The Clampdown

China's coming-out party has been the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but this has been accompanied by a clampdown in China's music industry

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by Stephen Zhao

It was in 1908 that the Chinese first proposed hosting the Olympics on their home turf, so the 2008 Olympics bear the weight of a 100-year-old national dream. Though we’d like to issue a moratorium on tired journalistic tropes, it’s undeniably apt to call the Beijing Olympics a “coming-out party” for a newly prosperous China.

Despite the government paying lip-service to the directive that we “should not link Olympics with politics,” of course the Games have been politicized. The maxim to “do the nation’s utmost to lead up to Olympics,” particular to China and the Chinese notion of saving-face, have made the Games both a topic of giddy fascination and a source of tension. An official with China’s Ministry of Public Security warned that “anti-China powers” and other “hostile cliques” are intensifying their campaign to destroy the Beijing Olympics, giving Chinese authorities the mandate to enact heavy-handed security measures in Beijing and supporting cities.

And so, live music venues began to feel the heavy hands come down…

Jay Chou’s concert in Zhengzhou and Chengdu, cancelled;

Night clubs around Beijing Workers’ Stadium, closed;

“Youth Day Festival” held by Wenling city (Zhejiang province), called off;

Chang Chen-yue’s concert in Hangzhou, cancelled;

D-22, one of the best venues in Beijing for live music, known as China’s CBGB, was also closed for some time, but is now open again.

The Midi Festival, pushed out of its May time-slot by the Public Security Bureau, is said to be rescheduled for October; and even the Midi music school’s internal performances have been put on hold.

The above is just a sampling of the year’s developments in the Chinese music industry; compared with the year’s natural disasters – debilitating snow storms in January and the Sichuan earthquake in May — these events are like a drop in the ocean. Nonetheless, from the perspective of the underground music scene, the show cancellations and venue closings have been calamitous in their own right.

Beijing’s Midi Festival was to make its Shanghai debut this year, but it was ultimately called with an “excuse” designation from powers that be. Asked what the “excuse” was, an official from Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film & TV, who asked for anonymity, confirmed to me that it was, to a great degree, due to the imminent Beijing Olympics. In the name of “stability and harmony” leading up to the Olympics, the government has pulled the rug out from under highly-anticipated cultural events, including those of a growing counterculture that gives modern China much of its texture and panache.

Zhang Fan, founder of Beijing Midi School of Music, is a driving force behind the annual Midi Festival, which attracts underground bands at home as well as from abroad, who come to China to perform at their own expense. On his blog, Zhang explained that the Midi school’s internal performances were halted owing to two serious incidents. First, more than 700 children in Anhui province were infected with enterovirus, leaving 19 dead. The second issue was a train collision in Shandong province, resulting in more than 70 casualties. “Due to the grief, we have decided to halt the performance (in our school) named ‘Return to Utopia’.” The explanation was met with skepticism from China’s netizens, who thought Zhang’s explanations shrouded the government’s probable role in cancelling the live performances.

But when it came to the cancellation of the Midi Festival, representatives from the Midi school were more transparent, saying that the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau sees the cancellation as a necessary safety measure, worried about crowd control at a free concert that had been so widely publicized online. (Contrary to the PSB’s information, Midi tickets range from 50 RMB for a day pass, to 100 RMB for a multi-day pass.)

The country’s alternative music fans didn’t take news of the cancellation lying down, with a torrent of criticism erupting on blogs and BBS, and calls for rioting. Meanwhile, some netizens parsed the chain of events more rationally. One blogger, publishing under the name “Voice Weekly,” noted that authorities had enough control and precautionary measures to ensure a safe and orderly Olympics, but would not allot the same resources to a 10,000-capacity music festival:

“The government is supposed to support the Festival, setting up enough police power to keep it safe and allowing media to cover it freely in order that another aspect of Chinese young people’s culture life, as well as their freedom to express themselves, could be understood by some ignorant foreign media and persons.”

Asked to explain the clampdown on live music, government types played to type with bureaucratic answers: “Owing to reasons known to all…” was a buzz-phrase used by officials to explain the cancellation of Jay Chou’s concert in Zhengzhou. To music lovers especially, this sort of Orwellian speak is tantamount to saying nothing at all.

Stephen Zhao is editor of Cycling magazine. He has previously worked as a reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post, an editor of the Shanghai Economist, and an editor at the Interfax China news agency.

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