless buzz. Besides Zibo BBQ (link), he also mentions the Cultural Tourism chief cosplay trend (link), and the sudden rise to fame of Ding Zhen (link).

With Zibo and other domestic travel destinations being such a hot topic on Chinese social media recently, Liu’s critical essay – published on WeChat account Jiuwen Pinglun 旧闻评论 on April 17 – has inevitably become a topic of discussion.

By now, the essay has been deleted from Weixin, but online screenshots are still circulating online and have triggered new discussions this Labor Day holiday week (this link and this ifeng link are also still active). Various Weibo threads on the essay received hundreds of likes and comments over the past two days.

Some bloggers on Weibo value Liu’s perspective. As one blogger (@校长梁山) writes: “This is a thoughtful and high-quality article that you rarely come across (..) I have no intention of criticizing the government, but in terms of social management, the views in this article are worth thinking about.”

“Actually, he is right,” another commenter writes: “What he’s expressing is that the current economic downfall cannot be solved by the next barbecue hype, but this is something the media is burying” (the idiom used is yǎn ěr dào líng 掩耳盗铃, meaning covering one’s ears while stealing a bell, burying one’s head in the sand).” Those agreeing with the author suggest that Zibo’s success might be a win for its local cultural tourism department, but actually says nothing about a recovery of other industries and economy at large.

But there are also those who think Liu’s perspective is outdated and that, while talking about a lack of meaning, his own words are actually meaningless: “I have no idea what he is talking about.”

Zibo crowds, image via

Some say he is making a big fuss over nothing, suggesting that it is only normal for people to want to seek for entertainment and simple pleasures like eating BBQ skwers, and that it does not represent a bigger problem at all. He is “moaning over an imaginary illness,” one Weibo user wrote (“wú bìng shēn yín” 无病呻吟).

Content deleted on WeChat.

Although not everyone agrees with Liu’s takes, many do agree that it gives food for thought. However, the deletion of the essay itself and the removal of some related online comment threads also prevents further discussions on the topic, which ironically exemplifies one of the issues that the author aimed to address in his essay.

By Manya Koetse

Edited May 19, 2023: An earlier version of this article suggested Liu Yadong (刘亚东) is the original author of the critical essay. Although the article is attributed to Liu on Chinese social media, Liu reposted it and had his own bio under the article, but the original (censored) article is authored by Song Zhibao (宋志标).

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Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of 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 Contact at, 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



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 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.




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.




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.”, accessed via [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.




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.



“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.



“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).



“”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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