China’s Mixed Feelings About Recent Chinosploitation

Judging by the bemused articles friends and family have sent me over the past year or two, we Americans are delighted by Chinese versions of Western shit. And why not? Who among us wouldn’t want to read about Beijing’s first fixed-gear bike gang or the antibacterial underwear sold at Guangzhou Walmarts? And don’t even get me started on the gloriously shameless rip-offs of famous brand names.

But now that China is slated to overtake the U.S. as the world’s number-one economic power, are the tables going to turn? The short answer is “no.” The Chinese may be a manufacturing juggernaut, but we are waaayyyyy ahead of them in terms of entertainment, fashion and, of course, junk food. I mean honestly – can you imagine high-fat, Americanized versions of dried squid or chicken feet? Hollywood remakes of movies about Mao’s Long March? There’s a reason there’s a booming market for pirated American movies.

However – I have read a few interesting instances recently of clumsy American attempts to, well, sell Chinese culture back to the Chinese. Take for example Panda Express’ tentative plan to expand into China.

Surprisingly, Panda Express’founder, Andrew Cherng, is actually a native Chinese, from Jiangsu. That makes his proposition slightly less offensive.

A more recent example is the release of Kung Fu Panda 2, a 3D animated comedy, which, according to an article in the Global Times, is being protested by a local artist through ads and a public letter on his blog:

“This is a battle against the invasion of American culture,” Zhao Bandi, a Beijing-based performance artist known for staging scenarios starring himself and a toy panda, told the Global Times on Monday.

Meanwhile, a Beida professor argues that the Panda isn’t “Chinese” enough:

 Renowned Peking University professor Kong Qingdong pointed out that Po comes across as typically American – talkative and charming – although the film is set in China.

“Rushing to see a Hollywood movie with twisted Chinese culture is the behavior of brainwashed morons whose money is being robbed as well,” Kong told the Global Times.

Haha – I love how this quote basically implies that typical Chinese are not “talkative and charming.”

I also came across an article on ChinaSmack about a music video made by some study abroad students called “Feichang Fresh.” Sadly, it’s not nearly as absurd as I wanted it to be (the song is actually pretty good), but it’s clearly pandering to Chinese people: in near flawless Chinese, the four white guys run around Beijing, praising everything from the women to the food to the accent.

Most commenters are supportive of slick-yet-awkward attempt to endear themselves to Chinese, but others deride the video as offensive – not only in its lighthearted treatment of Chinese identity, but in what it represents about the incursion of foreigners into Beijing:

Don’t raise the Chinese flag as you please! There’s a difference from your nation/country! We normally only raise it when resisting forced demolitions! Raising this flag doesn’t mean you guys are very Chinese!

With food, drink, and girls but without having to worry about housing prices, stock prices, or food prices, of course they’d be feel things are great.

The latter is an awkward topic for foreigners living in China, who make anywhere from three to six times what a college-educated young Chinese would make. But that’s a whole other post. The moral for today? Chinese people are not unequivocally psyched about us appropriating their culture!  But if only they would just try the General Tso’s chicken…

China’s Take (or Leave) on Juicy News

I’m not usually in the habit of doing news roundups, but there were some really interesting stories in news from the past couple days – interesting not only for their content, but in the ways they were covered by both Western and Chinese media.

LITTLE SHOP OF EXPLODING MELONS: An epidemic of exploding watermelons has swept eastern China thanks to over-liberal use of forchlorfenuron, an additive that (according to my expert Wikiing) “is a plant growth regulator…that has been associated with exploding watermelons in China.” (Ok, maybe there were a couple words I cut out of there).

In an attempt to speed growth, farmers have apparently been soaking their melons with the additive, which (in the U.S.) has only been approved for smaller fruits, like grapes and kiwis. However, according to a 2004 study by the EPA, the additive is not toxic, and “not likely to be a human carcinogen,” though in a developmental study of rats, they did observe an “increased incidence of alopecia and decreases in maternal and fetal body weights at the highest dose tested (400 mg/kg/day).”While bald, underweight rats are at the bottom of my list of concerns, the burgeoning army of genetically altered, homicidal plants is at the top. I’m just sayin.

