It’s safe to say Donald Trump isn’t the biggest fan of Saturday Night Live, despite having hosted the show himself. In October 2016, he tweeted that Alec Baldwin’s impression of him “stinks,” adding that SNL had become a “boring and unfunny show.” Despite such criticism, Baldwin won an Emmy last year for his often scathing portrayal of the thin-skinned US president.
It’s also safe to say that the Chinese version of SNL, which began airing June 23, won’t feature Chinese actors similarly impersonating president Xi Jinping. China heavily censors all forms of media, and mocking the ruling elite is a major no-no.
Unbeknownst to many Americans, NBCUniversal licenses international versions of SNL, including to partners in France and the Middle East. Last year in China, it struck a deal with Youku, a YouTube-like streaming video platform (part of e-commerce giant Alibaba’s empire), to produce a local version of the show.
Political satire is central to the original SNL. With that not an option in China, the skits focus on lighter subjects. Here’s what happens in some of the skits shown so far:
- News anchors conclude that China’s woeful soccer team didn’t qualify for the World Cup because it’s “too good.”
- Lyrics of a hit song are changed from ”dancing in the waves” to “let’s keep playing computer games.”
- A man in a restaurant complains that crayfish are dirty, sparking a sudden song-and-dance routine involving indignant crustaceans (a variation of this idea appeared in the original SNL). Reports of tainted crayfish are common in China.
- Two men shout out slogans used by the fans of Wang Ju, a pop sensation who started as a singing contestant and is now, in the eyes of many, the “Beyoncé of China.”
- In the time of cave dwellers, a woman has three husbands because it’s a matriarchal society. The men are forced to raise babies and knit sweaters, doing things that housewives do today. The wife displays sexual discrimination against them, a twist on the discrimination that many Chinese women face today. For instance she shouts that she wants a baby girl, not a boy—not so long ago men in China were yelling they wanted a boy, not a girl. Many still are.
- A man goes to an electronics shop to buy earphones, but the ones he tries are broken, so the salesmen standing behind him sing tunes to deceive him.
As with the original SNL, the skits are hit and miss. The best on the US show are often ones that poke fun at the powers that be—but performers openly skewering Xi or any other top government leader is unthinkable. Members of ruling elite are highly sensitive to the slightest criticism. Then again, so is Trump. And he is unafraid to equate attacks on himself with attacks on the country.
Last month Trump suggested the media’s coverage of his North Korea summit was “almost treasonous.” In February he accused Democrats of ”treasonous” behavior for refusing to applaud during his State of the Union address. When FBI agents raided the office of his personal lawyer Michael Cohen in April—with a warrant—Trump called it “an attack on our country.”
Earlier this year, Xi managed to eliminate the two-term presidential limit in China, making him potentially a leader for life. “I think it’s great,” Trump said of the feat in May. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” It was unclear whether he was joking, but no doubt he craves, at times, Xi’s ability to shut down criticism, whether it comes from journalists or no-holds-barred television.
—Ziyi Tang contributed reporting