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
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.
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."
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.