Do the Chinese Have Their Own Version of the Onion?

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Nov. 28 2012 5:33 PM

Is Political Satire Common in China?

A mini-Explainer on the golden age of subversive jokes in the People’s Republic.

North Korean dear leader Kim Jong-Un salutes as he watches a military parade.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un salutes as he watches a military parade on April 15.

Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images.

The People’s Daily, a news site operated by the Communist Party of China, confused satire with reality this week, picking up on a story from the Onion declaring North Korean leader Kim Jong-un the “sexiest man alive.” Is political satire common in China?

It’s becoming more common. The Chinese government has worked to suppress a culture of satire, but bloggers and citizens with mobile phones have kept the art alive. A popular form of satire is egao (“evil works”). Satirists alter official government artwork or slogans to undermine the intended message. For example, the first of Hu Jintao’s “Eight Honors and Eight Shames”—a set of values for the Chinese people to follow—was “love the country; do it no harm.” Dissidents changed the instruction to, “love your Mercedes and BMW; do not ride a bicycle,” and the saying became an Internet catchphrase. President Hu’s insistence on national “harmony” was also co-opted by protesters, who refer to government censorship as “harmonization.”

Chinese political satire is enjoying something of a golden age. Before the advent of the Internet, the government had a tight grip on publishing privileges. Only members of the Chinese Writers’ Association had access to printing machinery, and the government decided who would be accepted into the guild. When a satirist managed to evade censors, the government could easily identify and punish the perpetrator. In 1942, for example, Wang Shiwei mocked the special privileges afforded to government bureaucrats in poor areas in his essay “Wild Lily.” Wang was tried and put to death in 1947. Three party officials who published widely read anti-government satire in the 1960s also promptly disappeared.

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Mao Zedong’s successors have been somewhat more lenient. During the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, writers published satires about politicians who responded to all requests with the phrase “we’ll think it over.” Xuan Ke became the first comedian to publicly poke fun at the reigning party head, in 2000. Xuan said that then-President Jiang Zemin told him he owed a debt of gratitude to Deng Xiaoping for Xuan’s release from prison during the 1950s. Deng, however, was the person responsible for Xuan’s incarceration in the first place.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.