This has been, perhaps, the biggest China-related story of the past few days – by which I mean more major papers have covered it than any other story. Though I couldn’t find any articles about it in Global Times or China Daily, there was a discussion thread about it on the latter as well as news in the Chinese media. This is only the most recent (and the funniest) in a heap of food scandals, and, as the China Digital Times notes, it seems that the government is now encouraging people and media to root out these dangers, rather than just sweeping them under the rug.

BEIJING’S  同志们 STRIKE BACK AGAINST DOUBAN: I don’t know whether I was more disturbed to discover that my favorite Chinese music/social media website is homophobic, or that the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia is acronymed “IDAHO,” one of the least gay-friendly states in the union. Anyway, in honor of yesterday’s IDAHO, 10 Beijing-based LGBTQ groups are boycotting Douban in a backlash against what they call the website’s discriminatory behavior. This, from the GT article on the boycott:

The decision was made after Douban’s behavior repeatedly contradicted its claimed purpose as a platform advocating sharing, openness and mutual aid, said Guo Ziyang from the Beijing Tongxing Working Group, which is among the boycott participants.

Activities initiated by related organizations have been continuously rejected and pictures deleted from the website since about two years ago, Guo told the Global Times.

“Even academic lectures couldn’t get approval,” Guo said.

There was mention of the boycott on this LGBT Chinese website, though it notes that the story came from the English edition of the Global Times.

SECRET BILLIONAIRES’ CLUB IN THE FORBIDDEN CITY UNMASKED: According to the Telegraph:

Management at the former palace of the Chinese emperors have been accused of hawking memberships to the club at for 1m yuan (almost £92,600) each, offering exclusive access to the palace for international and Chinese millionaires.

The article goes on to state that, while the organization managing the Forbidden City initially denied the allegations, by the beginning of this week, they had admitted that they“had indeed offered the memberships ‘wrongly and without consultation’ and that these were now being terminated pending a review.”

Note the stark difference from Global Times’ lede:

Jianfu Gong, aka the Palace of Established Happiness in the Forbidden City, has been transformed into “a private club exclusively for the 500 richest people in the world,” alleges a microblog entry by China Central Television anchor Rui Chenggang. The entry drew 7,580 views and 2,596 comments in one day.

Why the shift from hard news to “rumor based on a blog post”? We could chalk it up to shoddy reporting on the part of GT, but there’s another more likely reason – they’re trying to deflect the full impact of a piece of news that has already enraged thousands of Chinese netizens.

As the Telegraph notes: China’s rulers fret openly about threat of social unrest caused by rising wealth inequalities as ordinary working Chinese struggle to pay for food and housing while an elite few – often trading on political connections – reap massive rewards from China’s economic miracle.

Bitter Chinese say that the clique of rich and powerful “500 families” that rule China, with their networks of cronies and hangers-on, increasingly resemble the Imperial Court with its gate-keeping eunuchs that was swept away by a series of revolutions after 1911.

Still, the Global Times did present a rather damning case, though it might all be according to hearsay. Later on in their article, they write:

The Global Times made many calls to the FCCDC (the company that manages the Forbidden City), but no one was willing to discuss Jianfu Gong, with respondents alternately confirming and denying involvement…

AI WEI WEI MEETS WITH WIFE AND FAMILY: Widely covered by a number of international news outlets, the meeting was Ai Wei Wei’s first since he was detained 40 days ago. Al Jazeera provides an especially heart-wrenching description of the meeting here.

No news in any Chinese newspapers that I could find; a Chinese search turned up just a couple of hits, all of which were blocked by the firewall. However, China Daily did allow one user to post, in parts, an article about the meeting, before finishing with, “I’d like to thank the moderators & China Daily for lettin’ stuff get out of the filter. (Things have definitely improved since I joined the Forum).” It’s a touching moment… until the forum gets spammed with trash talk from China’s infamous “50 cent army,” in the form of a couple guys named “Yankeedawg” and “saltandpepper”:

– I read he is done for emasculating himself in hard porn, the dirty bugger. I hope I’ve used the write word. We Yanks are rather non-clued in English granmmer usage.

