Mao Zedong is a romantic poet with a tendency to get cranky. Deng Xiaoping is a chain-smoking bridge aficionado who exercises power with a dismissive flick of the wrist. Jiang Zemin is portly and desperate not to provoke his foreign friends. Welcome to the world of political comedy, Shanghai-style. For thousands of years, the Chinese people have learned to treat their leaders with near-reverence for fear of deadly repercussions. Under the communists, things were taken to strange new places with the creepy cult of personality built around Chairman Mao and the Marxist-Leninist subjugation of art to political service. Even in today's world of 24-hour news, spin doctors and Twitter, the images of Hu Jintao & Co are carefully guarded by propaganda officials, with only a handful of media organisations allowed to write about them or take photos. Few authors or scriptwriters, if any, dare invent a character who presides any higher than mayoral level. Retired and dead mainland patriarchs continue to enjoy daily image control: the plots of movie epics and historic tele-dramas that fill countless broadcast hours follow a strict, party-dictated plot. The chances of a Chinese version of the satirical British political puppet show Spitting Image? No way, minister. With this in mind, the video of a Shanghai stand-up comedian named Zhou Libo delighting an audience with mockery of China's most powerful leaders, past and present, comes as something of a surprise. The eight-minute clip, which was shot at a sold-out show in a public theatre in April and is circulating online, seems routine by the standards of David Letterman or Taiwan's popular impersonators. But Zhou's mischievous caricatures, spoken in thick Shanghainese, are taboo-busting on the conservative mainland. The 42-year-old made his name acting in Shanghai's soap operas, but he switched to the comedy circuit several years ago and, from last year, really began to gain a local following. Zhou isn't simply an impressionist - instead, he captures famous moments from the lives of the leaders and re-enacts them. As Mao, for example, Zhou shrilly announces the founding of the People's Republic in Tiananmen Square and alters his voice to imitate the low-quality sound system that made the historic moment barely audible. The biggest laughs are reserved for the boldest skit of them all - Jiang Zemin. The former president and party chief of Shanghai is portrayed at a well-publicised morale talk in the summer of 1998 on an imperiled dam in the Yangtze River before a flood peak struck. Zhou singles out Mr Jiang's bulging belly and deftly exaggerates his quirky style of speech, arousing unrestrained mirth from the audience. The clip culminates in Zhou placing the three paramount leaders in the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 after it was hit by a US missile. Chairman Mao flies into a rage, ordering the PLA to fire its entire arsenal of missiles at America in retaliation, concluding in hysteria that 'all reactionaries are paper tigers'. An unperturbed Deng, on the other hand, briefly pauses from dealing cards to casually suggest the army fire a dozen rockets into the 'waters near the American coast' in an apparent scare gesture. Mr Jiang's nervous response is to order a count of Beijing's missile stockpile: 'We must not let a single missile go astray in this sensitive time, otherwise our reputation will be hurt among our foreign friends.' Mr Jiang is not the only living leader to come in for the treatment: in another clip Zhou mimics Wen Jiabao . The frowning premier points his finger in the air and, after a long pause, spits out his most famous phrase from 2008's National People's Congress: 'This will be the most difficult year for the Chinese economy.' Just like any other country, mainlanders are happy to crack jokes about their leaders in private. But rarely is it done in public: 30 years ago, Zhou's jokes would have been a surefire ticket to jail. While censors have removed Zhou's clips from mainland video-sharing websites, his comedy is still spreading virally among netizens - even though many cannot even understand Shanghainese. And so far his sold-out shows have not been disturbed by police. Zhou is fully aware of the tightrope he is walking: towards the end of the clip, he even jokes that if he carries on he may well end up behind bars. Then he warns the audience: 'And not only me, you guys watching this will have to write a self-criticism.'