Bjork didn’t do Chinese rock fans any favours when she concluded her 2008 Shanghai show by shouting, ‘Tibet! Tibet!’ Although incidents like this are rare, it only takes one to rile the powers that be – which is why there exists a battalion of officials charged with keeping out the wrong kind of performer ... and why booking shows in China can be downright Kafkaesque.
‘They’re looking for anything to do with disputed regions of China, anything that’s bad for Chinese youth, anything contrary to a harmonious society – the standard bulls**tf or anything that’s slightly controversial,’ says Archie Hamilton, co-founder of local promoters Split Works. Though over the years Split Works have learned all the dos and don’ts to get foreign artists into China, he says over the past year things have been getting harder – a trend that was evidenced by this year’s Jue Festival.
It was a mere two weeks before Jue’s start that officials from the Ministry of Culture trooped down to Yugong Yishan to deliver a notice banning a show by Japanese psych band Acid Mothers Temple (AMT). It was a politically sensitive moment for China and Japan, but that wasn’t why they were being cancelled – at least not officially.
‘The reason they came up with was that the band was pornographic and occult – and to the average censor who doesn’t have experience with this stuff, you can somewhat sympathise,’ Hamilton says. ‘But it was very painful because these are artists who are way more interesting and relevant than a lot of the other crap – but maybe it’s the intelligence they’re scared of.’
The ministry didn’t stop there. After Split Works booked a replacement act, post-rock band Hualun, they returned and cancelled the show outright. The same thing happened with Jue’s opening market, which had to be delayed. ‘That was the CCP Congress weekend and they just went a bit gangbusters crazy around Beijing,’ Hamilton says.
Each time acts and concerts are cancelled it’s a disappointment, but rarely a surprise. Most recently, Japanese outfit Boris was forced to cancel citing political reasons and Bruno Mars was almost aborted following news of a drug arrest. What made AMT particularly notable was the fact that it was a show that would normally fly under the radar – and that the government reacted with such vehemence.
So what can promoters do to save themselves time and headaches? According to Hamilton, it’s about playing by the government’s rules – and learning to read the cards. ‘It’s only when entertainment and media go under the spotlight for any reason that you have a problem. They’re very sensitive at certain times [and] we have to be aware of that and try not to piss them off.’