The Laughingstock Next Door

How the Chinese are using Kim Jong Un's antics to mock their own leaders.

BEIJING — North Korea's latest nuclear test may have stirred alarm in Washington, but its intimidation effect seems to have been lost on much of the Chinese web universe, which largely saw the announcement as a joke. "He's so naughty!" chided one web user, while another suggested that the resulting earthquake came from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un eating too much and falling on his posterior.

It wasn't the first time Kim had been the butt of jokes in China. After North Korea's successful missile launch on Dec. 12, many expressed joy and pride on behalf of the North Korean masses. "The brigade members plowing the hills of Seipo County were so inspired by the successful launch of the second Earth observation satellite that they opened up thousands of hectares of wasteland in just a few days," one message from a popular satirist nicknamed Miss Choi in Pyongyang read, pretending to be oblivious to North Korea's failed rocket launch test in April. "Big Brother [China], please step up your effort, or we will surpass you!"

Liu Bin, a journalist at China's independent-minded newspaper Southern Weekly, told me he is uncomfortable with all the joking around. "What is there to laugh about?" Liu wondered. "Isn't laughing at North Korea like the pot calling the kettle black?"

That's exactly the point. Over the past few years, more than 100 North Korea-related satire accounts have emerged on Sina Weibo, managed by self-proclaimed North Korean patriots. They post messages glorifying the Kim regime in an extravagant propaganda style that invites jeers and ridicules from commenters who may or may not have gotten the joke: The real targets, of course, are China and the Chinese Communist Party.

The most popular account, "Writer Choi Seongho," has 600,000 followers. In his Weibo biography and in his posts, Choi claims to be a North Korean journalist based in China with his heart "tied to Pyongyang"; in a private message, he told me he is a North Korean defector from a "special family" and that he went to high school in China. Whatever the truth, most of his followers probably take him to be Chinese, for he posts hilarious messages in flawless Mandarin, which, while ostensibly mocking North Korea, often make for pitch-perfect satire of China.

After the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17, 2011 funeral, for instance, Choi posted a photo of the weeping crowds with the message: "Could you let me know if there is a second leader in this world that was so beloved by his people?" "Your [leader] was the second, guess who was the first?" a user, catching Choi's allusion to the hysteria that characterized former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's funeral in 1976, answered wryly.

After the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan in October, Choi wrote: "The Nobel Prize is not a big deal. Starting from next year, North Korea will offer the Kim Jong Il Prize for progressive figures all over the world to compete!" Here was another wry allusion to China: In 2010, immediately after the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, an embarrassed and enraged group of patriotic Chinese established their own award. Named the Confucius Peace Prize, it drew mockery in China for choosing Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2011 recipient. Choi's followers got the joke.

To those who tease him for his hyperbolic patriotism, Choi responds with feigned seriousness: "Watch your tone! The Internet is not a space beyond the law," a reference to the now-notorious title of a December editorial published in The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, that called for stricter Internet censorship. To those who accuse him of propagandizing for the Kim regime, he responds: "My colleague editor Hu in our Hu-Choi editorial department is cursed by netizens all over everyday, but he still posts messages on Weibo with great composure" -- an unmistakable jibe at Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese tabloid, and a frequent target of digital slings and arrows on Weibo.

A land that remains stubbornly isolated, perpetually relevant, and eternally weird, North Korea makes an appealing subject for satirists all over the world, from comedian Andy Borowitz, who tweets as @KimJongNumberUn (bio: "I used to be an unemployed twentysomething still living at home. Now I have nuclear weapons. It's all good, yo.") to North Korean propaganda artist-turned-defector Song Byeok, who paints subversive pictures depicting Kim Jong Il as Marilyn Monroe in her famous subway grate scene, or as a loving father surrounded by barefoot, starving children.

