Self-Censorship on Chinese TV: An American Comedian’s Experience

BY Jesse Appell  April 10, 2013 at 10:51 AM EST

Fulbright fellow Jesse Appell’s “Gangnam Style” parody was subject to censorship when he was asked to perform on Chinese television.

A note from Paul Solman: Jesse Appell is a young humorist, fluent in Mandarin, studying stand-up comedy in Beijing this year on a Fulbright Fellowship. “Our Man in China” this year, he reported for Making Sense late last year on his then-new rap video, “Laowai Style.”

Now, he describes what happened after its wildly popular debut, and what it says about “doing business” in China.


Jesse Appell: Last fall, I produced and featured myself in a video parodying the most popular entry ever on YouTube — the K-pop klassic “Gangnam Style,” now up past 1.5 billion views. My own video, “Laowai Style,” was about the life of a foreigner (“laowai”) living as modestly as most everyone else in Beijing, with me rap-singing my own story in Mandarin.

To my amazement, it quickly went viral on the Chinese Internet. It was featured on The Business Desk, with the lyrics translated into English, when it first came out.

It didn’t take long for invitations to come in, asking me to perform live on Chinese TV shows. While this is not all that unusual in China — it seems that almost every foreign-looking resident of Beijing has been on television at least once–there was something very different about my case: I had written my own lyrics. In Chinese. Without knowing it, I was scheduled for a crash course in Sino-self-censorship.

Most foreigners appear on Chinese TV dancing and singing to Chinese songs — the phrase “dancing monkey” appears in almost every conversation I have about foreigners on TV.

Lately, foreigners have begun to appear on dating shows, struggling to woo tall, pale Chinese women who wear lots of makeup. Foreigners in these roles never trigger any censorship concerns. Most are people literally dragged off the street and, given their minimal mastery of Mandarin, they pose no danger to censors: they lack the skill to say anything that would be considered politically inappropriate. The deepest probing involves asking whether the foreigner likes China or can handle spicy food.

But I had written my own lyrics — containing quite a bit of subtext about normal life here — and so my views on China and the Chinese were front and center. This meant some of the lines were on the chopping block.

After I got a call from the TV station explaining the show, I was asked to send my lyrics over for review. They came back with three lines highlighted and a notice: “Please change these lines.” I was given no directions on how or why to change them. When I played dumb and asked why the lines had been nixed, they gave the following reasons. First, the line, “I’m the kind of guy who’s lived in Beijing a long time / Who eats Chinese food every day and doesn’t use a spoon / Who doesn’t wait for the light to turn green before crossing the street.” Though its purpose was to express solidarity with regular Beijingers, I was told the line implied I didn’t obey traffic laws, and that neither did they.

Another line mentioned the fact that traffic-savvy Beijingers avoid the jammed third ring road during rush hour. Again, I identified myself with the people: “I’m that kind of laowai/ Who avoids the north third ring road during rush hour, that kind of laowai.” The authorities said it implied that the Chinese hadn’t provided sufficient infrastructure for their people.

Finally, there was the line about how very non-rich I am: “I’m a laowai who sucks at basketball / A laowai who won’t be cheated when he shops at the Silk Street market / A laowai who doesn’t drive a BMW and instead drives a secondhand electric bike.” It was meant to be the most self-deprecating of lists, but the authorities felt that by saying I knew enough not to be cheated at the Silk Street tourist market, I was implying that – well, foreigners were being cheated at the Silk Street tourist market.

By the way, these same three lines were among the most noted in the 1000+ comments about the video posted online; Chinese people thought they were funny, weren’t insulted in the least. Rather, they seemed to both criticize and acknowledge their jaywalking tendencies in the same way that I, a Bostonian, simultaneously complain about the ridiculous city “planning” that leads to traffic jams and notorious “Boston drivers,” yet admit to being part of the problem. Similarly, it’s simply part of being a Beijinger to cross the street the moment you can see the other side. The Chinese may not be proud of this side of themselves, but nearly everyone seemed to appreciate that an American had noticed it, and couldn’t help jaywalking himself.

