Satirical strategies: exposing corruption with humour

Chip Tsao, journalist and satirist
10th January 2024
14:30 - 15:30
Blavatnik School of Government and online

The context and the speaker 

Hailing from Hong Kong, Chip Tsao is a seasoned journalist, author, and satirist known for his sharp wit and incisive commentary. With a career spanning over three decades, Tsao (known by the pen name “To Kit”) has made significant contributions to journalism through his humorous yet thought-provoking approach to current affairs. His keen observations and fearless satire have not only entertained readers but have also played a crucial role in shedding light on issues of corruption and societal challenges. 

Following 150 years of British colonial rule, authority over Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997. An initial period of relative political freedom has given way to widespread crackdowns in recent years, leading to the closure of independent media outlets and the prosecution of journalists and media workers, including the founder of Apple Daily newspaper, Jimmy Lai, who is currently on trial. Some journalists have left the country, or the profession, as a result.

Tsao’s seminar was hosted in collaboration with The Blavatnik School of Government's Chandler Sessions on Integrity and Corruption. It featured contributions from Olga Tokariuk and John-Allan Namu. Tokariuk is an independent Ukrainian journalist,  a fellow at Chatham House Leadership Academy in International Affairs, a non-resident fellow at CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis) and one of our former Journalist Fellows. As part of her fellowship, Tokariuk authored the project, From memes to morale: Decoding Ukraine's comedy arsenal against disinformation. Namu is the CEO and co-founder of Africa Uncensored, a Kenyan media company focusing mostly on public interest investigative and in-depth journalism.

The video

Read an automated transcript.

Seven takeaways from the talk and the discussion: 

1. Satire can be a useful journalistic tool. When criticism of governments or political figures cannot be freely expressed, satire can be a way the same message can be communicated to readers in a more subtle way that is less likely to draw authorities’ attention, Tsao said. 

“As Hong Kong entered the post-1997 Chinese rule, we sensed the tension in the atmosphere getting a little bit harsher and harsher. And the writing was always on the wall. That means Beijing would not tell you what you can say or what you can't, what you can do or what you can't, they are very clever in installing invisible lines,” Tsao explained. 

“There are invisible red lines everywhere, so you have to second guess, we all lived in a time of second-guessing,” Tsao said. “Some did not manage to survive long because they criticised Hong Kong, the Chinese government, Jiang Zemin and the Communist Party in the most blatant, straightforward way. I saw my peers being told to shut up, some of them were even arrested in China, and some of them recently censored into silence. So I think I was smart enough to remember my early English literature education, the use of understatements, the subtle use of words and terminology to make you sound impartial and objective, without touching upon the vulnerable nerve of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].”

2. Self-deprecation is a key element of satire. “So long as you make fun of yourself first, from time to time, that is the admission ticket for you to make fun of other people, so long as this criticism is based on facts,” Tsao said. 

He offered other writing tips for aspiring satirists: “Here are some universal rules of writing that would apply, I think, not only to English but to Chinese and all other languages. Use short sentences, and go easy with your vocabulary. And when you write a commentary, try to avoid the use of adjectives as much as possible. I mean, like ‘horrendous’, ‘ugly’, ‘terrible’, you know? And all sorts of labelling. ‘Oh, he's a misogynist, sexist or racist’ as well as strong opinionated adjectives. So try to present your views with facts and with as much objectivity as possible, with a tight upper lip and an inscrutable stone face. You make your point and make people laugh,” Tsao advised.

3. Journalists must keep abreast of new developments to write successful satire. This includes adapting to technological changes, staying informed on global issues, and providing clear reporting, analysis, and commentary, Tsao explained. “As journalists or reporters, we have to be quick to respond to ever-changing technological challenges. To be aware of the change of mindset of the audience or readers especially from the young generation. We have to keep ourselves constantly informed of what happens in the rest of the world,” he said.

4. Objective reporting is still key. “We stick to the old rules of faithfully presenting facts and checking all the evidence and basic facts, arrange the narrative in an objective way and avoid your own subjective comment or just stay invisible as a journalist” when it comes to reporting the news, Tsao said.

5. Journalists should protect themselves. Tsao recalled advice given to him by his former boss and friend Louis Cha, to take precautions and protect himself in circumstances unfriendly to journalists: “He told me, look, Chip, survival is of prime importance for journalists. It doesn't serve you any good if you dare speak the truth and get yourself locked up for 15 years or even face the firing squad. You must survive to see the end of a tiring day. So you've got to protect yourself. It's just like the weather. When it gets cold, wear a few more jumpers and jackets; when it gets hot, when time turns to summer, take off your jacket and wear T-shirts. And you remain yourself all the time. What you wear changes, but you, your heart, your principles and your bottom line remain unchanged.”

6. Ukraine used humour and satire to counter Russian disinformation. Our former fellow Olga Tokariuk gave the example of the widespread use of humour by Ukraine in the context of the Russian invasion, both through official channels and in a grassroots way on online platforms. 

“They really helped to expose the absurdity of Russian propaganda and disinformation because Ukrainians were basically repeating what Russians were saying, but repeating it on steroids so that it would become obvious how ridiculous these claims were, just how absurd they were. And in that sense, it really helped to combat disinformation much better than all the debunking and fact-checking initiatives. Of course, humour is not the only tool when it comes to disinformation,” she said.

7. Satire can be a powerful tool in investigations to uncover corruption. John-Allan Namu shared how satire is used in Kenya by audiences consuming investigative reporting. “It's really become almost like another language for a lot of populations across the world, in terms of expressing either their discontent with the state of affairs or being able to speak to people who are in positions of power that they could never be able to sit across,” he explained.

The bottom line 

Satire can take up a crucial role in situations where journalists or writers may not be able to be straightforward with their criticisms of authority. When living in places where showing dissent can prove dangerous, satire can pass under the radar of censors due to its subtle nature, as well as provide a way for audiences everywhere to digest impactful reporting and sometimes even combat disinformation. However, successful satire must always be based on facts and self-deprecation. Most importantly, journalists should protect themselves and be aware of the risks they are taking with critical writing in unfriendly environments.

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