In China, however, satirists and the public seem to embrace the subject with particular enthusiasm: Besides Choi, other "North Korean patriots" such as Miss Choi in Pyongyang, Pyongyang Art Troupe Member Kim Ranhui, and Park Chunghwan in Pyongyang have also launched themselves to Weibo fame by professing their undying love for the Great Leader. One of the most watched send-ups of Kim Jong Un, dubbed Fat Kim the Third by web users, is a stand-up routine in which a comedian sharing Kim's physique parades around the stage and complains about territorial disputes. The Chinese public gleefully indulges itself in the thrill of ridiculing the communist dictatorship next door, as China's strict censorship has made it difficult for them even to search for some of their own leaders' names online.

Satirists like Choi acknowledge this psychology and cater their work to it. "I give [the Chinese public] an outlet because I know they need to pour out their feelings to me," Choi told me. "They live under an authoritarian regime in which they will get punished for criticizing their own officials. They won't, however, if they criticize" North Korean leaders.

North Korea today still shares more in common with China than most Chinese would like to admit. In a June 2010 essay titled "Orphan of Asia," Han Han, one of China's most influential social critics, described his feeling toward North Korea as "a straggler looking back sympathetically at someone trailing even further behind." A 2007 film made by Chinese filmmaker Hu Ge named 007 vs. Man in Black has been viewed online 3.7 million times. It tells the story of a secret agent working for a totalitarian state (similar to North Korea) setting out on a mission to procure a bottle of Hennessy XO, supposedly Kim Jong Il's favorite beverage, for the "great king." The agent comes to China, where, motivated by his love for the king and the spirit of self-reliance, he overcomes great difficulties and accomplishes the mission. When he brings the liquor home and serves it, however, the king dies of poisoning, for the alcohol turns out to be an adulterated product sold illegally in the Chinese black market.

In a public sphere as tightly controlled as China's, in which a harmless political parody on Weibo can land a citizen in a month-long detention, North Korea-related satires have opened up precious room for the Chinese public to vent its frustration with own domestic politics. But sometimes, the jokes go too far for nationalist Weibo users. One recent Choi post, for example, seems to have touched a raw nerve of many of his followers. Above a picture of a dilapidated train cart, he wrote: "North Korea did not, and does not plan to build a high-speed rail system, because we do not have billions for them to embezzle," alluding to the gargantuan corruption associated with China's high-speed rail construction project. Some web users scolded: "Get out!" ("My followers are all very patriotic," Choi explained. "I can satirize some bad things, but there is a line I am not allowed to cross. When I crossed that line in their heart, I always just had to delete those messages.")

What makes Choi's job easier is the Chinese media, which sometimes treats North Korea as a respected ally. This can cause embarrassment: In late November, the U.S. satirical newspaper The Onion announced its decision to name Kim Jong Un the "sexiest man alive" for his "devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame."

Evidently failing to recognize the parody, People's Daily Online, the website affiliated with the Communist Party's official newspaper, endorsed the nomination by citing the Onion article and posting a 55-photograph slide show of Kim Jong Un on its website. Choi rushed to express his support. "The highest commander is much more handsome and fashionable than the aged cadres around him, isn't he?" he said. "Editors at People's Daily Online have spoken the mind of people all over the world!"



Gay Paris

What has taken France so long to step up to the altar of equality?

PARIS — Six months from now, France may be glowing amid the Summer of Love, version 2013. And Gay Paris should be, well, a little gayer.

Not that there will necessarily be more homosexuals -- though more might come here. But the visible manifestations of same-sex love and commitment are sure to be more widespread across the City of Light and, indeed, around this notoriously libertine country. That is because Parliament, having just completed a marathon 96-hour debate, is preparing to greenlight "marriage for all" -- perhaps as early as Feb. 12.

Yes, the anti-gay-marriage forces -- from the arch-traditionalists that remain in France's Catholic Church to mainstream conservative politicians who use the issue to try to appeal to the wandering hard right -- are galvanized, and obstacles to gender-neutral marriage remain. Many French may not believe in the hereafter anymore, and the number of active churches may be in dramatic decline, but some who profess to speak the word of God are doing it loudly.

