Maybe it is time for Washington to unleash South Park characters Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman on China’s trade team this week. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Even though the ruling Communist Party, headed by President Xi Jinping, appears to have skin as thin as a praying mantis, surely they would not take offense?
Political satire, of course, is ingrained in democracies and mass-produced. In the United States, The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park have at times cut a controversial swath through the cultural underbelly of Uncle Sam.
In the United Kingdom, political provocateurs Spitting Image attained iconic status in the 1980s and ’90s by twisting the tail of Britannia’s battered old lion. Twenty-three years later, it has been resurrected to enthrall a new generation with grotesque-looking puppets, spluttering belly-aching barbs.
“The original series skewered the Thatcher and Blair governments of the 1980s and 1990s [and the new show] will air on US networks with a range of new global newsmakers to ‘bring this very British brand of satire to the wider world’,” Adam J Smith and Jo Waugh, lecturers at York St John University in the UK, wrote in a commentary for The Conversation earlier this week.
“[Co-creator Roger] Law describes the show as ‘public service satire’, the ‘public service’ being to at least offer viewers an alternative to ‘shouting at the television set.’ But in turning politics into puppetry, Spitting Image revives a problem that has been inherent in British caricature for 300 years: how do you do satire without promoting or protecting the very people you seek to critique?”
Still, caricatures of President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or Bojo, and newly-minted royal Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, will be unveiled. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg will also feature although it is unclear if Spitting Image will roll out a version of Xi.
Since the show would end up on the cutting room floor of the censors, it seems highly likely.
There is always a way of knocking a brick out of China’s Great Firewall, which surrounds social media sites and the broader internet, in the world’s second-largest economy.
Remember, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ when you have a VPN, or virtual private network, on your smartphone.
Yet the question remains, does political satire act as a beacon of light, piercing through the gloom of state-sponsored propaganda?
A study by academics Li Shao, of Zhejiang University, and Dongshu Liu, of Syracuse University, offered a compelling argument. In The Road to Cynicism: The Political Consequences of Online Satire Exposure in China, which was published on ResearchGate, they stated:
“This article examines two competing theories explaining the effects of political satire on citizens in an authoritarian context. The ‘activism’ proposition argues that political satire works as a form of resistance to erode people’s support for the regime and encourages collective action.
“The ‘cynicism’ proposition argues that while satire discourages regime support, it also discourages political participation. Our online survey experiment on young Chinese Internet users provides evidence supporting the cynicism proposition.
“Satire consumption reduces audiences’ political trust, deflates their political efficacy, and discourages them from participating in politics, as it reduces the perceived severity of political problems and implies that audience participation is useless. We conclude that the dissemination of political satire may stabilize the authoritarian regime temporarily but induces it to become erosive in the long run.”
But then, political satire has a habit of popping up in unexpected places, just like Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman.
Their South Park creators came up with a rip-roaring riposte when it lampooned the groveling apology from the Houston Rockets to China after general manager Daryl Morey announced his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he tweeted.
Outrage followed on Chinese social media sites and state-run news outlets. There were calls to boycott Rockets’ merchandise and live coverage of the basketball franchise in one of its most lucrative markets. To put that into context, the country was reportedly worth $4 billion to the NBA last year, according to Forbes. Cash over conscience appeared to trump hoop dreams.
But not for South Park. “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show’s creators, said in a fake apology on Twitter. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”
The Rockets, unfortunately, have followed the tried and trusted road to perdition. Major fashion brands, such as Calvin Klein, Coach, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana, Swarovski, and Versace, have put the bottom line ahead of the political punchline when dealing with Beijing after wading into hot water.
Perhaps, then, the last word should go to Cartman before he waits for the trade talks call that will never come. “Screw you guys, I’m going home!”