China’s Communist rulers ban online jokes app, but comedy community says the joke’s on them

Users of parody platform Neihan Duanzi, which was ordered to close on Tuesday, are determined to go on giggling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 7:02am

When the Chinese government ordered the closure of a parody and jokes app over allegations of vulgarity, officials might have thought that was the end of the matter. That would have been a mistake.

Such was the upset caused by the ban on Neihan Duanzi and its associated social media accounts that its users – who some sources say number in their hundreds of millions – are showing their solidarity not only through alternative online platforms, but also in the “real world”.

Since Tuesday, the day the app closed, the internet has been awash with posts from people claiming to have been part of or witnessed various protests – from public gatherings, to honking car horns and halting traffic – around the country.

In videos shared online, car-driving members of the Neihan Duanzi fraternity identified themselves to one another by giving one long honk and two short ones.

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A 31-year-old construction worker from east China’s Jiangsu province, who uses the screen name “Crayfish”, said he was not involved in any of the protests but understood the honking culture, describing it simply as “a way for us to say hello”.

“When someone honks at me and I honk back, it’s no different to responding with a smiley emoji online,” he told the South China Morning Post.

Crayfish, who said he used to spend about an hour and a half a day using the app, said he was upset when it closed.

“I don’t understand why it was shut down all of a sudden, there was nothing wrong with it,” he said.

Neihan Duanzi – which roughly translates as “jokes with substance” – was provided via the Jinri Toutiao (Today’s Headlines) platform, which is owned and operated by Beijing ByteDance Technology.

According to several business news reports, the app, which had been around since 2012, had about 4 million users, although its operator put the figure at 200 million.

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The scale of the fraternity came as a huge surprise to Chinese journalist and political blogger Michael Anti.

“I was very shocked to find that such an enormous [internet-based] community had existed for years outside the watch of the mainstream media,” he said.

An editor for a major Beijing-based news website said that although the government claimed it had ordered the app to close because of its vulgar content, the real reason might have been that the authorities did not want trivia to distract millions of people from their propaganda messages.

“The government will do whatever it takes to remove [those things] that take people’s attention away from President Xi [Jinping],” the person said, on condition of anonymity.

“Neihan Duanzi was mainly based on user-generated content from the working classes, so one can imagine why it wouldn’t meet with the approval of middle-aged bureaucrats. It’s simply not a middle-class thing,” he said.

Crayfish said that while it was true that some of the jokes and skits published on Duanzi had a sexual theme, he never imagined they would upset the authorities enough for them to ban it.

Another member of the Duanzi community, who used the screen name “Rensheng Jingsilang”, agreed.

“We are unarmed and our community could be wiped out anytime by any substandard army. Never did we think that the comic skits we enjoyed on a daily basis … could be regarded as vice.”

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A 21-year-old from southwestern China’s Yunnan province who uses the online name “Nanlu” said he and other users of the app were upset and puzzled by the decision to shut it down.

“I read Duanzi every day … for about four or five years,” he said. “I’m quite sad to see it go, but how can ordinary people like us understand [the government’s thinking]?”

According to Baidu Index, about half of Duanzi’s users were men aged between 30 and 39, while the largest concentrations of users were in the provinces of Guangdong, Shandong, Henan, Jiangsu and Sichuan.

Sales figures from an online store showed that it had sold about 100,000 Duanzi stickers – featuring the app’s name and its laughing man logo – to fans over the years.

Images of the stickers attached to cars, motorcycles, trucks and delivery vans have been widely shared online since the app’s demise.

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Other supporters of the comedy platform have sought to show their solidarity by adorning their vehicles with Spider-Man figures and rubber chickens.

To outsiders, the symbols might seem silly or pointless, but to its devotees, Duanzi was an important part of their daily lives, Nanlu said.

“It’s just not about killing time. Actually, we are all busy making a living, but Duanzi gave you an outlet to unload your pressure,” he said.

“[It] brought us so much joy and a sense of home,” he said, adding that he regarded other users as his “family” and had no intention of letting them go.

“People are afraid of reaching out to strangers … [but] relationships on the internet, especially with those who share the same interests, are more pure,” Nanlu said.

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Another fan of the joke platform, Ding Xiaobei, said Neihan Duanzi was different to most other apps because of the camaraderie it generated among users.

“We share the same patriotic values and are very proud of ourselves … It’s bone-chilling to be labelled by the government as vulgar and lowbrow,” he said.

Qiao Mu, a former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and a critic of censorship, said he expected more popular apps to be subjected to restrictions in the near future.

“The ban was partly due to [people with] traditional mainland social values seeing [this form of] entertainment as frivolous and irrelevant,” he said.

“But the biggest problem is that the authorities fail to understand this generation and how the internet generation works.”

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The political environment in China has been getting worse for about four or five years, Qiao said.

“[The party] is focused on its core ideology, alignment and red elitism,” he said. “It does not want to see people wasting their time on addictive entertainment, which diminishes the influence of the Communist Party and undermines its authority.”

The day after the plug was pulled on Duanzi, China’s top media censor ordered the suspension of the live-streaming functions on several short-form video apps, including Weishi, Kuaishou, Douyin and Sigua. More than 50,000 videos on Kuaishou were subsequently removed and about 11,000 user accounts closed.

Also on Wednesday, Zhang Yiming, the chief executive of Jinri Toutiao, issued a “self-reflective” public apology saying the company had failed to realise that “technology must be guided by socialist core values”.

He promised to strengthen ideological education for his employees and raise the number of content censors in the company from 6,000 to 10,000.

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Crayfish said that while he was upset at the loss of his beloved jokes app, he was trying to be pragmatic about it.

“There is nothing we can do,” he said. “Until we find a replacement app, I guess I’ll just have to settle for reading novels and playing games online.”