Chinese social media sites banned a Malaysian comedian based in the United Kingdom named Nigel Ng on Monday for making jokes about China’s dystopian surveillance state, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, and Taiwan.
Ng was only the latest victim in Beijing’s crackdown on comedy, which it increasingly views as a subversive force.
Ng frequently performs on social media as a character called “Uncle Roger,” a name under which he maintained accounts on all of China’s largest platforms, including the Twitter-like Sina Weibo. Uncle Roger is a parody of a grumpy middle-aged Southeast Asian man who complains incessantly about things he doesn’t like, especially food. Originally developed as a possible sitcom character, Uncle Roger became popular for making fun of cooking shows.
Ng also uses the Uncle Roger persona for standup comedy routines. Last week, he posted a clip from a standup performance in which he poked fun at the Chinese surveillance state, as transcribed by the UK Guardian:
In the video clip, taken from an undated standup show, Ng, in character as Uncle Roger, asks an audience member where he comes from. The man replies that he comes from “Guangzhou, China”, to which Ng makes a face and responds “Good country! Good country!”
“We have to say that now, correct? All the phones listening … this nephew got Huawei phone, they all listening,” he goes on to add.
Ng then taps his phone in his pocket carefully and says: “long live President Xi, long live President Xi … phew.”
He then looks for audience members from Taiwan.
“Not a real country. I hope one day you rejoin the motherland,” he says, prompting laughter from the audience.
“Uncle Roger about to get canceled,” Ng wrote playfully when posting the clip.
This bit of comical goading turned out to be an accurate prediction, as Ng’s accounts on Weibo, Douyin (the version of TikTok available to Chinese users) and the Shanghai-based Bilibili were all suspended as of Monday morning.
Weibo presented Ng’s followers with a message that said his account has been banned indefinitely “due to a violation of relevant regulations.”
The Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) noted that Ng clashed with Chinese censors once before, and might have been on their radar screen ever since, accounting for why his accounts were canceled so quickly after he posted a brief comedy clip:
In 2021, Ng posted a video featuring, Mike Chen, a fellow YouTube star who had voiced criticism of Beijing over the treatment of Uyghur minorities as well as opposition to the controversial Hong Kong national security law. Ng later removed the video and apologized to Chinese fans, saying the clip had created a “bad social impact” after multiple users reported it.
Some Weibo users were strongly supportive of banning Ng for his politically incorrect jokes, describing it as “justice” for him “insulting China.”
Ng rolled with the punches. On Monday, he reposted his promotional clip on Twitter with the puckish observation, “For some reason this clip got a ton of views this past weekend. I wonder why.”
On Tuesday, Ng wrote another tweet announcing that Uncle Roger was “canceled” and inviting viewers to buy his comedy special to strike a blow against censorship:
❌ UNCLE ROGER CANCELED!
If you support free speech and comedy, go buy The HAIYAA Special, dropping June 4: https://t.co/iMQ3lySEwz pic.twitter.com/DtH4LrG7UC
— Nigel Ng (Uncle Roger) (@MrNigelNg) May 23, 2023
Last week, another comedian named Li Haoshi was arrested in China for making jokes about the People’s Liberation Army that supposedly “caused a severe social impact.”
Li, who uses the stage name “House,” was performing standup comedy in Beijing on Saturday when he made a joke about his two dogs chasing a squirrel together. Li said watching his extremely determined dogs go after the squirrel reminded him of “Fight to Win, Forge Exemplary Conduct,” which is a slogan the PLA adopted at the urging of Xi Jinping in 2013.
Audience members laughed at Li’s joke, but the PLA was all business. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a single member of the audience touched off a “wave of nationalist anger” by slamming Li for mocking the Chinese military.
Chinese Communist officials thundered that no “company or individual” would be allowed to “use the Chinese capital as a stage to wantonly slander the glorious image of the PLA.”
Li was slapped with a fine of almost $2 million and could be facing years in prison, even though he apologized for the joke and said he felt “deeply shamed and regretful.” He was blacklisted by the China Association of Performing Arts and is under investigation by the Beijing city police.
Li’s comedy troupe, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media, was also heavily fined and suspended from performing in both Beijing and Shanghai indefinitely. Chinese officials ordered the troupe’s members to “correct their creative thinking.”
“The size of the fine to the company which booked him was so large that there is speculation that stand-up comedy could be virtually wiped out in China following fears of similar punishment in the future,” the BBC observed.
At least two other production companies have already canceled comedy shows, and the Beijing police mentioned the Li controversy when they decided to shut down a music festival over the weekend.
“Last year, a comedian was fined $7,000 for making fun of the zero-Covid policy on stage. In December, stand-up comedy operations in 13 Chinese cities signed a pledge to eliminate content at odds with socialist core values. People who want to hear a comedy bit in Mandarin that takes on anything overtly political now have to travel to cities like New York,” the WSJ observed.
Last Friday, a woman was arrested for writing a Weibo post in support of Li and she was excoriated on social media for daring to join him in slandering the military.
“Without the military, how could you have a stable life today? You are not grateful for your words, you are not a human being!” one of the woman’s tormentors wrote.