Posted by Joel Martinsen on Monday, August 9, 2010 at 5:20 PM
Guo Degang on film
Guo Degang (郭德纲), one of China’s most popular performers of xiangsheng (相声), a form of stand-up comedy also known as crosstalk, is no longer welcome in the capital, as a scuffle between one of his students and a TV reporter has swept him up in a newly-launched anti-vulgarity campaign.
Guo’s troubles began when he was accused of expanding his personal property onto public land. On August 1, one of his students, Li Hebiao, physically attacked a Beijing TV reporter, Zhou Guangfu, who had come to Guo’s house seeking an interview.
Guo, who was not home at the time, defended Li by pointing out that Zhou had entered without invitation, had repeatedly claimed not to be filming, and had selectively edited the video for broadcast. Zhou’s paparazzi-style interview tactics notwithstanding, Li eventually was compelled to apologize and is currently spending a week in jail.
Guo’s mocking attack on BTV was not welcomed by official media. On August 5, CCTV’s Live News broadcast condemned Guo (without mentioning him by name) in a segment titled “Public Individuals Must Assume More Social Responsibility”:
A national anti-vulgarity campaign was launched in late July to clean up aspects of the entertainment industry deemed “low, vulgar, and pandering” (庸俗、低俗、媚俗 often abbreviated to 三俗, 'the three vulgarities'), so Guo’s work, which previously aired without incident on national TV stations and sold in bookstores across the country without controversy, now seems to be on the list of items targeted for clean-up.
The Mirror, the Beijing Youth Daily Group's evening paper, reported late last week that Guo’s works have been taken off shelves in the city:
And starting today, two of Guo’s De Yun She (德云社) comedy clubs have temporarily shut down for retooling. Although The Beijing News reports that employees have denied received a shut-down order, rumors are currently circulating online that tax and culture authorities have suspended the clubs’ performance license.*
But so far it’s just Beijing. In Tianjin, Guo’s hometown, his books are still on shelves and his performances are still airing in TV. In a microblog update, Cao Lin, an opinion writer, suggests one possible progression for the ban:
Cao also wrote up an opinion piece arguing against the ban:
The Abuse of Public Power to Blacklist is Ten Thousand Times Worse than Guo Degangby Cao Lin
In a single weekend, the Guo Degang affair suddenly intensified over five days ago, when it was merely a dispute between Guo’s student and a reporter. Four days ago, after the release of Guo’s abusive blog post, it was elevated to a dispute between Guo and a television station. Then CCTV, which harbors an old grudge against Guo, fired a shot that pegged him as a classic example of the “three vulgarities,” and then the situation was dramatically transformed. It was enough to knock you speechless, what happened on those two weekend days. Beijing’s bookstores received a notice telling them to take Guo’s works off the shelves, Guo Degang’s many small theaters were closed for overhaul, and there’s even news that the Beijing Radio, Film, and TV Bureau has issued a “blackout” on Guo (this via various media reports).
Banning books, banning performances, blacklisting: to an observer, this series of measures intended to hang Guo Degang out to dry are frightening. What major crime has Guo committed to deserve such ruthlessness, to subject him to such ruin? Yes, it was absolutely wrong for his student to hit someone, and the invective in his blog post only compounded that wrong, but Guo Degang has already paid a heavy price for his errors: his student has been jailed and slapped with a fine, and he faces the harsh condemnation of public opinion, two senior members have announced their resignation, and netizens are calling for a boycott of crosstalk. He has not committed an unforgivable sin, but for cover-up and abuse, the present punishment is already sufficient.
Yes, he is a celebrity and he ought to assume more social responsibility. But beyond that, he is a citizen who ought to be protected by the law. The censure of public opinion and the resistance of the market make up the power of the public to “vote with their feet,” but there must be a legal basis before public power can punish a citizen: it must be done openly, after due legal process and according to clear provisions in the law.
