The music censors at China’s Ministry of Culture have always been overly cautious when it comes to foreign rock stars performing in the Mainland. However recent revelations regarding the influx of potentially outspoken foreign musicians have led some to speculate whether China’s censors are finally letting up a little. Last February, the situation reached a fever pitch yet again after seemingly harmless piano man Elton John dedicated his concert to Ai Weiwei, the perennial thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities, leading to this damning conclusion by the Global Times:
“Elton John’s actions will make relevant agencies further hesitate in the future when they invite foreign artists…he has raised difficulties for future arts exchanges between China and other countries…”
Amid fallout from Sir Elton’s “sensitive” comment, one official made the outlandish demand that all future foreign musicians that come to perform in China should have university degrees—a slap in the face to countless music fans across the country.
For the Chinese authorities however, John’s comments serve as a reminder that many Western acts carry with them certain political overtones and have the tendency to make use of their celebrity status to exert their views, which inevitably garners mass media attention. Many of us will never forget the night that a certain flamboyant Icelandic singer repeatedly chanted for the liberation of a certain mountainous region of Asia during a Shanghai concert back in 2008. But do these tough-sounding condemnations by random officials reflect the truth on the issue of the foreign musicians being let into China today? I’d like to take a look at some of the recent revelations regarding the greater influx of notoriously opinionated and outspoken figures who have managed to sneak in past China’s Eye-of-Sauron-esque censors and perform on the Mainland, and pose the question as to whether the times are in fact ‘a changing’.
Hopefully you picked up my Bob Dylan reference in that last sentence—I was certainly surprised (and utterly overjoyed) to see the troubadour legend perform in Beijing for the first time back in 2011. Inevitably, there was intense media scrutiny in the West chiding Dylan for selling out to the Chinese machine, which no doubt warned him not to play certain potentially politically sensitive songs (though I’ve always held the opinion that Dylan’s songs are obtuse collages of eternally interpretable imagery rather than direct protest songs). Needless to say, much to the audience’s approval, he did still churn out “A Hard Rain’s A’ Gonna Fall”—a song peppered with Cold War references that seems to offer a bleak prediction of an incoming nuclear war.
In 2006, before my time here, The Rolling Stones swung by and despite being instructed not to play certain songs including “Brown Sugar,” and “Honky Tonk Women,” presumably due them being deemed offensive, managed a raucous set that was warmly received by the audience. Other symbols of youth protest, such as Frank Turner and Public Enemy have made it to Chinese shores as well in recent times, and this is most certainly a welcomed improvement from the days of when only acts like Wham! and The Backstreet Boys graced the stages of China.
Gang of Four and Johnny Rotten perform in China?!
Let’s fast forward to 2013 and take a look at two of the major names that have made it on the bills of Mainland festivals so far this year.
The annual JUE festival featured a name that either made survivors of the Cultural Revolution shudder or anyone else laugh at the sheer irony. Gang of Four is a name that for many music fans holds high esteem in the upper echelons of punk music for their grinding sound and Marxist-driven, anti-consumerist lyrical themes. The “real” Gang of Four however…well, it's probably best you just Google it. Though such horrid events are more openly acknowledged now than in the past, they are still considered somewhat sensitive and are simply left unmentioned by the Chinese media machine most of the time. Thus, the invitation of a band of the same name—let alone a pioneering punk act—surely surprised many (despite guitarist Andy Gill’s collaborations with local Beijing band AV Okubo being relatively well known).
And just as Gang of Four were packing their bags after a well-received show, March 30 saw the arrival of, arguably, an even more controversial figure known for his daring quotes on a whole range of socio-political issues, and who many still consider one of the shining symbols of teenage anger and anti-establishment attitude: John Lydon. Known previously as Johnny Rotten, the former Sex Pistols front man was soon to distance himself from the punk phenomenon, which he later slammed as a “farse”. After the Sex Pistols disbanded, Lydon went on to form the post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd, which descended on Beijing and Shanghai for the first time last month. I was at the Beijing gig myself and despite Lydon keeping his trap shut for most of the night (save for a couple of grumbles about the air pollution) it still sent shivers down my spine when he lowered the microphone into the crowd to rouse the audience into singing along to “Rise”—an anthem protesting against social injustice (namely the apartheid) and featuring the Orwellian-ish lyric: “they put a hot wire to my head, because the things I did and said; they made these feelings go away; a model citizen in every way.”
Shifting audiences and increasingly thorough spot checks
Personally, I suspect that this influx of potentially controversial acts is directly related to the growing interest in Western rock music by ordinary Chinese; itself a result of awareness brought by the thriving local underground scenes that were started in the eighties by acts such as Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty. Simply put, China’s increasingly informed general audience, as well as the decades-in-the-making, angst ridden, leather clad youth demographic that can be seen prowling the streets of many Chinese cities with guitar case in hand, is stronger than ever. Since it’d be difficult to quell China’s rock scene at this point, perhaps the Ministry of Culture has instead opted to relax their restrictions (if only slightly) in favor of benefiting financially from this still largely untapped market of bringing in foreign acts to perform?
The conundrum is that the Ministry still knows full well the risks involved when inviting foreign acts, and thus performs thorough spot checks on lyrics, affiliations, and backgrounds of all the acts who request to play here. Recent revelations got Oasis banned from the Mainland back in 2009 and just the other week electro-pioneers Kraftwerk were banned at the last minute from the Strawberry Music Festival—both allegedly for performing at concerts in support of the liberation of the same certain mountainous region of Asia as mentioned earlier. Somewhat ridiculously, Kraftwerk never even got up on stage at the controversial show due to adverse weather conditions.
It seems that once again however, the logic of China’s censors has successfully bemused us all. If I’d told you six months ago that John Lydon would be granted an audience in China over the pristinely-dressed synth icons Kraftwerk, you’d probably brush me aside and tell me to join the ranks of hopeful expats praying for the Beijing skies to clear while cowering inside the local Irish-themed pub. Lydon himself even expressed bemusement, albeit with a sprinkle of satirical self-flattery when the authorities gave him the green light after analyzing his lyrics: “Either they have incredibly good taste or they have no idea what I’m going on about. I can’t wait to find out.” Given Lydon’s early lyrical history as one infused with anarchistic calls to arms and anti-establishment tirades however, perhaps he’s got it right. Perhaps there is just an air of blanketing unknowingness that surrounds what is acceptable and unacceptable with China’s censors. Though given China’s booming underground music industry and gradual familiarization with foreign rock music, perhaps it’s inevitable that we’re going to see a few more famous outspoken names break through borders and into the Chinese market in the next few years. Rage Against the Machine anybody?
Keywords: ministry of culture Gang of Four in China China’s censors
I remember Jagger doing a press conference in Shanghai, expressing some surprise with the "Party" banning about 7 of their songs. He responded with "well we have 750 other songs we can play". Even the super sensitive communist [?] party couldn't trawl through all those. Nice to see street Fighting man slipping through.A party censor must have been asleep at the wheel[ since disappeared] Looking at Chinese TV I can guess what party officials listen to, so western music would be largely a mystery to them. Still If they can't ban all western music they have a problem spotting even the dubious. Gives us a laugh and may be Chinese young people too [ hopefully] Waiting for a western bands to mention Nobel Prize winners with Xiaibo having served 3 of his 11 year sentence. Please everyone dont forget him! Still waiting for book reading gatherings in China, a nightmare for "the party"
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