– Wei is a tax dodger too.

– The fake “artist” disguised as “activist, human rights etc etc ” which has an obsession to destroy China’s great grandchildren’s true Human Rights on behalf of its greedy hyena master, is a desease-ridden insect that must not be allowed to reap its reward.

-SALUTE TO THIS GREAT CPC FOR FULLFILLING THEIR SACRED DUTY BY CRUSHING THIS DESEASED INSECT !
– This great CPC again and again displaid their generousity and humanity, even toward the cockroach wife of this crushed deseased insect that use its pretext of human rights to destroy her great grandchildren’s true Human Rights. But make no mistake, that this great CPC is always vigilant !

– Its cockroach group and their greedy hyena masters can foam, drool and jump up and down as high as they want. This great CPC sacred duty must be fullfilled and deseased insect must not and will not be allowed to destroy her great grandchildren’s Human Rights. SALUTE TO THIS GREAT CPC FOR SAFEGUARDING HER GREAT GRANDCHILDREN’S TRUE HUMAN RIGHTS !

May Festival Deathmatch

After the Mayday weekend, I had every intention of rushing over to my computer and joining in on the review blitz that I was sure would be erupting across the musical blogosphere… but then I was, like, super-tired from going to so many shows, so I rested for a week. The delay did, however, give me a chance to squeeze in one more festival – Ditan Folk – which happened last weekend in Ditan Park.

As per the festivals – I’ll start out by admitting that I didn’t go to any of the May fests last spring – however I did read and hear lots of criticism of the two bigguns, particularly Strawberry, which came under fire by both Carsick Cars’ Zhang Shouwang and Pet Conspiracy’s Helen Feng for:

  • poor treatment of the artists
  • poor organization
  • overbranding

In its post Art Vs. Commerce last year, China Music Radar also slammed Strawberry for excessive branding and bad production. Most offensive, based on reports from friends, was the sound bleeding between stages, which had been placed much too close together.

And so it was with a mixture of excitement, curiosity, and reluctance that I tripped my way out toBeijing’s furthest corners this Mayday weekend to enjoy a sampling of festivals. On Saturday I hit Raying Temple’s ExSE (East by Southeast), an indoor experimental festival, Sunday was Midi, and Monday was Strawberry. The following weekend, I took a delightfully short trip to Ditan Park for the folk fest.

Now. I’m not saying that this was a competition – the more the merrier, right? – but I am going to force all the festivals to face off in a deathmatch… based on my personal experience of each one. Because, you know, I mean, why not? What the hell?

TRANSPORTATION

Midi: On the day I went to Midi, May 1, everything was smooth as silk. As soon as we stepped out of the subway, there were signs everywhere pointing us toward the festival shuttle. Getting there was a piece of cake, and same for the way back.

 Strawberry: When we stepped off the subway at Sihui East, there were no signs indicating where the festival shuttle bus was. After wandering around for ten or so minutes, we finally found a sign for the shuttle down the road a few minutes. We waited like a bunch of sitting ducks for the shuttle, as black cab drivers descended on us and carried away more and more impatient concert-goers. After 30 or 40 minutes, we finally just jumped in a cab. There were no signs for a shuttle going back, so we jumped in a city bus. (Note: several commenters at Beijing Daze noted that there was a free Ray Ban bus from Gongti that made transportation a piece of cake… though how they heard about it, I’m not sure.)+

ExSE: Subway to bus to walking. Tongzhou is far.

Ditan: Line 2.

Winner: Ditan, duh.

ORGANIZATION

Midi: Although pre-sale tickets were sold out, we only had to wait five or ten minutes to buy tix on-site. We each received a handy, well-bound booklet containing the fest schedule as well as descriptions of each band. Beer, water, and food were ample.

