A portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) is displayed at an art shop in Beijing, China, May 25, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

We know China’s President Xi Jinping loves pork buns and loves his wife, Peng Liyuan – state media has widely distributed images of him queuing to buy buns at a Beijing diner, and allowed the song “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama” to go viral. So when a Shanghai artist published online a photo shopped portrait of Xi making a funny face, it seemed consistent with Xi’s promotion of his “man of the people” image.

Shanghai police appear to think otherwise. On May 26, they detained the artist, Dai Jianyong, for “creating disturbances” soon after he shared these images on Instagram. How exactly the photos created disturbances is unclear – no protests or other gatherings ensued, and police provided no explanation.

Dai and other maverick activists who use humor to mock authorities are now being targeted by the state security apparatus. On May 27, the controversial but popular activist Wu Gan, known as “Super Vulgar Butcher,” was detained by Fujian authorities for “creating disturbances” and defamation. The official basis for his detention is clearer thanks to prominent reports on Wu’s personal life by state media outlets like Xinhua and CCTV. In an article titled “Exposing the ‘True Colors’ of Super Vulgar Butcher,” the People’s Daily denounced Wu’s work as “illegal,” “degrading,” and containing “vicious … personal attacks.” One article attributed “increasingly over-the-top behavior” to Wu’s “desire for personal gain.”   

Sichuan activist Chen Yunfei has also been detained since March 2015 on charges of “creating disturbances” and “inciting subversion.” Chen, who calls himself a “beast tamer” after Xi’s famous promise to “lock power in a cage of law,” is known for his performance art pieces that mock the Chinese Communist Party.

Perhaps these artist-activists should have seen this coming. Since 2013 the government has carried out a crackdown against online “rumors,” banned puns because they “may mislead the public,” and even outlawed “unofficial” weather forecasts; in that twisted logic there is no reason to spare artists. The government has brought censorship to a new level, retaliating against both rumor and humor that depart from official lines.