Wang Yuechi, a stand-up comic from China, wrapped up his North American tour in Toronto last month. Soon afterward, his name was wiped off most major mainland Chinese social media.
According to audiences who saw the performances by Mr. Wang – who goes by the stage name Chi Zi – in Vancouver and Toronto, his jokes may have fallen afoul of China’s censors. Ironically, a main theme running through his shows is China’s heavy censorship of its cultural industry.
The 27-year-old comedian could not be reached for comment but was spotted in downtown Toronto over the weekend. Dennis Zhao, who posted a picture of himself with Chi Zi on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese Instagram-like lifestyle app, said the comic looked fine when they met Sunday. However, the post was taken down by the social media platform less than 24 hours later.
The organizers of the tour, VISM Entertainment and its subsidiary Infinite Entertainment, both located in the Vancouver area, did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s repeated requests for comments.
People who attended Chi Zi’s shows said they were impressed by his courage. He dared to touch upon topics deemed politically sensitive in China, such as the country’s constitutional changes, human rights and the Xinjiang cotton dispute, which saw the U.S. ban imports of cotton from the Chinese region because it is allegedly grown and processed by forced labour. But no one was surprised by the move by China’s internet minders.
“In my opinion, he probably can no longer continue his career in China,” said Alex Yang, a Toronto resident who saw Chi Zi’s show at the John Bassett Theatre on Feb. 17.
“Objectively speaking, his jokes didn’t go that far. But given the environment for public opinions in today’s China, he probably had seen [the consequence] coming.”
In 2020, in an interview with the Beijing News, Chi Zi was asked: “How do you define a good stand-up routine?”
“Sincere” and “brave,” he replied, after a long pause.
The tour, Cultural Output, also featured comedian Joe Wong.
Canadian entertainer Mark Rowswell opened the show for the duo in Toronto. Mr. Rowswell, better known in China as Dashan, said the performance was a big success.
“I would say that Chi Zi’s material was quite challenging, and not just in a narrow political sense. I felt it was a bit like Dave Chappelle, in that not everyone in the audience agrees with his personal viewpoint, but due to his immense skill as a comedian, he was able to bring audiences along for the ride, laughing and applauding and cheering all the way. It was thought-provoking and it was very funny, which pretty much represents what stand-up comedy can be at its best,” Mr. Rowswell wrote in an e-mail.
So far, no complete audio or video of the show can be found online. Alex Liu, who went to see the show in Vancouver on Feb. 7, said he believed fans were trying to protect Chi Zi, by not posting his material online. But that doesn’t appear to have spared the comedian from censure.
China’s censors scrubbed away almost all mentions of Chi Zi or Wang Yuechi on the country’s popular social media platforms, including Weibo, Xiaohongshu and Douyin. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, articles about Chi Zi’s North American tour have been purged.
The nascent stand-up scene in China has become hugely popular among young people, especially after variety shows like Roast started airing online, giving performers such as Chi Zi an audience. But the art form has also attracted scrutiny: In 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced it would “strengthen content examination and on-site supervision” of performances such as stand-up and crosstalk, a traditional Chinese comedic art.
Mr. Liu said he’s been following stand-up comics in China for years online and was thrilled to finally see a live show, by a well-known Chinese comic, without censorship.
Chi Zi’s fate is just the latest in a Chinese Communist Party-led campaign against cultural celebrities who cross a line, said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Chinese actresses, comedians, film producers and artists have often found their online presence wiped overnight. “This is a form of digital disappearance, orchestrated by the party’s censorship apparatus,” Prof. Fu said.
Judging by some online comments, she added, Chi Zi raised topics that some in the audience “do not dare to hear.”
“To the extent that this is true, it shows the penetrating nature of censorship deep into the mind. It shows that censorship is not just about not speaking out for fear of sanctions. It also elicits a feeling that one should not even listen to sensitive subjects such as human rights … even in comedy,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Sam Shen, a Chinese director who now resides in Metro Vancouver, says censorship in China is “chilling,” noting that many artists, even though they live or perform abroad, still have deep ties to China and family there. If artists “are easily banned or even threatened for just what they say, can you imagine how terrifying it is?”
Mr. Shen, who has worked in China’s TV and film industry since late 1980s, said he thinks the already strict censorship in China took another dark turn in late 2015, when the Chinese government added a prohibition against speaking out on national policies to a revised set of party regulations.
It can be extremely frustrating for artists, he said, adding that it took almost four years for his last movie to be approved by Chinese censors.