Strawberry: We had our tickets already, so don’t know about the waiting situation. But when we got in, there were no schedules left, which was a huge pain in the ass because there were six stages. Booths near the door did, however, have plenty of map, showing where each of the stages and – of course – the countless sponsor tents were. Refreshments were significantly less ample, but seemed to be sufficient.

ExSE: Organization? This is anarchy man! Nah, just kidding, there was a setlist taped up by the door.

Ditan: Man, what the hell! They were out of schedules by the time we got there, and they schedules they did have just listed all the bands playing in no order whatsoever. Plus they screwed up the timing, so that when Xiao He finally went out (who we waited hours to see) he only played for ten minutes.

Winner:Midi

PRODUCTION

Midi: Featured just three stages a good distance away from one another. As a crowd member, I thought the sound was decent, though the stages got a tad off-schedule. However, a friend who played on the Yen stage complained that the sound wasn’t great, and his guitar kept getting all full of dust.

Strawberry: With six stages, Strawberry had a lot to keep track of, but from where I was standing, the sound seemed pretty good. Following last year’s criticism over sound clashing, they mercifully moved the “Overload” stage over a bit, so that neighboring bands weren’t drowned out by metal. Alas, the diminutive School stage, featuring university bands, didn’t fare so well, and was mostly overwhelmed by the nearby Strawberry (?) stage.

ExSE: Boy, it was loud. But it was also inside.

Ditan: Sounded pretty good… though there was only one stage, so they had it easy.

Winner: Tie

BRANDING

Midi: Midi’s mascot this year was the persecuted Moon Bear, thousands of which are kept alive in “bile-milking” farms throughout Chinaso that their precious bodily fluids can be harvested for TCM. (See this Wikipedia article to read about the gruesome details). According to Midi’s press release, the festival teamed up with the Animal Asia Foundation to promote awareness over the issue and to raise funds through the sale of commemorative merch. Oh yeah, and there was also a Jaeger tent.

Strawberry: The festival grounds were heavily branded, featuring tents for each of their major sponsors, including…a bunch that I would cite but can’t remember because someone threw away my map. However, it seems organizers learned a lesson from last year, and didn’t force the artists to play between, like, giant computers or anything like that.

ExSE: Branding is for sellouts… or bands that actually intend to make money.

Ditan: Didn’t notice any.

Winner:Midi

LINEUP

Midi: Midi had some very respectable bands this year, tending towards a harder sound, like Misandao, AK-47, Yaksa, and SMZB. But even taking into account the two fests’ differences in style and audience, Midi still didn’t really hold a candle to Strawberry.

Strawberry: Despite all my grievances, I have to admit that Strawberry had a monster lineup over its three days. To wit: Hang on the Box, Catcher in the Rye, Hanggai, AV Okubo, Hedgehog, ReTROS, Me Guan Me’S, Lazy Camels, Bigger Bang, Mono, Queen Sea Big Shark, Elvis T, and more. Whereas last year there was a huge amount of overlap between the festivals, this year Strawberry managed to get the lockdown on some prime real estate. The two festivals only shared a couple bands, like Brain Failure and Reflector.

ExSE: This was the cream of the experimental crop, featuring a mix of Beijing and 外地 artists, including Zoomin’ Night favorites like Ice Sellers and Xiao Hong and Xiao Xiao Hong, as well as iconic NoJiji noise masters Mafeisan.

Ditan: Hard to say since the schedule made no sense whatsoever. But they did have artists like Xiao He, Mamer, and Traveller.

Winner: Strawberry

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE

Midi: Felt like an intimate punk show blown up a hundred times. Near the end of the afternoon, when Brain Failure and SMZB took the stage, hordes of mohawked youth rushed up to pump their fists, wave flags, and dance up choking clouds of dust.

Strawberry: Felt like a summer picnic. Fun, but the music was more like background noise than the center of attention.

ExSE: Felt like a magical 60’s collective house.

Ditan: Felt like I should’ve been playing some ‘sack and smokin’ a bowl. Also felt hungry because all they had there was like popcorn.

