Music censorship in China: To play or not to play



About two hours before his performance in Beijing last Saturday, the first in Mainland China, jazz guitar guru John McLaughlin seemed reasonably happy and excited that he was finally playing in a country not wildly celebrated for its love for the free flow of music.

I am reasonably certain that among the first questions that the ministry of culture – mind it, not quite named the ministry of censorship – puts to promoters of live music shows in China is: “Show us the song list”.

Same was the case with McLaughlin. Dear Dalai Lama, his song from the 2006 album Industrial Zen wasn’t – and not quite shockingly I’d say – on the list. And, all was bliss.

At least in McLaughlin’s case, he wasn’t singing.

Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Katy Perry, the list is long, all had to submit their song lists to the artistically inclined officials of the ministry of culture lest they sang anything that wasn’t musically fine-tuned.

In 2011, Dylan performed at the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing to a pretty large crowd. His two-hour set did not include some of his famous protest songs just in case the young Chinese crowd rose up, well, in protest.

Mick Jagger played in March in Shanghai to a very enthusiastic crowd. But the Stones were not allowed to play the songs Brown Sugar and Honky Tonk Women.

History, it seems, repeats its censorship. At their first-ever China gig in 2006, the group wasn’t allowed to play the same songs along with other numbers like Rough Justice and Let’s Spend the Night Together.

The band’s audience in Macau, however, heard the entire repertoire as it is a specially administered zone and Mainland censorship rules don’t apply there.

Reports said Jagger told the Shanghai crowd that Honky Tonk Women had been vetoed by the government. And speaking before the show, he said that the band, as per rules, had to submit their songs to the authorities.

I presume Elton John had also submitted a list of his songs before he performed in Beijing in November, 2012.

But authorities here were livid when at the end of the show Sir Elton dedicated it to one of China’s favourite dissidents, Ai Wei Wei.
They also met ahead of the concert and Ai then posted a picture on Twitter claiming ‘I super like him [Elton John]’.

State-owned newspaper, Global Times, had then accused the British singer of being ‘disrespectful’ and said his actions could lead to a ban on other Western performers putting on shows in China.

“John’s action will also make the relevant agencies further hesitate in the future when they invite foreign artists,” said the Global Times, adding that: “John himself is a senior entertainment figure, but has raised difficulties for future arts exchanges between China and other countries.”

In 2008 Icelandic singer Bjork, in probably her first and last China concert, had shouted ‘Tibet, Tibet’ in Shanghai.

Now, musicians are a creative and often unpredictable lot. Like everyone else, they have a right to speak their mind or sing their song.

But how much does it help anyone, and for that matter any cause, if some musician comes to China, raises a sensitive issue at a two-hour concert and then flies out in the next available flight?

What it surely does is to make the Chinese authorities angry and even more careful about allowing foreign artists to perform in China.

McLaughlin told HT: “Every action has a ramification. But if we can share the same joy (of music) with others…Through the music they know us”

Experienced artists like him and the Stones probably understand that to reach out to people with music is itself a great way to connect – music itself could be used as a protest against regulation and restriction of expression.

Is an artist selling his soul by agreeing not to perform some songs just to play in China or anywhere else with strict – if silly at this day and age of the Internet – censorship? I’d say, let the artist decide.

The hard cynicism behind censorship will always find it difficult to beat the rhythm of music, give or take a song or two.

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