Yet these lines, harmless as they might seem, were singled out to be censored. Or, as young Chinese on the Internet say, to be “harmonized” — a play on the government trope that media censorship plays a role in constructing a “harmonious society.”

Interested in how plastic this process really was, I drafted an email saying I understood why they felt the lyrics were touchy, but meant no offense, wanted to keep the lyrics as originally written.

I hit the send button. Immediately, my phone rang. It was the TV studio, wanting to discuss. After much back-and-forth, I managed to preserve the first two lines – about traffic – but had to change the reference to Silk Market improprieties.

If this entire process seemed arbitrary, that’s because it was. There is (likely) no secret government edict restricting discussion of the third ring road, nor strict compliance measures for street safety to be integrated into every TV program that mentions traffic. But someone had flagged the lines as having the potential to prompt charges of disharmony. But who? Why?

Actually, there would seem to be a straightforward explanation. When censors, operating on their own personal set of arbitrary rules, see something about to be broadcast that could conceivably provoke attention from government authorities and cause trouble for the station–or the newspaper, magazine, publishing house, or website– they might in future have to navigate the actual, far more onerous, formal censorship system, which is often arbitrarily applied.

In recent years, one of the most popular sayings in China has become a cliche: “Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey.” Better to avoid any possibility of overreaching, that is, however unlikely to be noticed or censured, by practicing anticipatory self-censorship instead. Better to keep your job.

My own experience suggests that the rules of modern China can’t simply be looked up in a law book or vouched for by any one leader. The practical effect is that what does and doesn’t get through the censorship process depends more on the subjective opinions of various intermediaries at various levels of the process between content creation and release. As the TV official told me over the phone, she, like so many others, is responsible for “guarding the gates.” And when in doubt, cut it out.

Recognizing the pathways through which the anticipation of government control manifests in China itself turns out to be vitally important to understanding the Chinese economy. Like arbitrary taxes, it distorts incentives. Standard economic thought assumes that people and companies respond to incentives; these incentives can be altered through law, which dictates the state of play and the rules of the game. Thus comes the idea that everything from business practices to environmental pollution can be improved through legislation: if people know what the rules of the game are and face sufficiently stiff penalties for breaking them, the market will figure out the optimal way to play efficiently within these rules.

But what do you do if the rules are unwritten? Then everyone, from the TV station’s lowly production assistant up through the director and producer to top TV executives, feel the pressure to weigh in on the process before the matter ever gets to a formal censor. And because the formal censors in China also do not reveal their criteria, people in charge of creative content bear the risk of seeing their projects swallowed up in a black hole with no means of recourse. Easier to avoid content that runs that risk in the first place.

What I encountered made me wonder: When will China be self-confident enough to allow good-natured self-deprecation?

But there is a good side to what I learned as well. The stereotype of the silly foreigner that predominates on Chinese TV is more the result of internal processes within the TV stations themselves rather than any top-down plan from the government restricting foreign self-expression. Admittedly, my image in “Laowai Style” is pretty silly, yet the content is honest, even earnest. And though there were objections to all the lines mentioned above, I got to keep the two lines about traffic, and made only a slight change to the Silk Market line, playing up my ability to haggle rather than their inclination to cheat. As we say in America, two out of three ain’t bad. Mine is a small, isolated case. But it doesn’t support the skeptics who think foreigners will never be “allowed” to go much beyond conventional singing, dancing, and dating on Chinese TV. With a little resistance, a little persistence and a bit of strategic understanding, as well as a facility with Mandarin, projects that enter the black hole of self-censorship may emerge retaining the core ideas with which they were created.

In the end, that’s what happened with Laowai Style: For the chance to share my message of commonality between Americans and Chinese on Chinese television, with millions watching, that seemed a pretty good tradeoff.

Amateur video of Jesse Appell performing “Laowai Style” on Chinese television

Editor’s note: For more on Jesse Appell’s work in Beijing, check out his website.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions