Elton John, the British pop music icon, might have failed to exert as much influence in China as some renowned local singers and bands, according to the feedback from audiences to his concerts. But he did succeed in getting extra attention with his abrupt dedication of the concert in Beijing to maverick Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
In the lead-up to the concert, there were calls in the media to rush out and get tickets for Elton John's concert before it's too late. To some, this advertisement now reads like a prediction of his future in China. For insiders and sensitive fans, Elton John might have walked on a blurred line this time leading to uncertainty.
To some netizens, Elton John's second tour to China might be his last and he might appear on the forbidden list next time. But they might have exaggerated the situation.
An audience member told Global Times that it was so noisy she hardly heard the dedication. She believed the majority of the audience was like her. Another audience member surnamed Cheng recollected, "(There was) no particular reaction at all. He said it in the spirit that Ai Weiwei is just a personal friend. I don't think the audience cared about it at all," adding that only those in the media or politically sensitive positions would notice such a thing.
As of press time, there has been no official response from authorities.
But it does worry many fans of foreign bands because it reminds them of the controversy Bjork caused four years ago. At a March concert in Shanghai in 2008, Bjork, a singer from Iceland, shouted "Tibet, Tibet" at the end of "Declare Independence," a song that was not on the approved list.
Many Chinese audience members were upset and showed their anger and confusion after the concert. Bjork reportedly had used this song in different occasions to show her political stance. She had previously participated in the so-called "Tibet free concert" events organized by singers in other countries. The Chinese Ministry of Culture reportedly stated that it would look into the case, stressing the fact that Tibet is an inseparable part of China.
The singer then is suspected to have been banned from performing in China, a move supported by many Chinese due to Bjork's lack of respect for China's sovereignty. Though then vice minister of the Ministry of Culture implied that it would not affect future foreign performances in China, to many fans of Western music, the consequences are not limited only to Bjork.
This time, an employee with a performance company who was reluctant to give her name expressed her concern, "I'm afraid it will not only affect the company behind Elton John's concert but also other companies as well. It's not good for the performance market of European and American artists just as it is getting warmed up if the issue gets played up."
But Li Qian with Cangming Culture, a company engaged in holding performances, didn't agree. What Elton John said will not affect current censorship much. "It will go on as usual," she said.
Process of censorship
In China, all performances involving foreign artists, including bands and singers, need to get permits from the Ministry of Culture. After reaching an agreement with performers, the company in charge needs to submit to the ministry the information of performers, including their resumes, photos, the songs that will be performed in the concert, the lyrics and even videos of songs that have been performed before.
According to relevant regulations, the content of performance should not violate Chinese laws, religion policy or customs, endanger the unity, sovereignty, national safety, or promote obscenity and superstition. All foreign concerts, big or small, need to go through this process as long as it is for the public. It usually takes a long time, from one month to half a year, to get the final result.
An insider from the performance industry surnamed Li told Global Times that most performances can pass as long as they are in line with the regulations and do not contain negative content. "It is widely known that the lyrics should not contain words that endanger the country's sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity," she said, "Performers' background and previous concerts will be checked. Those who have a history of taking drugs are definitely out."
In 2009, British rock band Oasis had scheduled concerts in April for Beijing and Shanghai: Both were canceled. The band issued a statement saying that the reason was its member, Noel Gallagher, had participated in a concert in support of "Tibet independence." But later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it was canceled for economic reasons according to the host company.
After getting the pass, if a song that does not appear on the approved list is sung at the concert, and if it is anti-China, unhealthy or full of foul language, the organizer will have a reason to worry. Otherwise, it is permissible to sing it without causing a fuss, the insider said.
But she admitted that it was hard to control the behavior of performers at the scene: No one can predict what an artist might say during the concert or do beforehand. To prevent mishaps, performance companies must be attentive to foreign artists' lives and research them before making contact.
There are complaints online that some popular bands never get to hold concerts in China. A staff person with guitarchina.com once complained in his blog about the trivial procedure for holding concerts by foreign bands.
To Li Qian, though censorship takes a lot of time and energy for a company, it is worthwhile. "There are factors that we may fail to notice when planning a foreigner's concert, which might cause more trouble than we expect without censorship from the authorities," she told Global Times.
She said that during the period this September when the Diaoyu Islands conflict became intensified, all performances that involved Japan were canceled. "It is out of protection of performance companies, audiences and artists," she said, "There is a worry that the scene might get out of control, given some irrational patriotic behavior around China (at the time)."
Censorship or examination of foreign performances is not exclusive to China as a step to maintain order.
Zhao Benshan, a famous Chinese comedian, reportedly got sued in the US in 2007 because his performance was deemed discriminatory against the disabled.
This May, Lady Gaga's concert in Indonesia - the country with the world's largest Muslim population - was canceled. It seems some local Islamic groups had taken offence at the pop diva's skimpy costumes and erotic dance moves.
Global Times Editorial: Elton John’s outburst met with indifference