They've held mass protests around the country, most recently bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets nationwide on Jan. 27. Smaller groups, including some who prayed en masse on wintry streets to prevent same-sex weddings from ever happening, unfurled dozens of banners from 170 pedestrian, car, and metro bridges over the Seine in and near Paris. One sign that mixed metaphoric apples and oranges, read: "We want work, not gay marriage."

In a de facto filibuster effort, France's conservative opposition introduced 5,000 amendments to slow down the legislative process. In recent days, anti-gay-marriage forces even orchestrated a brief protest traffic jam to block the Champs-Élysées. Looking ahead, they plan mass protests in the spring when their allies in the French Senate may seek to create further obstacles.

But such efforts are almost certainly doomed to failure. President François Hollande, who made "marriage for all" a core issue of his candidacy, has a substantial majority in Parliament. And politically, clear action and real-world results can only help a head of state whose first eight months in office left many people here with an impression of hapless indecisiveness. His strong choice to intervene in Mali -- which has so far gone well -- has put wind in his sails, and satisfying his same-sex marriage and gay-adoption pledge would add to his newfound momentum.

While traditional-marriage advocates have been very vocal (their largest protests were bigger than any pro-gay-marriage rally), they are in the minority on this issue. Some 59 percent of French citizens are in favor of gender-neutral marriage laws, versus 36 percent against. Even French people who have mixed feelings about same-sex marriage were able to nod or even smile at some of the signs at a huge Jan. 27 rally in favor of marriage equality:

"Adam and Yves."

"Our marriage won't make you gay."

"Marianne" -- the humanized embodiment of heroic, free France -- "was a lesbian."

"The gay wedding registry is going to jump-start the economy."

And somewhat more provocative: "Jesus had two fathers and a surrogate mother."

These are just the latest volleys in a public debate that has been roaring since the early fall. The heretofore deeply divided opposition has been using the issue to come together against something that most of its base agrees on. But the issue has a similar unifying affect on the other side, bonding the Socialists with sizable far-left constituencies that otherwise lament Hollande's mushy centrism (on the French spectrum, anyway). Meanwhile, on the far right, Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, has repeatedly suggested the issue is a distraction from more pressing issues: the economy, jobs, and immigration. (She also knows that several of the most popular far-right European politicians have projected a tolerance of homosexuality to highlight their 21st-century political perspective.)

As usual, she is at least partly in phase with many of her compatriots. A notable 72 percent of people say that the public debate has dragged on too long, especially when politicians should have bigger fish to fry, with more than 3 million unemployed and an economy that is barely moving. In other words, there is no such thing as a done deal, but this is as close as it gets.

Politically, Hollande will mobilize his base with a concrete move on same-sex marriage. And as the social transformation becomes policy, France's head of state is poised to bank far more credit than U.S. President Barack Obama did with his turn toward equality in the United States; the French leader will have sparked nationwide change early in his term, whereas Obama only grudgingly and belatedly expressed verbal support for gradual momentum on a state level -- and only when forced by events.

The question is why, in a sexually liberal country with one of the gay-friendliest capitals on Earth, has gender-neutral marriage taken so long? After all, the Marais district, just off the heart of historic Paris, has a gay community to rival San Francisco's Castro area, New York's Chelsea, London's Soho, or Berlin's Nollendorfplatz. In fact, former President Nicolas Sarkozy once accused Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who is gay, of coming out for electoral reasons.

Indeed, France has long been a fairly welcoming place for homosexuals escaping persecution or looking for more freedom. The French decriminalized homosexuality in 1791, much earlier than most countries, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Later on, when Oscar Wilde was released from prison in the sexually repressed Britain of his era -- after serving time for "gross indecency" with other men -- he left his homeland forever and moved to France.

