A popular TV host for China's state-run broadcaster CCTV should be "seriously punished" for a private joke at the expense of late supreme leader Mao Zedong that was leaked online, state media officials said.
Bi Fujian was relieved of on-air duties at CCTV in April after a video of his ridiculing Mao went viral online.
Bi "used ridicule to harm the image of the older generation of the Communist Party and the [late] state leader," the China Discipline Inspection Daily, a newspaper affiliated with the country's top graft watchdog, said in an article on Sunday.
Bi's remarks were "no ordinary violation of discipline, [but] seriously violated political discipline," the paper quoted media regulator the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) as saying.
"[SAPPRFT] demanded the discipline inspection committee at CCTV deal with the matter seriously and educate the station to warn against [such behavior in future]," it said.
And the People's Daily, official newspaper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, ran a similar article on Monday.
"The authority ... demands that CCTV handles the issue seriously and imposes severe punishment," the paper said.
In the video, Bi is shown at a private dinner with friends, singing a parody of the revolutionary model opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of just eight operas approved for public consumption by Mao's wife Jiang Qing.
Bi also uses an expletive denoting the female genitals to refer to Mao.
"Don't talk to me about [him]. He caused us Chinese enough grief," he says as part of an off-hand commentary on his dinner-table performance of a section of the opera.
Bi has apologized for "creating a serious negative influence on society" with the quip.
The China Discipline Inspection Daily in particular hit out at Bi for his breach of party protocol, lamenting the lack of "people who know what's what" within the public sphere.
According to Beijing-based scholar Chen Yongmiao, "knowing what's what" means not biting the hand that feeds one.
"It means they are expected to toe the line set by [President] Xi Jinping, which means not speaking against his ideas, including the anti-bourgeois liberalism movement or against Mao," Chen told RFA on Monday.
"You can make jokes about the era before Xi Jinping, but even that is a bit dodgy nowadays," he said.
"Bi Fujian is one of those people who rely on party and government for their livelihood, but who bite the hand that feeds them," Chen said.
According to Chen, party members and state servants are now extremely careful about what they say, with fear levels approaching those during the political turmoil and paranoia of the Mao era.
"A lot of people are keeping their mouths shut right now," he said, adding that China's "50-cent army" of pro-government Internet commentators is having an overall chilling effect on online public opinion.
"This army is getting bigger and stronger, and there are more and more of them," Chen said.
Professor Hu Xingdou, of Beijing's University of Science and Technology, said Bi's suspension highlights a growing ideological rift between the government and ordinary people.
"In a pluralistic society like ours, it is normal for people to hold different opinions," Hu said. "There is no need to require that we all speak with one voice."
"If we did, wouldn't we be back in the era of the Qin emperor [246–221 BC]?"
Hu said he couldn't see what was wrong with the things Bi said.
"He was just poking a bit of fun; what's wrong with that?" he said.
The Chinese Communist Party typically retaliates harshly against anyone abusing Mao or his image, as this is held to represent an attack on the founding supreme leader of the People's Republic.
Three protesters who helped splatter Mao's portrait with red paint during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement all served lengthy prison sentences during which they were subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
The three—Yu Dongyue, Yu Zhijian, and Lu Decheng—have since fled into exile, where they still suffer physically and mentally from the legacy of their punishment.
China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and state media workers are bombarded with daily propaganda directives dictating coverage.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), China's media workers face an increasingly stifling working environment through arrests, harassment, and media directives since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013.
Gao Yu, 71, jailed for seven years in April for "revealing state secrets overseas' is among 44 journalists currently behind bars in China, according to figures compiled by the CPJ on Dec. 1.
The figure is the highest since the group began keeping records of jailings and detentions of journalists in 1990, the group said.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.