SHANGHAI - One joke by a Chinese comedian about the nation's military has spurred online uproar, a 2 million dollar fine, a police probe, a sweep of cancelled shows and fears for the survival of Chinese stand-up comedy, a rare refuge for somewhat free speech.
The furore over Li Haoshi's wisecrack in Beijing last weekend marks the biggest scandal yet for a form of entertainment that, despite China's tightening censorship regime, had managed to gain popularity with performances in small groups and material that managed to just toe the line.
China's comedy scene rose quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic as people spent more time indoors watching viral streamed comedy shows. The most popular were produced by Xiaoguo Culture Media Co, the firm at the centre of the current uproar.
Following reports that these broadcasts were increasingly subject to censorship, especially when it came to sensitive subjects such as Shanghai's lockdown, offline shows proliferated, in part because of a perception that comedians were freer to speak in front of small groups than vast broadcast audiences.
"I fear this could spell a clampdown on the whole industry," said a U.S.-based Chinese comedian who uses the stage name Kite. She declined to give her real name, fearing repercussions.
"Stand-up comedy allows us to find small happiness amidst suffering. This is why I think we should try to do something to resist the clampdown. If we don't do anything, we won't even have the freedom to joke in future," she said.