An Entirely Different View of the Dylan-China Saga

By James Fallows

A little while ago I posted something I strongly believe: that the Chinese central government's thin-skinned quashing of "sensitive" topics is a disservice to the Chinese public and an impediment to the country's full development. The (reported) rejection of Bob Dylan's request to hold concerts in China, following a previous turn-down for Oasis, was the occasion for making this point.

But a few minutes after posting that, I got a reply from Zachary Mexico, a music-world figure and author of China Underground, saying that the factual premise for the comment was probably wrong. That is, how do we know that the Chinese government nixed the concert requests? His first note said (quoted with permission):

re: Bob Dylan: I have it on good authority that the Chinese government did not deny Bob Dylan permission to play in China. It was the Taiwanese promoter's outlandish financial requests that made the tour unrealistic.

re:Oasis: I have heard from several mostly reliable people that the concerts were cancelled by the promoter, EMMA entertainment (they've since gone out of business) for lack of ticket sales, and not for any political reasons.

Blaming the Chinese government is an easy way out when these tours become financial sinkholes.

I wrote back saying, essentially: Interesting if true! How do we know these things? He pointed me to this report in China Music Radar and gave a variety of other reasons to be skeptical of Dylan's "censorship" claim. I quote them after the jump.

I can't judge this first hand, though it's always a positive sign when someone is willing to be quoted by name. I pass on his material because -- assuming it's right -- it adds a different tone to what is becoming a big story; and because this is part of the (valuable) internet tradition of "showing your work" and going public with the process of trying to establish what the truth is. It also illustrates a problem the Chinese government has created for itself, even if it is entirely blameless in this situation: Once you get a bad reputation, you get blamed even for things you didn't do.

But if Zachary Mexico and China Music Radar are right and the Dylan team is falsely blaming Chinese "censorship," then shame on him or whoever is doing this -- and my apologies for passing along a misleading story. There's enough genuine restriction and censorship to criticize.

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From the Z.M. email:

I have some [peripheral] connections in Dylan's camp and was planning to follow him and his band on their China tour. I was warned it might be cancelled because there were problems with the promoter way before the promoter asserted that the Chinese government wouldn't allow Dylan to play.... This whole enterprise was really sketchy to begin with. It had all the hallmarks of promoter difficulty. Dates were posted on the Internet, then removed with no explanation. 

Oasis was booked into enormous venues when they are simply not that popular in China. They couldn't sell enough tickets to cover costs; the promoter cancelled the show, blaming economic reasons, and then shifted the blame to something Tibet-related because it's a much sexier story. This is well-documented. This article from Reuters re:Oasis is a bit confusing; but, yes, the promoters did claim economic difficulty before finally blaming political problems for the cancellations.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/04/an-entirely-different-view-of-the-dylan-china-saga/38493/