Comic sign of social change?

Chinese stand-up Zhou Libo blurs the line between comedy and political critique, discussing political taboos and poking fun at the Communist Party. How long will the government turn a blind eye?

A round-faced Shanghainese man is speaking on television. There is nothing unusual about this, except that what he is saying, most of which I can't begin to grasp, has my normally sober girlfriend in stitches. She remains in this condition for most of the duration of the show. I try to get her to translate bits and pieces but it's no use, she's in such hysterics that I can't get a word in edgewise. This may not seem unusual to anyone who does not know Chinese television or my girlfriend but to me this is something astonishing, and a development which deserves greater attention since it may represent early signs of political change in the normally paranoid country.

The man speaking represents a new phenomenon in Chinese television, Mr Zhou's Live Show, featuring Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo. Since dropping the Shanghainese dialect that he used prior to 2010, Zhou's show has become one of the most widely-watched programs in China, topping Spring Festival ratings in 2010 and garnering a horde of fanatical devotees, even among TV-phobes like my girlfriend. What fascinates Chinese across the country about Zhou, beyond his quirky delivery and razor wit is the inflammatory content of his stand up routine. Zhou routinely discusses even the most taboo political and social topics with an incisive humour which breaks ingrained social taboos so violently that many audience members remain stunned, unsure if they are being tested for political loyalty.

Zhou doesn't hesitate to make favourable comparisons between Japanese and Chinese, ridiculing his own people's shortcomings in social niceties and praising Japanese manners. Surprisingly, the crowd laughs, and no one is shot, despite the fact that according to the official doctrine, the Japanese are the embodiment of evil, a point which is relentlessly driven home by the prolific nationalistic war-dramas featuring Japanese atrocities amidst Chinese heroism which normally dominate Chinese airwaves. The joke in China is that at any moment of the day, anywhere in China, there are Japanese people being killed on television.

Zhou has poked fun at the intelligence of Chinese Communist Party (CPC) members, ruthlessly attacked the Chinese education system, deflated growing Chinese nationalism, criticized the complicated tax system and repeatedly denounced official corruption and Party stupidity. A classic example is Zhou's joke about the CPC entrance exams, giving examples of obscure and nonsensical questions and saying “only abnormal people with abnormal minds could pass this exam!” and comparing government officials to people who haven't eaten in three days left alone all night to guard a dumpling shop, suggesting that corruption is almost inevitable under the current system.

Not only does Zhou make such belittling comments about the normally untouchable ruling party, but he quotes facts and figures that undermine the rosy socioeconomic picture that has been elevated to the status of dogma by the official media. The most notable case was Zhou's tactless discussion of the gap between gross and per-capita GDP figures which have China ranked second and ninety fifth in the world respectively. While many audience members laugh, the majority look uncomfortable, waiting for the police to shut things down or afraid that the camera might catch them endorsing his statements. Zhou's power seems to stem from the way he artfully blurs the line between comedy and political critique.

Zhou fanatic Zhao says she watches Zhou because “even though he is a comedian I feel as though he is waking up everybody. There is so much hidden information, false information in China, and he is clarifying it, telling us what is the real truth.” It is unclear to outsiders and most Chinese how it is exactly that Zhou has managed to get away with making such normally forbidden statements on national television. While China has opened up economically, it still remains the case that saying the wrong thing in public can damage a career, land you in prison or worse. Whatever the underlying factors are, amidst the recent overbearing crackdown on calls for a Middle-East style “Jasmine Revolution” in China, including detention of famous artist and outspoken critic of the government Ai Weiwei, Zhou's comedy and its tolerance by the powers that be provide a small glimmer of hope that serious political and social change may be peeking over the horizon in China. To those who live here, Chinese and expat alike, it is about time.

About the author

Charles Humphrey has been a China researcher since 2008 and living, working, traveling and writing in and on China since 2009.