A funny thing happened on the way to China going online – well, maybe not funny, so much as inevitable. With some 500 million Chinese now online, news spreads fast; jokes spread faster; and good jokes at the expense of bad governance go viral.
"When the situation is getting tougher, the humor is getting stronger. That has been always the case," said Xiao Qiang, who runs China Digital Times, a website that follows news and web trends in China. He said in this past year, as Chinese authorities have tried to step up control in the wake of pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East and Northern Africa, China's online humor has, if anything, gotten sharper.
"Because especially when it comes to political and social matters, where there's always a sense of repression there, speaking truth to power requires a lot of courage, and there's risk involved," Xiao said. "But humor can smooth that out."
When two high-speed trains collided last summer, a former journalist named Liu Dongdong took a Chinese rock classic and rewrote the lyrics to create a satirical critique of government mismanagement — of the hi-speed train project, and of the accident.
The song quickly got millions of hits.
"These days in China, people are under a lot of pressure, and sometimes they feel helpless," said Liu Dongdong. "I hope doing these songs helps relieve some of that pressure — and maybe even gets a little attention from the authorities so they do something about the problems."
Figuring out what you can say online, and when, is a little like surfing, according to Liu — you catch a wave and ride it in while you can. You get your spoof out before the authorities realize what it is and take it down.
Another satirist who knows that drill goes by the name Crazy Crab. I asked if the authorities know his real name.
"I'm wondering that myself," Crazy Crab said. "If they don't know, I'm sure they're trying to find out."
Crazy Crab does an online cartoon inspired by George Orwell's "Animal Farm." His is called Hexie Farm. Hexie can mean crab, or harmony. The Communist Party's stated desire is for a "harmonious society" — that is, one without challenge to its rule. Hexie Farm is run by a Party, too, which is trying to usher in a "great, glorious and correct" era of harmony. Crazy Crab considers it a badge of honor that Hexie Farm is now a blocked search term in China. He said China's leaders don't really have a sense of humor.
"If they do, I can't see it," he said. "Their humor is unintentional; it comes from the absurd contrast between what they say and what they do."
Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times agrees that the system doesn't really breed leaders with a sense of humor, or even an individual sense of style. And yet, those leaders ignore political humor at their peril, especially from China's younger generation. Xiao said they expect more from their leaders.
"They want more freedom, and humor, in the basic sense, is to carry a message," Xiao said. "That message, in the political humor, is no less than demanding a freer society, a more equal and just society, and pointing to the fact that the power in China today is unaccountable to its own people."
Yet many of those coming up with snarky satire don't really believe the system is going to change anytime soon.
Chuanzi is a folksinger, who has written songs about how out of reach the middle-class dream is for many of China's middle-class.
"I make fun of the difficulties we face in life. We can try to change our lives, but we can't change the system," Chuanzi said.
When I asked if he really believes that, he responded, "Well, I'm too small and weak. But if we stick together, musicians and other artists, maybe we can make some change to society."
Chuanzi's agent, who was sitting nearby, didn't like the direction this interview was taking. Artists like Ai Weiwei got arrested for using humor to push for social and political change — although, much more aggressively and persistently than Chuanzi is doing here. The agent cut off the interview, and told me if I want to interview Chuanzi again, I'll have to submit questions in advance— just like applying to talk to a Chinese government official.
A good satirist could have a field day with this.