Humor is often the first casualty of dictatorship. The reasons for this should be obvious to all: humor is subversive. Communist totalitarians and right-wing despots alike are hostile toward jokes that may undermine their regimes (take, for example, this classic from the Soviet era: “what’s 100 meters long and eats cabbage?” “the line at the butcher shop”).
Of all types of humor, irony is usually the most lost on totalitarians. This is apparent in China’s recent and unintentionally comical campaign to alert its citizens to the apparent threat from foreign spies posing as visiting scholars who romance local girls for state secrets. In fact, it is a comic: a 16-panel strip that tells the sad tale of Xiao Li (“Little Li”) who falls in love with a foreign scholar who is “researching issues about China.”
The man is a Caucasian with a big nose and red hair (a pretty classical Asian depiction of a white man) who goes by the name of David. David woos Little Li with flowers and fancy dinners. When she mentions that she works for the government, David coerces her into giving him some sensitive internal policy documents, for “research purposes.” Of course, it turns out that he is actually a spy and they are both arrested.