Winner: ExSE

OVERAL WINNER: ExSE

This was, hands-down, the best festival I went to all weekend. Granted, it’s a bit hard to compare a DIY experimental music fest with the horrific, drooling monsters that are Midi and Strawberry, but if we’re talking about an event that:

  • is about art rather than commerce
  • demonstrates philosophical and stylistic coherence
  • hones in on local artists rather than weird (in a bad way) foreign bands that were cool in the 80s (in a bad way)
  • helps feed the local scene

then this was the event of the season. Held at Raying Temple (小雷音), the magical DIY space/home of the NoJiji collective, the festival featured a mix of Beijing and 外地 experimental artists, including Zoomin’ Night favorites like Ice Sellers and Xiao Hong and Xiao Xiao Hong, as well as iconic NoJiji noise masters Mafeisan. My personal favorites of the day were Echo Vein, an eardrum-blowing duo that hails from Beijing and Tianjin, and Chui Wan, who I’ve seen play a few times, but only really clicked for me at their recent shows at SxSE and D22’s anniversary show. By the end of the evening, I’d seen six or seven bands, drunk lots of cheap beer, bought a collection of NoJiji poetry, and had lots of deep thoughts about art and life, the kind you only get while listening to eight loops playing over one another, and which you would never repeat to anyone, even yourself, because it would just sound too goddamn stupid.

You may protest that ExSE was more of a show than a festival – after all, it was indoors, it appealed to a very specific audience, there was no chuanr or beer in plastic cups, it had only one stage – but I guess, in a way, that’s my point. Events like Midi and Strawberry are a good excuse to travel to some far-flung, semi-rural location and get sloppy with a crowd of like-minded peers… but there’s a reason bands like Carsick Cars and PK 14 don’t play festivals.

Mysterious Spate of Logistical Problems Sweeps Beijing

On the eve of the biggest music weekend of the year – the May Day festival blowout, this year featuring Midi, Strawberry, Chaoyang Pop, Pinggu, and Raying Temple’s Experimental fest – arts events across Beijing have been getting shut down without explanation due to a wave of “logistical problems” that are apparently sweeping Beijing.

On April 20, Global Times reported that the 8th Annual Documentary Film Festival, slated to take place May 1 through 7, was “pulling its own plug”:

We cancelled it ourselves,” festival art director Zhu Rikun told the Global Times Tuesday. “The overall situation was tense, and we had received a lot of pressure. We worried that the films to be shown would meet some problems in this environment and decided to cancel it.” He would not explain specifically what pressures they had encountered.

Meanwhile, a show at Mao Livehouse was shut down a week or so ago, while Rustic’s cd release party (scheduled for April 22) was aborted at the last second when electrical problems were suddenly invented discovered at Yugong Yishan. On their blog, Rustic wrote:

大家不要有太多的担心和误会,Rustic也不会因为这么突然的事件灰心或者打不起精神来。士不可以不弘毅,任重而道远. 在中国做摇滚乐,就是要肩负起这样或那样的挫折,这一切都是摇滚女皇送给我们的礼物,Rock n Roll loves the boys,the boys gonna face the troubles. 我们认为摇滚的魅力并不只是表现在舞台上,他更反映在舞台下,反映在乐队需要面对的一系列的挫折里,这更是一个好的开始,一个让Rustic乐队走的更远的开始。

We don’t want everyone to be too concerned or full of misunderstandings. Rustic won’t be discouraged by this event or lose our spirit. Soldiers cannot give up when there is still a long way to go. To make rock music inChinais to experience a number of setbacks – all of it is part of the gift given to us by the queen of rock and roll. Rock and roll loves the boys, the boys gonna face the troubles. We believe that the charm of rock music is not just in performing onstage – it’s reflected even more off the stage, reflected when bands are forced to confront a series of setbacks. This is an even better start, one that makes rustic start from an either further starting place…

Who knows what other fine events have been shut down by this recent unfortunate spate of logistical problems and code violations? It’s an epidemic! …just like the ones that broke out during the Olympics and Shanghai Expo and any other national event. I can only hope that everything goes off without at hitch this coming weekend, and that no metalheads with an overabundance of national pride burn any Japanese flags

Animal Activist Saves Dogs; Chinese Netizens Outraged

Dogs rescued for Jilinrens dinner plates.

