So, Bob Dylan will be playing Beijing and Shanghai. And, as with so much of the UK media’s China coverage, the subtext is more interesting than the story.
Reports concentrate on the fact that the Wenhuabu will be vetting Dylan’s playlist, with the non-expert left to understand that this will prevent the audience from being exposed to his revolutionary lyrics. Poor Chinese - denied such things as Coca Cola and blue jeans. It brings to mind a well-meaning American I once heard of in Shanghai, who’d gone out there with a pile of CD’s intending to turn the city’s youth on to rock’n’roll. This, though, was 2009, and they knew more about Western music than he did...
But of course you can get hold of Dylan’s backlist anywhere in China at the click of a mouse or in any music shop. The pre-approval of live acts is nothing more than a reminder that, even if everybody is already familiar with what’s not being sung, the Communist Party still disapproves, and treasures the prerogative to be seen to do something about it.
And alongside news of Bob’s plans there have been references once again in the UK media to Bjork shouting “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of a gig in Shanghai in 2008. But while the simple word “Tibet” for many (most?) Westerners embodies ideas of cultural oppression and human rights abuses, almost universally for the Han Chinese it is purely evocative of that mountainous, backward hunk of China that was lucky enough to have its exploitative theocracy toppled by the People’s Republic. Far from being a rousing cry to hearten a crowd of oppressed young Chinese yearning to hear what Icelanders have to say about Tibet, I strongly suspect the outburst was in fact understood more in these terms...
Bjork: Tibet! Tibet!
Man in Crowd: What did she say?
Man’s Girlfriend: Dunno - my English is pretty crap.
Bystander: I think she said “Tibet” - it’s English for Xizang.
Man in Crowd: Why did she shout Xizang? Weirdo.
Bystander: Perhaps she thinks Shanghai’s in Xizang?
Man in Crowd: Hmmm, unlikely. Xizang’s pretty backward.
Bystander: Yeah, lucky for Xizang there was peaceful liberation.
Girlfriend: Erm, I think she’s finished. Hungry?
Man in Crowd: Yeah, I could murder a Chinese.
If Dylan finishes with a cry of “Tian’anmen Square!” he should know in advance that his audience won’t interpret this as solidarity with the student protests that took place before they were born. They’ll just think he’s as proud as they are of China’s most iconic public space.