Wong is right to badger Beijing

A cartoon which lampoons communist China is unfair, biased and one-sided. That, says Tony Barber, is the whole point
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The Independent Online
Should satire offend? Or should a satirist, like a good chef, serve his product with a sauce that pleases everyone? In short, who likes The World of Lily Wong, Larry Feign's cartoon strip about life in Hong Kong which The Independent recently started to run on its foreign pages, and who thinks it is in poor taste?

Jonathan Fenby, editor of the South China Morning Post, is one of those who has no time for Lily Wong. He thinks the strip's portrayal of Chinese people is at best patronising, at worst racist. Like other commentators, he also contends that Feign is doing the people of Hong Kong no favours by implying that, come July, they will be ruled by a bunch of raving communist dictators.

To be effective, however, doesn't satire have to take sides, exaggerate and avoid balance and neutrality? How can a political humorist score points if his message boils down to: "On the one hand, this... On the other hand, that..."?

The World of Lily Wong may not be the world's greatest cartoon strip, and everyone will have their own opinion about how funny it is. However, beneath its distortions and exaggerations of Hong Kong life, it is trying to make a deadly serious point.

The strip is saying that, once China takes over from Britain, the people of Hong Kong could see their liberties crushed into the dust. That message would surely lose all its force if Feign took care to present the communist point of view - namely, that there is nothing to worry about.

The point is not whether the strip is right or wrong in its grim predictions of what lies in store for Hong Kong. Quite deliberately, the strip is presenting one side of the argument. So it should. Fairness is not the bedfellow of satire.

For an historical example of how disastrous an effect balance can have on political humour, consider the famous cabarets of Weimar Germany. Contrary to the image presented in the 1972 filmed musical Cabaret, Berlin's cabaret halls were not, for the most part, places of searingly effective political satire. Many cabarets left political content out of their shows altogether.

However, even the political cabarets were generally careful to mix anti- Nazi jokes with digs at all other political parties, including those which supported Weimar democracy. As Walter Mehring, a leading satirist of the 1920s, once put it: "I stand neither to the left nor to the right. I have always stood vertically."

Such detachment anaesthetised public opinion to the terrible gravity of the Nazi threat. It tempted Germans, even those who disliked the Nazis, to think that no political party was better than the next. Ultimately, it sapped faith in democratic institutions and blinded Germans to the fact that, however imperfect the Weimar system, it was infinitely preferable to what was to come after it.

No doubt the quality of Berlin's satirical cabarets played only a small part in smoothing the Nazis' rise to power. Yet the anti-Nazi satire could have been sharper. Like The World of Lily Wong, it could have taken aim at a precise target. It could have taken sides.

To be fair, on some occasions, it did. The most effective parody of Nazi anti-Semitism was the following tune, sung to the music of Bizet's Carmen: "If it's raining or if it's hailing/ If there's lightning, if it's wet/ If it's dark or if there's thunder/ If you freeze or if you sweat/ If it's warm or if it's cloudy/ If it thaws, if there's a breeze/ If it drizzles, if it sizzles/ If you cough or if you sneeze/ It's all the fault of all those Jews/ The Jews are all at fault for that!"

That was cabaret satire at its purest and most effective. It used exaggeration, absurdity and risky subject matter to illustrate the fanatical intolerance of the Nazis. Just as The World of Lily Wong does not waste time pondering the strong points of Chinese communism, so this song, sung at the Tingel- Tangel cabaret in 1931, did not debate the merits of the Nazi world-view.

However, it was something of an exception. Far more typical was the view put forward by the cabaret director Kurt Robitschek in 1930. He coined a wonderfully tortuous word, Nichtnachdenkenmussen (the freedom not to have to think seriously about anything), to describe what he thought he should offer his audiences.

But Robitschek, who had to flee Germany after the Nazi takeover, was wrong. Satire should make people think seriously. It cannot be neutral or anodyne. Like it or dislike it, The World of Lily Wong is right to take sides.

'The World of Lily Wong' is on page 14