China’s Comedy Noir: Doublespeak, Sweatshops, and the Shenzhen Electric Bicycle Ban

On last night’s broadcast, Conan did a really funny faux-awards show for his audience. When the ridiculous Journey tribute band started singing about 6-year-old Chinese factory workers, the first thing I thought was, “okay, that shit is real and  shouldn’t be joked about.”  Then I thought, “well, actually, the fact that it’s real maybe means it should be joked about.”   Then Larry the Cable Guy said he was glad the band mentioned child labor in China because yesterday was, in fact, a big holiday there: Solstice? No. Take Your Parents To Work Day.  And so of course people laughed, but were they laughing because they thought the satirizing of Chinese practices (which produce most of our everyday goods at Wal-Mart prices) was good and funny or because of how gruesomely incongruous these things are with the values we claim to uphold? It’s our nature to laugh at things that aren’t funny, to meet uncomfortable, damning juxtapositions precisely in this way.  Some people laugh at funerals.  Some people laugh when they’re nervous or afraid or just unsure about what’s coming next.

On the artist’s side of this equation, is there a fine line between exploitative comedy and satire, or is that line bold and clear?  And do jokes like these make audiences more sympathetic or callous towards the people suffering injustice?  I don’t have an answer for that.  Conan is very smart and, by all accounts, a man with great integrity.  I’m going to assume his staff was aiming for some critical thinking with the bit, but are they at fault for culling low-brow guffaws as well?  I don’t know, but the conversation about the ethics of comedy is worth having.

Speaking of China and gruesome incongruity: it was in the news yesterday that  police in Shenzhen are beginning to enforce a ban on electric bicycles because they’ve been deemed a public safety hazard.  As Evan Osnos wrote on The New Yorker’s blog yesterday: “The bikes, which are dangerously silent, have thrived in a regulatory netherworld between bicycles and cars, and they are said to have caused more than fifteen per cent of the traffic accidents in Shenzhen last year, in which sixty-four people died and two hundred and thirty-three were injured.”

Fine, Shenzen.  Take away the People’s Democratic Modes of Transportation And Hence Livelihood.  Wait, what?  Shenzhen sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Yes, that’s right! That’s the same region where working conditions in the factories producing most of our electronic devices are notoriously egregious, isn’t it?  Yes, yes it.

If you’re keeping score:

Dangerous Bikes: Bad

Inhumane Conditions so Westerns Can Have Cheap Goods:  Yeah, we’ll allow it.

I wrote a post a few months ago about writer and storyteller Mike Daisey’s work on this issue.  I urged folks to go read and listen to Mike’s personal experiences with Shenzhen workers as shared on TechCrunch, here.  I’ll urge it again.

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