The Departure Lounge: Politics, Cynicism and Humor in China

The Departure Lounge: Politics, Cynicism and Humor in China

International Students share their insider perspectives regarding political, social and cultural issues from their homelands.

The hottest topic and most politically important event in China is the yearly convention of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Chinese often call it lianghui, literally “the two meetings.” The public importance of these two great events comes with a twist of irony; despite great coverage of the meetings, the political process continues completely detached from the Chinese public.

A greater irony arises from the fact that even the NPC itself makes no real decisions, but rather acts as a symbolic demonstration of “the People’s politics.” All Chinese recognize this fact, understanding that real leadership lies in the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the nine-member committee that runs China. In this political charade, the NPC is really a non-player, controlled by the nine that predetermines its agenda and decisions.

This irony plays out as part of the dark comedy of the Chinese public. In general, Chinese people feel helpless and angry about the political situation, while naturally satisfied with their economic prosperity. The Chinese majority feels that since the economy now provides an unimaginable breadth of luxuries and basic items of daily life at affordable prices, they have no reason to resort to protest or civil disobedience.

With few legal avenues to express their anger and powerlessness, Chinese resort to an often sarcastic, anesthetic use of humor, similar to helpless self-mockery after bombing a test. Few stand up to a such a system, leaving Chinese with only humor as a way out.
In China, political humor is often associated with intellectual status. The public often appreciates the humorous blogger or public figure as a practical yet funny man, and as one who allows others to vent their anger towards the state. The feeling is that one who sees the darkness, but carries a torch of humor with him, speaks the truth.

One danger facing the Chinese public consciousness is that as this satisfaction for the joker becomes a norm, this humor turns into a form of self-deception. Both the state and the grieving citizen recognize the grim realities facing China, but constant mockery annoys the largely politically apathetic public, intent only on survival and securing basic needs — the daily reality of Chinese life. Therefore, humor has also simultaneously become an escape from this reality.

Evidently, I believe that the public ought to use jokes to confront China’s pressing political situations, yet surprisingly, I can only use silence to describe the public opinions about “the two meetings”.

The silence comes not from the heavy hand of the government, instead, part of the reason is that many people regard this event as a joke since lianghui naturally approves the decision made by the Politburo nine by default. During the event, people no longer need more jokes since the meeting is the biggest they can imagine.

However, the government controlled press acknowledges this silence as a sign of acceptance of the legitimacy of the process. In certain sense, the public’s silence is an acceptance, but it is a cynical acceptance . The people know the reality all to well, but few bother to shout out loud because we see it as common sense and the foundation for the cynicism of Chinese.

During my high school years, I thought that I was one of those cynics. I was very fond of satire. I remember a time from my politics class in high school where the teacher asked us whether we wanted to participate in politics. Out of impulse, I voted “no.” The teacher was surprised that I defied what every student knew was the “right” answer. He looked at me with confusion. It was at that time that I suddenly realized that being a real cynic means not to say that you believe in cynicism.

The ambitious Chinese Party Chief, Bo Xilai is the center of political attention in China. We share a high school alma mater, but his political drive is opposite to my general outlook. He has a big stomach for political power. On the contrary, I am often surprised at my unwillingness to be a leader, which I believe my parents’ teachings played a role in shaping; I grew up used to listening to xiangsheng, a type of popular Chinese stand-up comedy performances, because my mother wanted me to be more cheerful in my adulthood, and my father discouraged me from being a class cadre.

It seems to me that the perpetual lack of political mobility in 21st century China is also a part of the cynical common sense. Therefore, listening to jokes and thereby refusing to get involved in the dirty business of Chinese politics is a good method of self-preservation.

“A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.” It is one of the well-remembered lines from my favorite political comedy, “Yes Minister.” The question I ask here is whether cynicism is a disease that plagues on Red China? The answer, I feel, is still unsure.