Police probe stand-up comedian who likened Chinese soldiers to feral dogs

Stand-up artist House is targeted after being denounced for insulting the People's Liberation Army
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin, Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
2023.05.17
Police probe stand-up comedian who likened  Chinese soldiers to feral dogs In this undated screen shot, stand-up comic Li Haoshi performs. His employer, a Chinese comedy agency, suspended Li after he sparked public ire with a joke which some said likened feral dogs to soldiers of the People's Liberation Army.
Credit: Screen shot from Tencent Video Talk show

Beijing police launched an investigation Wednesday into stand-up comedian Li Haoshi – who goes by the stage name House – after he sparked public ire with a joke that some said likened feral dogs to People's Liberation Army soldiers.

"Due to the negative social impact caused by his serious insults leveled at the People's Army in the course of a performance, the police have opened an investigation into an actor surnamed Li, male, aged 31," the Chaoyang district police department said in a statement on its official Weibo account.

The municipal department of culture and tourism has also confiscated 1.33 million yuan (US$190,000)  in "illegal income" from Li's agent, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture and Media, and banned it from putting on any shows in Beijing, the Yicai financial website reported.

The sudden escalation of the row evokes the political denunciations and “struggle sessions” of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution as authorities in Shanghai and Wuhan also canceled Xiaoguo bookings on Wednesday.

Li had already been fired after he told an anecdote in a May 13 performance about adopting a pair of feral dogs in Shanghai.

"The first time I saw them, it was like watching a wildlife documentary, because they were shooting off to chase a squirrel as if fired by some kind of artillery," Li said. "I mean, most dogs are kind of cute. You feel as if your heart melts to look at them -- those are the kind of words that spring to mind."

"But when I saw these two dogs, the first phrase to flash into my mind was 'able to win battles.’ I mean, these really were elite [troops]!" Li said, to all-round laughter from the audience.

"Able to win battles" is a reference to a 2013 speech by ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping to People's Liberation Army parliamentary delegates, in which he called for an army "that obeys the party and can win battles.”

Normally innocuous

Li rose to fame as a popular contestant on the comedy show “Rock and Roast.” His jokes on the reality contest covered much more innocuous subjects like being unable to drink while dating and working at a bank. 

Following the furore over his PLA joke, clips of his gags that had been posted by Shanghai Xiaoguo appear to have been scrubbed from their Instagram account. 

"It was a small incident at first, but then it escalated after Xinhua News Agency, the People's Daily and the military got involved," said Beijing-based current affairs commentator Ji Feng. "It's all about maintaining stability and eliminating different voices."

Twitter-based satirist @GFWFrog said Li had never been regarded as an edgy or remotely dissident comedian, however.

"In an age of informants, populists are vying with each other to demonstrate their loyalty through denunciations," he said. "House has been very low-key for years, but suddenly he has become this 'hostile force' who insults the people's soldiers."

"This is because, in the absence of enemies, new ones have to be created."

Li’s firing wasn't apparently enough to take the heat off him or his agent.

"Stand-up comic House (also known as Li Haoshi) made an inappropriate comparison during his routine on May 13," Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media said in a public statement. 

"We offer our sincere apologies to audiences and to the general public," it said, announcing that it was terminating its professional relationship with Li.

"We have issued a severe criticism to House and asked him to reflect on the matter, and we will be permanently terminating our professional relationship with him," Xiaoguo Culture said.

‘Deep learning and re-education’

Li posted his own apology around the same time, in which he expressed "deep shame and regret" for his joke.

"I have withdrawn from all performances, and will engage in deep learning and re-education," he wrote.

But then the People's Daily and Xinhua both published articles on Tuesday describing Li's joke as "a serious insult to the People's Liberation Army." 

Xiaoguo quickly apologized for "loopholes" in its management of artists, and expressed its willingness to accept punishment and severe criticism, terminating its contract with Li and cutting the wages of staff who managed him.

It said all of its employees and artists would undergo political education following the incident.

Germany-based poet Yang Lian said there is currently a resurgence in public denunciations in China, in a manner akin to the political "struggle sessions" of the Cultural Revolution.

"Denunciation and informing is a typical feature of Communist Party culture," Yang said. "It's a huge setback for China."

"During the Cultural Revolution, sons and daughters denounced their parents and wives denounced their husbands," he said. "The Communist Party ... has left social relations in a very dirty and ugly state."

He said Li was a victim of this culture, which still persists today.

‘Glorious history’

In June 2021, China passed a law banning "defamation" or "insults" to military personnel that bans organizations or individuals from "slandering or derogating the honor of servicemen [and women], nor may they insult or slander the reputation of members of the armed forces." 

The law also required schools to teach "the glorious history of the People's Liberation Army and the heroic and exemplary deeds of its soldiers.

In 2018, the ministry of culture launched a nationwide crackdown on the spoofing of communist revolutionary culture and its heroes, ordering the deletion of thousands of online videos for parodying popular “red classics and heroes.”

Retired Shanghai university lecturer Gu Guoping said comedy should remain comedy, and not be politicized.

"He didn't actually intend [to poke fun at the People's Liberation Army] ... but because some people were too sensitive, there was a huge reaction," Gu said.

"I don't think the authorities should be quite so sensitive when it comes to controlling public speech," he said. "[Stand-up comedy] is a kind of leisure activity, but now they've been forced to become a tool for brainwashing people."

Veteran current affairs commentator Wang Zheng said stand-up comedy should thrive on satire.

"In overseas stand-up, there is a lot of commentary on current events and politics, including the president," Wang said. "In China ... the cultural authorities start to enforce the law."

"There are so many banned words now that everyone is very nervous when saying anything," he said.

YouTuber Wuyue Sanren said the public outcry shows how brainwashing has been largely successful.

"These people [who complain online] aren't the kind of people who can't stand stand-up comedy, and they didn't even intend to report him [to the authorities]," he said. "Yet they've all been subject to a kind of ideological indoctrination in recent years."

"There are all kinds of populist ideas about the Chinese nation that are off-limits," he said. "They won't fully accept that stand-up is actually an offensive art form."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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