Still, there are plenty of passionate anti-gay voices around France -- including some particularly retrograde ones. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, recently argued that same-sex marriage lights a path toward incest and polygamy. While he isn't alone in making these reactionary comments, there are more comprehensible voices, like Frigide Barjot, an ostentatious media figure whose chosen name is a twist on Brigitte Bardot. (It means Frigid Crazy.) Barjot has spearheaded the anti-gay-marriage and anti-gay-adoption forces, and she has increased her profile in the process, arguing that children need a mother and a father and that marriage needs to be respected, while emphasizing that she has no problem with gays. Although she may be a witty, good-natured, and cosmopolitan face of anti-equality, the reasonable face of intolerance is still intolerance to many on the left.

But the traditional marriages and vision of the family that she is defending is in clear decline, which has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. When France created a legal framework for civil unions -- a sort of marriage-lite -- in the late 1990s, it was designed to legitimize homosexual relationships, but equality laws required that it also be available to heterosexual couples. The irony is that more than 95 percent of those who get the "PACS" [the French acronym for civil unions] are heterosexual. Today, nearly half of children in France are born to unmarried couples.

And it isn't as though France is on the cutting edge of gay rights in Europe. In 1989, Denmark became the world's first country to offer formal recognition of committed same-sex relationships. It took France another decade to catch up. The move from gay-marriage-lite to actual marriage equality will have taken nearly 15 long years in France, if the law goes into effect in 2013. During that decade and a half, same-sex weddings have been celebrated in the Netherlands (since 2001), Belgium (2003), and even in the formerly traditional Catholic countries of Spain (2005) and Portugal (2010). Sweden stepped up in 2009 (six years after legalizing gay adoption), and Denmark in 2012.

What has taken France so long to join the party? For one, gay rights have generally advanced under leftist governments. While French revolutionaries legalized homosexuality, the collaborationist Vichy government of the early 1940s re-banned it, until it was re-legalized under President François Mitterrand, a Socialist, in 1982. It took the government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to oversee the introduction of civil unions in the late 1990s. But from 2002 until last year, French conservatives ruled Parliament and the presidency. Enter Hollande.

Still, while the mainstream French right isn't prone to advancing gay rights in major ways, it is unlikely to take them away if it eventually gets back to power. Spanish conservatives, who promised to do so before reclaiming parliament, discovered that it was easier said than done. (Spanish judges clarified to Mariano Rajoy, who became prime minister in 2011, that the once-controversial social change had become an integral part of Spain's social fabric).

Another factor is that times are changing. Countries with younger and more socially modern conservative leaders, like Britain's David Cameron, are actually pushing forward on gay rights. The French right, on these sorts of issues, has a long way to go, as do broader swaths of French society.

Partly, this has to do with France's intense respect for sex-life privacy. The country is obviously famous for its presidents and its people enjoying countless largely consequence-free flings. Back in the day, officially heterosexual married couples could also have gay flings -- and to this day, some still do -- but an element of French society encourages discretion even now, the core idea being that your sex life is your own and isn't for the public space.

Think of it as France's "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- but in the public sphere rather than the military. For a long time, this had a positive side, one that allowed a greater tolerance of (discreet) homosexuality than the vast majority of countries. But what was once a plus has morphed into a handicap in the struggle for greater formal acceptance of homosexuality in the 21st century, leaving France in the wake of its European neighbors.

If there was something striking -- or even shocking -- about the hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Paris to protest same-sex marriage, it was that many of their arguments echoed the civil-unions debate of the late 1990s. Then, Catholic groups argued that formally recognizing same-sex relationships would amount to the death of the family and the decline of Western civilization, and they were supported en masse in the streets, where numerous hard-right politicians joined them. But the evolution of that debate is instructive. In 1998, a year before the PACS law went into effect, the French were evenly split on civil unions. By 2004, after five years of civil unions -- and once it was clear that the world hadn't ended -- about 70 percent of the French were in favor.

If a substantial majority of French people are already pro-marriage equality a half-year before it is expected to become the law of the land, how much more popular will it be a few years from now, after people have seen the love-and-joy-filled celebrations from Paris to Perpignan?