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Chinese Corruption, Now Officially Hilarious

Corruption is finally funny—at least, according to the Chinese Communist Party. That’s because comedic performances in the upcoming February 18 performance of China’s annual New Year Gala, a variety show on China Central Television (CCTV) expected to be watched by some 700 million people, will make fun of corrupt officials, another sign that the Party is determined to reap propaganda value from its relentless anti-corruption campaign.

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A crackdown on the Party and the government’s pervasive graft has become the signature program of China’s President, Xi Jinping, who has described corruption as an issue of “life or death” for the Party. The campaign has claimed powerful officials, like ex-security czar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, previously thought to be untouchable because of their position and connections. Even organizations shrouded in secrecy, like the People’s Liberation Army and the intelligence service, seem to be fair game after army leader Xu Caihou and spymaster Ma Jian became disgraced by graft charges. Nowadays, hardly a week goes by without news of another high-ranking cadre being questioned by the Party’s disciplinary commission headed by Xi’s close ally, Wang Qishan.

The Party is eager to cast the anti-corruption campaign as a monumental achievement in order to bolster Xi’s public image, and to dispense with the notion that the campaign is the pretext for a power struggle among Party elite. The annual Chinese New Year Gala, the country’s most watched, most talked-about, and most analyzed television program, seems to be the perfect platform to sell this notion to the public.

The Party and its cadres used to be off limits to CCTV comedians; the last time performers skewered Party officials on the Gala was in 1988. But this year, the Party seems to have decided that corruption must be included. The Paper, a state-run, Shanghai-based news site, reported that CCTV asked Miao Fu and Wang Sheng, two young performers of crosstalk, a form of comedic dialogue, to write the script for an anti-corruption skit in October 2014. The propaganda department arranged for Miao and Wang to meet with the Party’s disciplinary commission to discuss real-life cases of corrupt officials as inspiration. The Party mouthpiece People’s Daily claimed, to online sneers, that CCTV’s directors were “most generous” in giving the skit leeway in their censorship process. Wen Wei Po, a Party-owned newspaper based in Hong Kong, reported that as many as three skits about corruption were shown at the Gala’s dress rehearsal on February 8. This does not mean anything goes. Miao told Huashangbao, a local paper in his native Shaanxi province, that the script had been revised more than 70 times, and “many things could not be mentioned” because of censorship requirements.

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The irony—that political satire had to be commissioned by the Party—has not been lost on the social media chattering class. One advertising copywriter wrote on microblogging platform Weibo, “Pushing the envelope? That’s arranged by the Party.” One Internet user commented, “They are following orders from Party officials when they make fun of Party officials.” Another agreed: “When the Party needs these performers to satirize they must do it, but when it doesn’t need them they must shut up.”

Inviting politics into the Gala is not without risk. After the Gala’s broadcast on February 18, when China rings in the year of the sheep on the lunar calendar, many viewers will likely parse every word in the skits in search of something to complain about. After all, griping about the Gala is as much of a Chinese New Year tradition as watching it. Early signs are that CCTV commissioned the skits about corruption because it wants people to talk about the issue. The English edition of Global Times, a Party tabloid, claimed that the move shows that “Chinese authorities are confident in dealing with corruption issues.”

Introducing current events into the Gala could be a much-needed jolt for the usually vapid and kitschy television event. To viewers, lampooning Party officials would probably constitute a welcome change from all the glitter, sequins, and formulaic messages about harmony and unity that usually characterize the show. But the Party is keeping the Gala’s political satire on a short leash, allowing only censor-blessed content to reach viewers. Propaganda, after all, is no laughing matter.