Yet banning books, banning performances, and blacklisting – these harsh tactics have no visible legal evidence, and lack even the most basic appearance of legitimacy. First of all, the assailant was not Guo Degang but his impetuous student, so the chief responsibility cannot be placed on Guo’s head. Then, although he did indeed hurl abuse, responsibility ought to be limited to his improper speech, and not a total negation of his person. Taking a step back, even if we must criticize him, we ought to have reservations about his personal character alone, but his crosstalk and other works should not be involved. At least from the perspective of the market, his crosstalk is popular, and it is innocent: it has not misguided the youth, it has not violated socialist values, and it has not promoted anything unhealthy or in violation of the law.
But banning his books, banning his performances, and putting him under a media blackout is none other the terrifying “implication and purge” way of thinking: implicating the master through the student, implicating the works through the individual, implicating the company through the works, implicating the entire profession through the company, and then engaging in self-righteous criticism and a chain of severe punishments, without any legal basis whatsoever, for a wrongdoing. Our law has long since abandoned the barbaric “joint penalty” system* and has moved toward modern legal concepts: a crime is the responsibility of the individual who commits it, and outsiders are not dragged in; corresponding responsibility, so the extent of the punishment depends on the size of the wrong; legally-prescribed punishments, meaning that punishments must have a legal basis – but the blackout is a serious violation of these principles.
If Guo Degang’s crosstalk publications broke the law, then they could legally be removed from shelves once a legal determination has been made. If Guo Degang’s De Yun She has broken the law, then it could be ordered to suspend business in accordance with the law. The same goes for “banning him from appearing on TV” and the “blackout”: there needs to be a legal basis. But I’ve looked through all of the media reports this weekend concerning the actions of several Beijing government agencies and have seen nary a word of explanation from any of them. Moreover, for some of these actions, which agency, on what day, which order is unclear to me: all I’ve seen in the reports that have been made public are references to “relevant departments,” “relevant notices,” “relevant individuals.” I have seen no law, only the flickering shadow of public power.
In the current situation, the Guo Degang affair is still unquestionably a dispute between Guo’s student and a beaten reporter, and a dispute between Guo and Beijing TV – of course, Guo’s blog post cursing out Beijing TV violated social norms and sparked public anger, so there’s also the issue of Guo versus public opinion. Right now, public power should not be slanted in any particular direction. Rather, it ought to make a fair judgment on a legal basis and deal with those involved according to the law. In this dispute, Beijing TV and Guo Degang are opposing sides, and public power should be free of any bias – from the news and publishing departments, to cultural departments, to TV departments – these are not part of Beijing TV’s own personal arsenal. They are the public government departments supported by the taxes of every citizen. Yet by banning Guo Degang’s books, performances, and person without any legal basis, it appears as if public power is helping Beijing TV pursue a personal vendetta.
I remember when there were rumors that Internet personality Sister Feng was placed under a blackout order. Sister Feng valiantly stood up and asked of the authorities allegedly banning her: If they want to ban me, go ahead! But before they ban me, they should give me at least a week’s or a month’s notice. And then they should let me know why I’m being banned. Furthermore, they should have a legal basis if they want to ban me: they must point out the precise legal provision.
I ask the relevant departments to point out their legal basis for toppling Guo. Arbitrary, unsupported punishment will only serve to push sympathy and support over toward Guo’s side. Li Hebiao’s fist and Guo Degang’s behavior have left behind a negative image in the mind of the public, but when, absent a legal basis, an entertainer is suppressed and blacklisted, such a violent abuse of public power is the greatest of evils, ten thousand times worse than verbal or physical abuse.
Update (2010.08.13): The Ministry of Culture denied rumors that it had canceled De Yun She's performance license, The Beijing News reported on August 10.
On August 13, the paper reported that Guo has now been ordered to vacate the fenced-off public area he is currently occupying.
Additionally, one of his neighbors, upset at the constant presence of the paparazzi, kicked a reporter on the afternoon of August 11.
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.