By Changhe

When Li Haoshi, a stand-up comedian in China known by the stage name House, described two pet dogs chasing a squirrel on stage, he said “[the dogs] perform well and can win a battle.” This was recorded and later submitted to authorities by the audience. Li has since been taken away for investigation. Since then, many of his shows have been suspended, and the company he works for, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media, was fined 13.35 million Chinese yuan and had to make a public apology. Li Dan, the company’s former shareholder and a stand-up comedian and actor, was dragged into the controversy and berated by netizens.

The comedy show wasn’t livestreamed. The incident started with a live audience member hearing something “wrong,” and the recording was leaked after the show. In China, stand-up comedy shows have been popular among young people, which I assume make up the audience. It’s surprising that they had such a sensitive “political radar,” which says a lot about how much the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cares about what young people think and how to control their mind.

There were instances of college students reporting on their own teachers for making inappropriate remarks in class. In a 2019 report by the New York Times, You Sheng-dong, a professor at Xiamen University at the time, was reported by his students and fired from the university for saying that the “Chinese dream,” “positive energy,” and other phrases that Xi Jinping used were unscientific and for criticizing some of his policies. For example, he once said subsidizing state-owned enterprises is against the principles in a market economy. No other universities would hire him following the incident. In many videos, school teachers were encouraging students in class to report fellow students who don’t perform well by passing a note to the teachers.

“Reporting” is unique to a communist society. During the Cultural Revolution, reporting on one’s own family or teachers was an act of patriotism and righteousness. If you found someone around you who was “problematic” but did nothing about it, you’d be seen as an accomplice. To “report” is to assume in advance that someone isn’t trustworthy. It encourages people to keep tabs on each other and incites enmity among communities. As a result, people aren’t likely to fully trust each other and unite. They wouldn’t be able to unify and fight against the authoritarian government.

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Students study in the corridor outside a classroom to prepare for gaokao, China’s national college entrance examination, on February 27, 2023 in Huzhou, China.

The CCP emphasized that removing the black sheep protects society. This idea seems quite convincing, but in fact, it doesn’t match the reality. The United States, for example, has never had a reporting system in place, but how come life there is so pleasant, the environment so friendly?

Of course, there are people in the United States who don’t follow the rules. Illegal immigrants working under the table, or people evading tax and selling the benefit cards issued by the government. On Twitter, many Chinese people bragged about how they illegally entered the U.S. and found jobs that provided accommodation without work permits.

The American government and the immigration bureau are surely aware that such things would happen, but they didn’t encourage reporting. In my opinion, it’s impossible that rules in society cannot fit everyone, but the government often tries to help everyone to live a good life. There could be times when people have no choice but to break a few rules. If you’re not caught, then you’re lucky. I’m not saying this to encourage people to exploit loopholes in the law but to emphasize that we need to empathize with those in difficult situations.  

Of course, the U.S. has its own rule of law. If someone commits a serious crime, they’ll be brought to justice.

In Chinese society, where everyone is constantly hunting for evil elements, there is no trust between people whatsoever. Society hasn’t improved because of this, either. 

Professor You Sheng-dong used to be extremely popular on campus. He educated the next generation of Chinese for his entire life, only to end up being forever banned from the podium. Does such whistleblowing make sense? China has lost a good professor for good to the United States, where he continues his teaching. What’s more, the incident has a chilling effect on all other professors. No one dares speak the truth anymore. As for the informers, they might be praised by the leadership for reporting on their friends or family in the cause of righteousness, but does it do any good to society?

This culture definitely does more harm than good to society. First of all, most people who were reported to authorities didn’t commit the kind of serious crime specified in the law. They faced harsh punishments simply for making some “offensive” statements.

Secondly, people often choose to report on others for personal reasons. As mentioned earlier, many illegal immigrants from China shared on Twitter how they managed to find jobs without work permits. Another group of people might think that these illegal immigrants broke the rules and tarnished the image of Chinese immigrants. As a result, they report them to authorities to teach a lesson.

Last but not least, reporting destroys trust among people. In a society where there is no trust and everybody is watching each other, the cost of living becomes really high.

It’s frightening that young people are beginning to make reporting on others a part of their life. They didn’t forget to turn on their “political radar” when they were just watching a comedy show. If these young people are everywhere across China, the future is surely bleak. I encourage young people in China to show mercy to each other. If from the heart they feel “reporting” can eradicate the evil elements in society, they should focus their attention on government officials instead. If officials or civil servants are corrupt, taking bribes, or using their power for private gains, young people should be bold enough to report on them until the officials are removed from office. The ill-gotten gains would then return to the people. It’s much more patriotic to report on corrupt officials than a stand-up comedian. 

The article first appeared in The News Lens Chinese edition. Translation is by Edward Ying-jen Lin. Read the Chinese version here.

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