Although many fear a missile strike against Japan or South Korea from North Korea, many comedians are beginning to poke fun at new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Un came into power in late 2011, when his father, former leader Kim Jong Il died. The 30-year-old embattled leader had been the target of an assassination attempt earlier this year and many military leaders saw him as unfit to rule. Since then, many believe that Un has tried to consolidate power by conceding some leadership to the military–in the form of more missile tests and continuing their nuclear program.
Over the past month, with multiple provocations in the form of announcements, videos , and artillery movements have led to coordination among the Japanese, South Korean and American governments–discussing a potential retaliatory strike against Un if he were to launch an attack. Many global leaders have condemned Un, while others throughout the world have dismissed him and his actions as childish. Even staunch ally China is growing “weary” of North Korean posturing and many are wondering if they may begin to distance themselves from North Korea should they continue down this path.
However, never before has this been as apparent with China then this past week. When Jon Stewart started his show by lambasting Un in an eight minute sequence on The Daily Show earlier this week, the Chinese audience received it extremely well. While the clip itself had around 160,000 views as of the morning after it aired, when it was posted to a popular Chinese video sharing site, Sina, the number of views skyrocketed up to 3.3 million as of April 12th. The comments section of the page lauds Stewart’s humor as he compares Kim Jong Un to “Little Miss Sunshine” and North Korean computers to “harpsichords with panic buttons.” While many references Stewart makes are decidedly American, the clip itself was still extremely well-received among the Chinese internet community.
This is revealing for multiple reasons. To begin, this is a clear sign that the Chinese government, and their citizens, are extremely frustrated with their ally’s actions over the past few months. In the past, they have tolerated, if not condoned, the actions of Kim Jong Il when he instigated issues for the United States and their allies. Now, it seems that much of the actions of North Korea are extremely bothersome to them and they fear that Un will actually lead the Korean peninsula to war–the least desirable scenario for the Chinese. The popularity of the clip, at face value, is an immensely significant indicator to the West that China’s patience (or at least her citizens) for Un’s rhetoric and actions is growing thinner by the day.
On a deeper level, however, the popularity of the clip is even more demonstrative of Chinese ill-will towards the North Koreans. The Chinese government is known for their liberal use of censorship when it comes to Western entertainment, particularly American television and movies. The Chinese recently went as far to censor films or shows depicting time travel, such as Star Trek and Back to the Future, because they demonstrate the possibility of change for the Chinese population. Anything political that comes from the United States is often declared propaganda and any links to American satire or comedy (or any shows that poke fun of China) are quickly shut down.
And yet, Jon Stewart’s clip, a man that has often satired the authoritarian government of China, mocking Kim Jong Un is still up days after its initial release and viral rise in China. This means that despite it being from an American source who China often censors, the Chinese government tolerates it. There is such hostility towards North Korean actions that the Chinese are willing to allow their ally to be openly mocked by a source they usually block off to their population. In a society without democratic free expression and freedom of the press, the tolerance for American satire is loud and clear: the Chinese government and her people are not happy with North Korea.
Because the Chinese lack a democratic system and freedom of information, press or speech, this clip’s survival can almost be seen as China’s first use of video satire to express politically controversial opinions. Almost all other political videos allowed by the government are strictly propaganda. The media’s focus on the issue brought about by China’s tolerance for Stewart’s clip could almost be seen as a Chinese novelty effect— a concept that author Dave Karpf describes in his book, The MoveOn Effect, as attention not brought because of the content of the message, but the medium in which is was distributed. People aren’t surprised that the Chinese would find Stewart’s criticism of Un humorous–they’re surprised because this is the first time that China has allowed such a video from such a source in their digital medium. While it’s in no way comparable to spreading a political message in a democratic system and American campaigns are light-years ahead of the Chinese, the lack of censorship is remarkable because it is the first time that another source of political messages other than the Chinese government has been allowed to speak. If this is the beginning of a Chinese “advocacy inflation” of digital video sharing, then it may be crucial in determining a path to free expression in the future.
So while many will laugh at Stewart’s roast of Un, many more should see the importance of China’s laughter and tolerance of the clip–not just as a look into the future of Chinese-Korean relations, but also into the Chinese political expression in a digital medium.