A joke by a Chinese stand-up comedian that loosely referenced a slogan used to describe the country’s military has cost an entertainment firm more than $2 million after it was slapped with enormous fines by authorities.
The costly punishment underscores the delicate line comedians must tread in highly censored China – where politics is rarely a laughing matter – and the stark consequences for those in the entertainment industry who are deemed to step out of line.
Li Haoshi, known by his stage name House, caught the attention of authorities this week after using a phrase associated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during his comedy show at the Century Theater in Beijing over the weekend.
As the official backlash grew, Li canceled all his performances while the entertainment company that represents him, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media, issued an apology.
On Wednesday the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism said a subsidiary of the firm would be fined $1.91 million and deprived of $189,000 it made in “illegal gains” – an apparent reference to Li’s two live gigs last weekend. The company was also indefinitely suspended from holding any performances in the capital.
The statement accused Li of “seriously insulting” the military and “causing bad social impact.”
Li will be subject to further investigation alongside his agent and other relevant staff, the bureau added.
The culture authority has not elaborated on details of the investigation but in 2021 China enacted a law to ban any insult and slander on military personnel.
To international audiences Li’s joke might appear innocuous.
During the show, he began a skit about how he had adopted two stray dogs since moving to Shanghai.
He went on to say that their chase after a squirrel one day reminded him of eight words, before he unleashed the controversial punchline, according to audio posted to Chinese social media site Weibo.
“Fine style of work, capable of winning battles,” he said, flipping a well known Chinese Communist Party slogan referring to the PLA.
The phrase was first uttered in 2013 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who also chairs the military, when he set out a list of qualities he commanded from the nation’s army. It has since been repeated at various official occasions and in state media.
Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media is one of the biggest stand-up comedy show producers in the country.
In handing down its penalty in a statement on Wednesday, authorities in Beijing concluded that Li’s Saturday show contained “a plot amounting to a serious insult to the People’s Liberation Army and causing a bad social influence.”
“We will never allow any company or individual to wantonly slander the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army on a stage in the [Chinese] capital, never allow the people’s deep feelings for the soldiers to be hurt, and never allow serious subjects to be turned into an entertainment,” the culture authority said.
Li had already apologized on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where he has 136,000 followers.
“I will take all the responsibility and call off all my performances to deeply reflect and reeducate myself,” he wrote on Monday.
Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media previously said it had suspended the comedian from all productions indefinitely.
Stand-up comedy has gained traction in China in recent years against the backdrop of an emerging trend of televised contests that pit witty comedians against one another.
After the penalties were announced, some Chinese internet users took to the Twitter-like Weibo platform to praise the official body’s decision.
“Well-deserved. Stand-up comedy is a low form of art that thinks it is cultural,” one user wrote.
But others feared it may lead to a further crackdown on comedy.
China imposes stringent censorship on issues it deems sensitive – from women’s cleavage to criticism of the Communist Party. That ideological control has tightened under Xi’s rule, widely impacting the entertainment industry.