In Milan Kundera’s novel “The Joke,” a character shares a glib reply in a letter to a girl he’s courting in 1950s Czechoslovakia: “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”
She shares the joke with schoolmates, and it becomes grounds for the boy’s expulsion from school and the ruin of his young life.
A similar scene played out recently in China. Chinese comedian Li Haoshi described a scene in which two stray dogs chased a squirrel. The intensity of the dog’s chase, he noted, brought to mind a Chinese military slogan, one that President Xi Jinping has used in speeches, about perseverance: “Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.”
Video of Mr. Li’s joke spread rapidly on social media after some commentators accused him of insulting the military. The Beijing Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau fined Xiaoguo Culture Media, which runs the studio where Mr. Li was performing his stand-up routine, $2 million dollars for “severely insulting” the People’s Liberation Army and suspended all performances at the club.
In its statement it added “We will not allow any company or individual to wantonly slander the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army.”
The fine and shutdown of the comedy studio had a chilling effect on cultural events all around China as comedy shows and musical performances were canceled. The wave of cancellations comes amid a Chinese cultural climate that is already heavily censored. It is also taking a place in a business climate in which the Chinese authorities are increasingly paranoid, raiding well-known foreign consultancies such as the Bain & Company consultancy and the Mintz Group out of suspicion of their activities.
The current stifling environment is a departure from the cultural climate I witnessed as a journalist based in Shanghai in the mid-2000s. At that time, comedy clubs were thriving with young comics occasionally pushing the limits of what was acceptable cultural critique of the government and society. Music and experimentation were flourishing. My visits to various venues saw young Chinese artists utilizing elements of hip-hop and punk rock and the bold expressions that are a characteristic of these genres. Newspapers and magazines observed governmental redlines, but they also exposed corruption and started to move beyond being mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party.
These developments are more than just footnotes charting China’s regression into an increasingly authoritarian state. They point to a storyline we’ve seen play out before. Those who worry about China’s rise should take note.
The same cultural repression that Kundera wrote about in “The Joke” is taking place right now in modern China. The question is whether the ultimate result of that repression will lead to the same outcome we saw in Eastern Europe.
China famously makes fools of those who try predict its evolution. One of the best books specifically on this subject is Jonathan Spence’s essential “To Change China,” which charts the history of idealistic foreigners — from missionaries to businesspeople — who have sought to change the course of the behemoth. Each group has been humbled, as has, more recently, pundits who for the last several decades have suggested China would liberalize as it developed and as the internet and western ideas permeated the country. We’ve all witnessed how China has gone in the opposite direction through intense censorship of the internet and increased repression.
The question for China and the world is whether it can continue to be the country that defies conventional wisdom. Can China continue to grow and thrive while it continues to repress some of the most elemental aspects of human character — the desire to express ourselves? History suggests that it might be successful for a while, but ultimately that longing to be free, to share our thoughts and be creative, will blow the lid on the simmering tension of living in such a stifling cultural environment.
There are some signs that China will ultimately pay a price for its repression. In a report by Henley & Partners, a consultancy that focuses on wealth and residence, China leads the world in an undesirable category — the number of millionaires emigrating. Over 13,500 millionaires are projected to leave China in 2023, a rise of nearly 25% from 2022 and nearly twice as many as the next-largest country (India). These numbers are damning because they show that the group most able to engage with the rest of the world through the means wealth affords — including travel and education — is voting on modern China by leaving it.
This isn’t a surprise to those who have observed for years how many Chinese students study overseas. Much is made currently of this group and how they are perhaps motivated to acquire knowledge and skills to bring back to the motherland. But the drive of Chinese parents to send their children abroad is also certainly done with the knowledge that educating your child in New Zealand, the UK, or the U.S. will offer a young person perspectives and experiences that are out of reach in their own repressed society.
As those with means look to exit a country without a sense of humor or room for the range of human expression, it’s worth remembering that China is also shrinking demographically. Its economy has slowed due to the global pandemic and the realization by global businesses that an overreliance on China is bad risk management.
All these trends point to the need for patience with China and the risks its poses. The internal challenges of demography and the global economic trends are a lot for China’s leaders to handle, though they might be able to navigate that treacherous course. Whether they can defy the essential human need to be free is another story.