Chinese Media's Short-Lived Love for Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Dictator'

When the satirist spilled the "ashes" of Chinese ally Kim Jong Il, he was celebrated by state-run media, which then promptly censored the story.

Baron Cohen on Huanqiu Shibao P.jpg

A story in Huanqiu Shibao (also known as Global Times) on Sacha Baron Cohen's stunt. / Reuters

The boundary between satire and reality can blur when it comes to the behavior of despots, particularly in East Asia. The Chinese Communist Party's irony deficit showed clearly this week when state media praised the country's media openness precisely as the Party expelled a foreign journalist. In neighboring North Korea, Kim Jong Un spent his first display of public anger in tongue-lashing his subordinates, not for starving citizens or excessive military spending, but for their failure to clean up an amusement park.

On Chinese social media, satire leveled at despots is common. Chinese netizens, after all, added this gem to the "Hitler Downfall meme" after a scandal involving a CCP official who didn't realize that his tweets on Weibo to his mistress to set up a tryst were public. The army of paid censors cannot staunch the flood of irreverence. And one solace to living in a one-Party state, after all, is that everyone already knows which Party your joke is about.

In China, the comedian Sasha Baron Cohen is hardly as popular as even a second-rate Taiwanese pop star, perhaps in part because news about his new film The Dictator, in which Cohen plays a Muammar Qaddafi-like strongman and satirizes autocrats everywhere, seems to be more or less suppressed. On the massively popular Weibo microblog service today, a search for Cohen's The Dictator yields precisely nothing. "Dictator" being a blocked search term, one has to sift though through all the mentions of various "Cohens" instead. Xinhua carried one short item about the "long legs" of his female cohort of faux-bodyguards. But American movies rarely get top billing in China, and it's of course possible that no one is talking about him or the movie. But that would be surprising given how much attention he received on Chinese social media just a short time earlier.

When Cohen spilled a vase containing Kim Jong Il's "ashes" onto Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet at the Oscars on February 28, the Chinese state media ate it up. The next day, various state-run newspapers included photos of Cohen prancing down the runway with the jar bearing Kim Jong Il's countenance. The reports, in describing the joke, subtly reinforced more than a bit of perceived North Korean inferiority. Enjoying Cohen's irreverence, Chinese audiences can feel good about their own country's having put distasteful despot-worship safely behind them.

A reporter from the Chinese-language version of the Global Times, known for its nationalist approach to news, wrote with barely veiled admiration that the provocateur's actions on the red carpet had indeed made him "the evening's hottest topic." Chinese readers, even those employed by government media outlets, were in on the dictator-mocking joke.

But not all Chinese viewers and readers seem to have been ready for the kind of in-your-face confrontation that is one of Cohen's many line-crossing trademarks. A web user on Douban (a mainland social media platform where aesthetes discuss common tastes in books, films, and music) was apparently confused by the Oscars stunt, writing, "A man brought Kim Jong Il's ashes to the Oscars and spilled them on the red carpet....Won't this create an international incident?" After a first response ("Don't you know that North Korean people can't watch the Oscars?"), one of her online buddies promptly introduced her to "Borat," which she found "shocking."

Cohen's ash-laden Oscars antics brought out some nasty responses on Chinese social media, though Kim Jong Il is hardly a sympathetic figure in the PRC. On a Tiexue BBS post that racked up more than 500 comments about the incident, one user wrote, "This guy [Cohen] is going on North Korea's blacklist -- so watch the news a few months from now, because he's going to be blown up." Among the collage of debates about U.S. free speech and assassination by aerial drones, other commenters critiqued Cohen on a Confucian basis, noting that dead leaders need to be respected even when you hate them.

It was one of the many small ironies that occur on the Chinese internet when those very Tiexue comments were, just on Friday, erased by censors. With Cohen's Dictator and countless other potentially problematic ideas and counter-narratives pushed aside, the presses of China's print media are putting out a stream of editorials on themes such as the positivity of Baath Party elections in Syria, and urging something just short of war for oil-rich territory in the the South China Sea that is disputed by the Philippines.

Having had a good laugh at Kim Jong Il's expense at the Oscars, Chinese state journalists and their readers suddenly seem to live in a version of official truth in which they've never even heard of the curiosity that is Sasha Baron Cohen. One day you're a sensation, the next you no longer exist; that's just how it goes in the Chinese media.

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Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in history at the University of Leeds and the editor of SinoNK.com.

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