Although Guo Degang has been famous as a comedian in China for years, never before had his name been as widely publicized as it was this month. In early August almost every major television station, newspaper, and news website criticized him for being “vulgar”; his books were taken off the shelves in Beijing, his comedy clubs closed, and his media appearances extinguished.
In May the regime began to take a long, hard look at reality T.V. dating games, citing them as being “vulgar” in their promotion of materialism and sexuality, and with an eye to censoring or cancelling them altogether.
It was the beginning of the unfolding of an "Anti-Vulgarity Campaign," initiated by the regime, reinforced through state-run media, and sweeping up grassroots artists like Guo Degang.
Chinese writer Li Tianxiao argues that the true purpose of the Anti-Vulgarity Campaign is to crack down on public figures that don’t pay enough respect to the regime. As a popular grassroots artist whose act often took a satirical view of corrupt officials and their abuse of political power, Guo made a perfect target, Li says.
The “three vulgarities” that are ostensibly being targeted have variously been translated as the “low, vulgar, and pandering,” or the “philistine, tasteless, and kitsch.”
The unflattering attention heaped upon Guo Degang began as a result of an Aug. 1 altercation between Li Yunhe, Guo’s student and comedy partner, and two alleged reporters from Beijing TV (BTV). The reporters paid an unannounced visit to Guo’s house, located in a gated community, and asked to interview Guo about a fencing contract and his property boundaries. Guo was away at the time. Li declined the interview request but showed the reporters a permit to build the fence, which had been issued by the property management. The duo refused to leave and then attempted to force their way into the house. Li pushed them out, striking one of the two.
The following day BTV held a press conference demanding that Guo publicly apologize; Li himself said sorry the day after that, Aug. 3. Two days later CCTV, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece broadcaster, took 10 minutes of prime time television to lambast Guo, without referring to him by name. He was described as vulgar and irresponsible. In no time other major media followed suit, leveling harsh criticism against Guo, with language reminiscent of past political struggles, like “scoundrel,” “shameless.”
Guo, born in Tianjin in 1973, started studying his craft at age eight. He began with pingshu, a Chinese storytelling art form that dominated the radio waves in the 1980s in China. His comedic style incorporates the tradition of xiangsheng (“crosstalk”), which often uses satire to pillory the elite.
After the media barrage Guo was stonewalled from the market. His live performances were cancelled, his books, audio and video products were taken off shelves, and his blog removed.
Formal Speech Preceded Incident
Given the Chinese regime’s control over media and the swift and uniform response from state-run channels, there is widespread speculation that what happened to Guo Degang is no accident.
The incident occurred soon after a July 23 speech given by communist regime leader Hu Jintao. The speech singled out vulgar entertainment forms, saying that it was critical to resolutely fight against vulgarity and to reinforce socialist ideology.
The timing, context, and approach indicated to many that the crackdown on Guo could well have been supported or even mandated by the regime.
Communism’s Waning Appeal
In the history of communist China a number of political movements began with attacking art works or artists. The ravages of the Cultural Revolution of the mid to late 60’s, for instance, were set off with an article criticizing an obscure play script.
Chinese people today, however, are not as quick to follow a political movement as they were 50 years ago, and Internet users have become adept at finding loopholes in the “celebrity attacks news reporter” story. It turned out that the beaten reporter from Beijing TV was not a reporter at all—though he does work for BTV—and when video footage from the surveillance camera came out, it demonstrated that he had exaggerated the account and his injuries.
Even the thumping criticisms of Guo on blogs appear to be part of the scheme. According to a Guangzhou Daily report, many such posts were from an online propaganda company that is hired to manipulate public opinion, and to pretend the views it is paid to promote are popular and mainstream.
Guo’s popularity is unquestionable. In the past decade he has run a successful traditional comedic arts company that gives live performances every day, a rarity in modern China. His shows have attracted large numbers of fans, and the well-priced tickets sell briskly. In a sense, Guo has brought a dying traditional art back to life.
One thing that differentiates Guo from the mainstream performers backed by the regime is his bold satires on contemporary issues. “Nowadays the officials steal money like thieves, and the thieves are well organized like officials. The policemen abuse people at will like gangsters, while the gangsters act politely and can do everything for you like the police.” Remarks like these from Guo’s performances have been quoted and remarked upon widely by Chinese Internet users.
New Tang Dynasty Television commentator Jason Ma said the popularity of artists like Guo reflects the public’s preference for entertainment untainted by socialist ideology. “The root cause [of the anti-vulgarity campaign] is that the regime has realized the Chinese people are alienated from the communist culture imposed on them.
“Art has always been the regime’s weapon for reinforcing its thought control,” Ma said. “But communist ideology has lost its appeal, even among regime officials. This anti-vulgarity campaign is the regime’s desperate attempt to take back lost ground.”
On the night of Aug. 14, after the media bluster had petered out, Guo reopened his comedy hall and performed to a full house. His fans welcomed his return with flowers and a storm of applause.