Revolutionary humour no laughing matter for cadres
In his famous essay Funny, But Not Vulgar, George Orwell hailed the subversive role of political humour, saying 'every joke is a tiny revolution'.
Its revolutionary impact may have dulled somewhat in Western-style democracies, where politicians have become used to scathing satire and mockery, but on the mainland, and in other places with one-party rule, the consequences of dissentient humour are no laughing matter for the ruling party and its leaders.
That is why comedians Guo Degang, Zhou Libo and Xiao Shenyang have either become the target or potential targets of the central government's latest 'anti-vulgarity campaign', targeting what Communist Party leaders and their propagandists see as 'unhealthy' culture.
President and party chief Hu Jintao kicked off the campaign by declaring that China must 'resolutely resist' vulgar, cheap and kitsch forms of culture. The 'great revival' of the Chinese people was at stake, he told a Politburo meeting on July 23.
The campaign is targeting what officials call the 'three vulgarities'.
Wen Yunchao, a political commentator and famous liberal blogger, says the campaign is mainly aimed at purifying the entertainment industry and TV shows, with the leadership concerned that market forces, in the form of the pursuit of ratings, are overpowering the state-run media's political task of promoting party policy and socialist values.
There is little sign that Hu is planning to extend the campaign into the kind of general clampdown on liberal thinking seen in the 1980s and 1990s, but there is also much uncertainty about what it will involve.
At the Politburo meeting, Hu did not offer any examples of the kind of vulgarity that worried him. Commentaries in the official media have dwelt mainly on lowbrow entertainment on television and the internet.
Echoing Hu's call, Culture Minister Cai Wu took aim at the country's booming broadcasting and publishing industries early last month, saying much of what they produced was vulgar and kitsch.
Liu Kang, a US-based media watcher and director of Duke University's Chinese media and communication studies programme, says the leadership has come to realise that commercialism and consumerism are now dominating China's cultural industries, which are otherwise tasked with promoting the legitimacy of communist rule, socialist values and traditional Chinese virtue.
The mainland's media regulators regularly cancel TV and radio shows and shut down websites accused of promoting pornography, superstition or the worship of money. But Liu says the main state media have much more freedom when it comes to reporting lifestyle stories and prefer to focus on those in the pursuit of profits, especially in an environment where their coverage and discussion of sensitive political subjects or disasters is still strictly controlled.
He said the fact that Guo had been caught up in the anti-vulgarity campaign raised broader questions about the leadership's motivation.
Guo's fall started on August 1, when one of his students attacked a Beijing TV journalist trying to film at Guo's home. Guo, a household name across the mainland, has since been attacked 'as one of the typical representatives of vulgarity' in commentaries by Xinhua, the People's Daily and China Central Television.
The government has also banned his works, with Beijing shops pulling his tapes and books from their shelves, censors blocking his websites and television shows blacklisting him.
The heavy-handed treatment of the comedian, one of the mainland's foremost exponents of crosstalk - a hugely popular form of comedic dialogue, suggests that Orwell was right when he said 'a thing is funny ... when it upsets the established order'.
Dai Qing, a veteran mainland journalist and commentator, said the anti-vulgarity campaign was a response to the increasing boldness of newspapers, publications, television entertainment programmes and internet chat-rooms 'filled with political jokes sneering at social problems, ridiculing policies and deriding political leaders'.
Liu said that unlike bold calls for the introduction of full, Western-style democracy, 'vulgar' culture might help nurture a dissentient political culture.
'What communist propagandists and culture guardians care most about is that comedians are more popular than dissidents and dissentient intellectuals and their political jokes become known overnight,' he said. Dai said: 'Chinese love a good knee-slapper as much as any other people around the world, but in a country where very stern-faced party officials try to control everything read, heard or watched, comedy comes with a catch.'
They both agree that Zhou, from Shanghai, and Xiao Shenyang, from the northeast, could be next in the anti-vulgarity firing line because they have already come in for frequent state media criticism.
Guo is known for jeering at official corruption and many other social problems, while Zhou has poked fun at the nation's leaders, doing impressions of late chairman Mao Zedong , former president Jiang Zemin and Premier Wen Jiabao . Xiao Shenyang, the stage name of 29-year-old gender bender Shen He , is less political but still makes the authorities very uncomfortable.
Beijing doesn't find celebrities like Guo and Zhou, who rib officials, celebrate their own wealth and speak frankly about the worship of money funny at all.
But they're not the only humorous thorns in Beijing's side.
Earlier this year, the authorities clamped down on satirical spoofs pitting evil 'river crabs' - which in Chinese sound like 'harmony', President Hu's political mantra - against the virtuous 'grass mud horse' or caonima, a homonym for the expletive 'f*** your mother'.
'Political leaders have now found that a nationwide chorus of laughing millions is not a good thing and is also not easily quelled, thus the need for a heavy-handed political campaign,' Dai said.
A few conservative scholars and artists have hailed the anti-vulgarity campaign, but many others have urged caution. Some internet users have described it as a throwback to the 1980s and hugely unpopular drives designed to eradicate 'spiritual pollution' and 'bourgeois liberalisation'.
Liu said the campaign could hurt the country's efforts to develop its cultural and entertainment industries. 'Vulgarity comes from the Latin word for the common masses, which suggests that vulgar products have a mass market,' he said.
Dai said the campaign was just a continuation and extension of a Communist Party clampdown on freedom of press and expression as the government becomes increasingly uneasy amid widespread discontent over a slowing economy, endemic corruption, a yawning income gap and social injustice.
She said 'anti-vulgarity' was just one example of the political language use by the Communist Party.
And as Orwell said more than half a century ago: 'Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.'