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Being a stand-up comedian is hard. It is especially hard in China

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Stand-up comedy is hard, especially in China. A comedian there is under investigation and the company he works with was hit with a steep fine after he did a bit that included part of an army slogan. Chinese authorities thought it was, well, not funny. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Li Haoshi, whose stage name is House, cracked the joke at a club in Beijing. Video of it is making the rounds on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LI HAOSHI: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: The joke goes like this - Li says he moved to Shanghai recently and adopted a pair of wild dogs from the countryside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: In the city, he says, they're like apex predators. And one day the dogs bolted after a squirrel like cannonballs, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: That made him think of eight words...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

(LAUGHTER)

RUWITCH: ...Fine style of work capable of winning battles. That line is part of a People's Liberation Army slogan coined by none other than Chinese leader Xi Jinping a decade ago. It's widely deployed to this day, like here, where troops are seen in a video shouting those words as they march in double time in a parade.

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UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: (Chanting in Mandarin).

RUWITCH: The fallout from the bombed joke has been swift. Li canceled upcoming performances and expressed his remorse and regret online. He said the joke was unsuitable and had brought about bad feelings, and he said he would reflect deeply on the transgression. But that wasn't enough. This week, Beijing authorities fined the company that booked Li more than $2 million. It also barred the troupe indefinitely from future performances in the Chinese capital. Shanghai, where the company's based, quickly followed suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: This video from the People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, lays into Li Haoshi for crossing a line. Culture creators, it says, shouldn't only think about commercial interests and not their social responsibilities. This case should be an example for others that only high-quality spiritual content should be provided to the masses. Beijing police say they've opened an investigation into Li. In recent years, China has criminalized slander against martyrs, heroes and the Chinese military. If Li's found guilty, he may end up doing prison time. And that's no joke.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.