Chinese authorities fined a comedy company millions of yuan on Wednesday and threatened further legal action after one of its members made an oblique joke about the People’s Liberation Army during a stand-up act.
Li Haoshi, who performs under the name House, referred to a PLA slogan during a show in Beijing on Saturday, according to audio posted on social media network Weibo.
Li was talking about his pet dogs chasing a squirrel when he referred to the slogan “Good style of work, capable of winning battles.”
Beijing’s Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau said on Wednesday it had investigated Li’s company following a report from a member of the public and found the joke had broken the law and “caused a bad social impact.”
Xiaoguo Culture Media was fined 14.7 million yuan ($2.13 million) and had all its future performances suspended indefinitely in both Beijing and Shanghai.
Beijing police said late Wednesday on Weibo that they had also opened an investigation into Li “in accordance with the law.”
The space for dissent in China has shrunk dramatically over the past decade under President Xi Jinping.
Authorities have tightened online censorship and cracked down on independent media and artistic expression.
Xi has promoted a muscular, hardline nationalism and has made boosting the capabilities of the armed forces a political and economic priority, extolling their strength in domestic propaganda campaigns.
Li and Xiaoguo had already apologized for the performance before Wednesday’s announcement, describing the joke as an “inappropriate metaphor.”
“After the performance that day, we immediately criticized House seriously, asked him to reflect on himself, and stopped all his subsequent acting work indefinitely,” a Xiaoguo statement posted on Monday said.
However, the Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau said the joke had broken a regulation that performances should not “hurt national feelings” or “damage national honor and interests.”
The show should have been stopped when the rule was breached, further compounding the punishment, it said.
“The People’s Army is a strong guardian of national security and people’s peace,” the bureau said.
“We will never allow any company or individual to wantonly denigrate the glorious image of the People’s Army on the stage of the capital, (and) hurt the deep feelings of the people towards their army.”
A hashtag relating to the topic was the most searched on Weibo on Wednesday, with more than 700 million hits.
Many of the comments supported the punishment, although Weibo is heavily censored and problematic content is usually removed quickly.
“We could do without stand-up comedians and stars, but we could not do without the people’s own army!” one comment said.
Another said: “The negative effect Xiaoguo has on society as a cultural institution, and the negative impact it has on young people, is much greater than the penalty it receives.”
Others thought targeting the company was unfair.
“It’s fair to punish people who made mistakes, there is no need to screw the whole industry, the people in this industry are also ordinary workers, they need to live,” said one.