As intensifying pressure from Hong Kong authorities leads the Ming Pao newspaper to part ways with political cartoonist Zunzi, the comedy keeps coming from the city’s leadership. From absurdity to ridiculousness, there will be no end to the bitter laughs.
Those who fail to understand jokes have the unfortunate habit of embodying them. In the iconic Fawlty Towers, the eponymous Basil Fawlty is not funny because he prances around in Hitler step, but because he cannot see his own bigotry and ludicrousness in doing so. Don Quixote elicits zero laughs as a grumpy, aging weakling who regards himself as a knight, but inspires generations of them in his delusional attempts to maintain the pretense.
And so to Hong Kong, where a combination of Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (李家超), the Hong Kong Police Force and various other pro-Beijing entities is channeling a diverse array of comedic protagonists and techniques in a doomed attempt to stifle comment. Truly, their range is astounding.
Take the backfire: What better way to illustrate this humoristic device than the global profile now enjoyed by figures like Zunzi (尊子), but also vawongsir, Ah To, Hong Kong Worker and Kim Jong-un impersonator Howard X following the Hong Kong government’s efforts to persecute and silence their satire? Would readers be remembering their names, clicking on their profiles and reading their cartoons today without the blundering attempts of officials to cut off their communication? Perhaps not, and herein highlights another principle of comedy: The bully always gets it in the end.
Then there is the grotesque farce that ensues when taboos are avoided to the point that they become emphasized, another comic favorite. Who can erase the Second World War from their thoughts during all the efforts to circumvent the topic in the aforementioned Fawlty Towers scene? Likewise, who can forget the Pillar of Shame commemoration to the Tiananmen Massacre when Hong Kong’s security chief, Chris Tang Ping-keung (鄧炳強), cannot bring himself even to name either the statue or the incident in the latest bizarre letter of complaint to the Wall Street Journal?
Comedy emerges too when irrational actions are exaggerated to highlight idiocy. A classic example is the scene from Airplane, in which various characters propose to restore a legitimately panicking passenger to a steady mental state by slapping, shaking, boxing and even shooting her. Could there be any stronger parallel than Beijing’s reaction to the 2019/20 Hong Kong protests, by which it has transformed an entire city into a police state and intimated a threat to the social order from diverse and improbable sources including flyers reading “conscience,” Grandma Wong, and now cartoon figures?
Indeed, the Hong Kong establishment is ever-willing to pay homage to comedy greats, whether slapstick, surrealist or anything in between. If, in the 1930s, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy could accidentally tie themselves to their imagined form of a ghost and then terrify themselves by dimwittedly dragging it around behind them, by the same token, the Hong Kong authorities in the 2020s can invent seditious secessionist terrorists and spook themselves from every newspaper page with the fabrication.
Similarly, the Monty Python team that invented the Ministry of Silly Walks — a fictional government department that encouraged members of the public to adopt ridiculous perambulations — must delight to hear their work echo in the tangled voices of pro-Beijing figures as they contort themselves to align with the Chinese Communist Party. The contemporary cringe one feels when listening to them prostrate themselves is Ricky Gervais’s The Office at its finest.
All of this serves to underline the dedication and excellence of the current Hong Kong leadership. Its repertoire and skill to stimulate ridicule and inspire mockery can only be described as masterful, and the administrative foresightedness to streamline comic delivery is admirable. Following the logic that freedom of speech is unnecessary when only one opinion counts, it has recognized and eliminated another inefficient redundancy: Who needs a middleman like the cartoonist Zunzi, when the Hong Kong government and its underlings can serve as both the joke and the punchline all at the same time?
Image: Voice of America, Public Domain