Beijing fined a Chinese comedy studio around $2 million on Wednesday for a joke that compared China’s military to stray dogs, a reminder of the ever-narrowing confines of expression under the country’s leader, Xi Jinping.
The Beijing Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau accused a popular comedian, Li Haoshi, who is employed by the studio, of “severely insulting” the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, during two live performances in Beijing on Saturday. The authority said his joke had a “vile societal impact.”
“We will not allow any company or individual to wantonly slander the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army,” the statement read.
The authority also said it indefinitely suspended all Beijing performances hosted by the studio, Shanghai-based Xiaoguo Culture Media. The bureau also confiscated roughly $180,000 worth of what officials described as illicit income uncovered during the investigation, which was launched on Monday. Officials in Shanghai followed suit, suspending all Xiaoguo performances there and ordering the company to “deeply reflect” on the lessons from the incident, according to a government social media account.
The investigation was launched after a recording of Mr. Li’s joke was posted on social media. In it, Mr. Li was describing a scene in which his two adopted stray dogs were chasing a squirrel. The ferocity of the dogs’ pursuit, he said, reminded him of a well-known Chinese military slogan about virtue and grit: “Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.”
Mr. Xi had used the slogan in a political meeting with a military delegation in 2013, shortly after coming to power, and the phrase has since been popularized.
The joke spread widely on Chinese social media, after critics, especially nationalist commentators, argued that the comedian had poked fun at what had been a serious speech delivered by Mr. Xi. Others said that Mr. Li’s words had been taken out of context.
The stiff penalty dealt a heavy blow to China’s nascent standup comedy scene, highlighting the high-wire act comedians walk in China, where the boundaries of speech are constantly tightening. Officials in China often expect films and artwork to deliver a positive moral impact on society, a view that dates back to the era of Mao Zedong and the role of art as an instrument of politics. The Beijing authority, in announcing the punishment against Xiaoguo, urged artists and writers to have “correct creative thinking” and “provide healthy spiritual nourishment for the people.”
In recent years, Mr. Xi has stepped up controls on speech that challenges the party’s narratives around politics and Chinese history.
Last year, Luo Changping, a businessman and former investigative journalist in China, was sentenced to prison for seven months after he questioned China’s role in the Korean War. Mr. Luo was charged under a new criminal code that makes the defamation of political martyrs a crime.
Recently, in addition to traditional Chinese forms of comedy, the Western variety of standup has grown more popular in metropolitan cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. The art form reached mainstream prominence due, in part, to the success of Rock and Roast, a standup competition that drew millions of fans during the pandemic, when lockdowns confined many Chinese to their home. The show, run by Xiaoguo, turned Mr. Li, who goes by the stage name “House,” into a star.
“There’s an inherent tension between standup comedy as a genre and the heavily censored cultural domain in China,” said Sheng Zou, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who specializes in popular culture in China.
Comedy thrives in places where comedians can satirize or comment on political or ideological tropes. But in China, Mr. Zou said, “you have a very limited set of options for what kinds of material you can draw on.”
Mr. Li was suspended indefinitely by Xiaoguo immediately following the performance, according to a statement by the comedy company on Monday. In an earlier Weibo post, the comedian said he was “deeply ashamed and regretful,” calling his comparison “very inappropriate.”
Mr. Li and Xiaoguo could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Chinese social media, reactions to the fine varied, with some commenters saying that it was too severe. One widely shared comment pointed out that a company that had provided fake P.C.R. test results was fined no more than $11,000.
But a strong chorus of support for punishing Mr. Li made it clear that his words had affronted a far broader cohort than Chinese officialdom.
“What’s worthy of our attention in this incident is that it not only angered censors but also upset a lot of patriotic people,” Mr. Zou said. “Cases like this fine are where the general public and state-sponsored strands of nationalism meet.”