When US radio reporter Mary Kay Magistad recently reported on how the rise of online political humor in China is helping spread subversive messages through parody and satire, she explained an important way Chinese netizens could copy what happened in the Soviet Union when “the walls came tumbling down.” As more and more Russians in the 1970s and 1980s heard the call of freedom and democracy, humor in the USSR grew by leaps and bounds — and served an important purpose in giving the masses a way to both release stress and express their yearnings for a post-communist future. And this was long before the Internet ever existed.
Now, the same thing is happening in China, but aided and abetted by the Internet, according to Magistad, who reports for The World, an online radio show sponsored by Public Radio International.
“When the situation is getting tougher, the humor is getting stronger. That has always been the case,” Xiao Qiang (蕭強), who runs China Digital Times, a Web site that follows news and Web trends in China, told Magistad.
He said that as Chinese authorities tried to step up control in the wake of pro--democracy revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa last year, China’s online humor had, if anything, gotten sharper.
“Because especially when it comes to political and social matters, where there’s always a sense of repression there, speaking truth to power requires a lot of courage, and there’s risk involved,” Xiao told Magistad. “But humor can smooth that out.”
Examples abound: When two high-speed trains collided last summer, killing dozens and creating headlines worldwide, a former journalist named Liu Dongdong (劉咚咚) took a classic Chinese rock song and rewrote the lyrics to create a satirical critique of government mismanagement — of both the high-speed train project and of the tragic accident. The song, according to Liu, got millions of hits online.
“These days in China, people are under a lot of pressure and sometimes they feel helpless,” Liu told Magistad. “I hope doing these songs helps relieve some of that pressure — and maybe even gets a little attention from the authorities so they do something about the problems.”
Magistad also interviewed a Chinese satirical singer named Chuanzi (川子) and said she found the singer’s behavior, often at the behest of his professional handlers, to be incongruous with his sharp and witty work.
“I’m poking fun at the difficulties in our life, the difficulties we need to face,” he told her. “By poking fun, we gain a certain amount of momentum or a certain amount of power to change our lives; but the system, I don’t think we can change. I think I’m a very small potato. I think I’m too weak by myself to change things, but if we stick together — we artists — it’s possible to change society, and even the system, and to push it forward.”
Here comes trouble? Yes, and Chuanzi’s agent became a bit agitated, Magistad reported, saying the manager took her mobile phone and walked out of the restaurant to make a call. She came back and pulled Chuanzi aside and spoke to him. Guess what?
When he rejoined the interview, Magistad reported: “It was like a politically correct clone had taken his place. I asked what needed to change in the system to bring about the social change he desired.”
“I think this is a question for the State Council and the National People’s Congress to resolve,” he told Magistad in a new tone of voice, with the invisible government straitjacket firmly in place all of a sudden. “We ordinary people have no right to speak on this.”