Happy Year of the Rat! Please Tip Your Server

Beijing is celebrating the Lunar New Year by cracking down on satire. This is not a good sign in a presumptive superpower.

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

January 22, 2020

It’s easy not to have mixed feelings about the Chinese Lunar New Year. It’s a celebration of family, with three million homecoming trips expected in this year’s Chunyun, the largest annual mass migration on Earth. It proclaims the beauty of language with the posting of couplets wishing health, happiness, and prosperity on door jambs. Millions of dumplings are consumed. There’s nothing not to like.

Which is why the decision by Beijing’s puppet government in Hong Kong to cancel the annual fireworks display and Lunar New Year parade is especially disappointing. The ban on sales of “satirical objects,” including protest-related T-shirts, posters, action figures, and other cheeky paraphernalia at local Lunar New Year fairs is more pointed.

It’s an excellent example of what should worry the world about China’s aspirational superpower status. As writers, artists, and dissidents who’ve lived under totalitarian oppression of both the analog and cyber varieties—from Václav Havel to Ai Weiwei to Alexei Navalny—could attest, there’s an inverse relationship between a regime’s tolerance for political humour and its capacity for forensic, neurotic paranoia.

The Boots Randolph-scored race against time by authoritarians using new technology to try to irreversibly consolidate their power before democracy can stage a rule of law-respecting, truth-based, anti-chaos comeback hasn’t helped.

Which is why nominally free people who still can should be generating satire on behalf of all the gagged satirists of Hong Kong, mainland China, and all the incipient new world order jurisdictions where democracy-degrading norm breaking includes the surveillance- and hacking-enabled identification, isolation, and de-amplification of insubordinate wiseacres.

The fact that this is apparently not a subject for serious consideration by Chinese President Xi Jinping is, ironically, a major indicator of why democracy is the superior system. It’s no coincidence that none of the major new world order players—political, geopolitical, institutional, or corporate—can either tell or take a joke. The fact that interests with apparently infinite resources to spanner the spokes of democracy and fill the world with industrial-scale bullsh*t can’t siphon enough Bitcoin to hire a decent comedy writer speaks volumes about both the managerial competence and emotional intelligence of the assorted principals.

(CUT TO: Comedy writer auditions in a cavernous, Dr. Evil-ish bunker presided over by a panel of assorted bad actors where one writer after another offers artfully self-deprecating material to humanize them—“Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Xi Jinping walk into a bar…”; “How many vocationally uneducated Uyghurs does it take to rationalize a manufactured terrorist threat?…”—each one getting hauled off by henchmen at a po-faced nod before they hit the punchline).

In this, the Year of the Rat, which officially begins Jan. 25 and represents intelligence and prosperity, maybe it’s time for the aspiring new world order to stop indulging the reflexive arrogance bred by its assumed omnipotence and corruption-secured impunity and stop persecuting its critics. The calculation that you can obliterate the love of freedom by obliterating freedom itself has never triumphed and never will. No matter how many people you incarcerate, virtually or otherwise.

If I were advising Xi Jinping on strategic communications and, trust me, that’ll never happen—we were Facebook friends until he humblebragged about his world domination game and now it’s just, you know, awkward—I’d tell him to stop banning all those jokes comparing him to Winnie the Pooh and start owning it. Quote Winnie the Pooh, casually refer to Premier Li Keqiang as Eeyore … do everything but walk around with no pants on. It may not get you any more votes, but who cares? You’re a dicta—Oops! Hang on, there’s someone at the door …

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.