Every So Often It Must Be Said...

... that it is incredibly tin-horn and defensive for the Chinese government to deny Bob Dylan permission for concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, as it previously has turned down Oasis (after an "unpleasant surprise" from Bjork two years ago).*

Bear moments like this in mind as you read the next zillion stories about China's unstoppable rise to world dominance, the attraction of the Chinese social-political model, and so on.

      Threat to public order: Bjork. (From Bjork.com)

On the cautionary side about Chinese power, this is of course a reminder of why it would be bad to have current Chinese-government** concepts of free expression applied beyond its borders. The Dylan/Oasis/Bjork cases may seem trivial; the jailing of civil-society activists like Liu Xiaobo flows from the same mentality but is obviously much more serious.

On the other side, pettiness like this is a reminder of the self-limiting aspects of the Communist government's internal controls, and the contradiction between its ambitions to have a vibrant, "creative," high-innovation, high-value productive society and its extreme nervousness about certain kinds of free discussion. "Certain kinds" because in many realms, as I've repeatedly  noted, modern Chinese society is rollicking and wide-open. But in well-known zero-tolerance fields, notably including anything involving the threat of "splittism" (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, etc), plus other areas that become "sensitive" for no apparent reason, the government allows no leeway at all. Seriously, how "vibrant" a culture of intellectual inquiry are you going to have under a government that is afraid of Bjork? How attractive is China going to be as a talent magnet for the wide world if becoming a citizen means a greater risk of arbitrary imprisonment?***

As I've also said time and again, China is a much more appealing country seen up-close than its government decisions make it appear. This is an extreme example worth noting; it's a decision unworthy of the billion-plus people in whose name it is made.
* At a concert in Shanghai in 2008, Bjork yelled out "Tibet" at the end of her song "Declare Independence." We were in Shanghai at the time, and it was a truly big deal.

** It's worth always remembering: while the Chinese public is often tolerant of government efforts to avoid "chaos" and stamp out "splittism" etc, very few people I've met there would be afraid of hearing from Dylan or Bjork. The government is the only one that feels threatened.

*** Reason #four million why the Guantanamo / detention-without-trial era in recent American history has been so damaging to our image worldwide. Of course American society has standards of rule-of-law that China doesn't come close to. But it is harder for us to denounce open-ended detention of "security threats" elsewhere than it used to be, or should be.

ALSO I see that the Atlantic Wire has an item on this.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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