When I was a kid, I used to get SO MAD when other kids would talk about how the Chinese eat cats and dogs. It was, I figured, all lies; racism, pure and simple.

…Or not.

Living in Beijing, you’d never know that Chinese eat dogs unless you read the news. My neighborhood is full of pampered little rat dogs, usually scampering around leashless while their owners follow behind, fussing at them adoringly. It’s as if the One Child Policy turned half of China’s old people into childless, older gay men who dress up their chihuahuas in hand-knitted hoodies and rubber boots.

Despite the growing number of caninephiles, there’s still a weird disconnect in China between dog lovers as in “animal lovers” and dog lovers as in “pizza lovers.” That disconnect was on full display this past Friday, when a truck filled with dogs bound for a Jilin meat market was forced to stop on the highway by an activist who “swerved his car in front of the truck and then used his blog to alert animal-rights activists” (see the Telegraph report here). Apparently there was a fifteen-hour standoff that ended when the truck driver finally agreed to sell the dogs to an animal-protection group at a loss.

While this news story had me cheering, Chinese netizens were apparently less than impressed. In a recent article, the Global Times reported that, in a poll of 7000 users, 69% did not support the activists actions:

“One group’s love and kindness should not violate others’ freedom, rights and interests, otherwise, they would become evil,” Lian Yue, a well-known columnist, said on his microblog on Sunday, adding that the activists were no different than home intruders.

Some people said the animal-rights supporters should care more about people, as there are many people who could benefit greatly from 100,000 yuan.

This incident comes in the wake of recent calls by animal activists and legal experts to put a ban on the eating of cats and dogs within China. Based on polls and message boards, it seems that there’s a split between dog lovers/people who think eating dogs makes China look bad and those who see it as no different from eating other kinds of meat (there’s a ton of stories and netizen reactions on Chinasmack.com). The latter opinion was dominant in a random message board I found, where most of the 196 comments viewed the activists negatively, many criticizing them as “hypocrites”:

狗粉得了狂犬病. The dog lover (the man who blocked the truck) has rabies.

如果哪一天猪迷到处拦截装运生猪的车那该咋办呢?What if instead of dogs, it was a truck full of live pigs that was intercepted by a bunch of pig-lovers? Then what?

志愿者又没花你的钱,愤青们急个什么劲啊?一群伪善者,不用鉴定已完毕. Just a bunch of hypocrites, no need to mull over something that’s already over.
志愿者又没花你的钱,愤青们急个什么劲啊?贫困地区的问题应该正府解决的吧。 What are all the angry people so worried about? The problems of impoverished regions should be solved by the government…
你们都是最有道德的人,你们是神! You are all the most moral of men – you are gods!
中华慈善总会的那十万说不定还有劳资的几百块,我日!劳资捐钱是要救人的,不是救狗的!Of the Chinese Charitable Association’s hundreds of thousands of RMB, there are perhaps still a few hundred that are my own. Fuck! My donations are for saving the lives of people, not dogs!
高速路上拦车是什么行为?强迫货车司机把狗卖给他们是什么行为?前者明显违反道法,甚至涉嫌以危险方法危害公共安全罪,高速路上不是只有运狗货车和尼玛狗粉的车吧?后者明显属于强买强卖,破坏公平合法的市场秩序!
Blocking a car on the subway? What kind of behavior is that? Forcing the truck driver to sell them the dogs – what kind of behavior is that? The former is a clear violation of humanitarian law, to the point that those involved could be accused of endangering public safety. There must have been other cars on the road besides the truck and the dog lover’s! The latter obviously means the driver was forced to sell, a violation of fair and legal market practices!
鄙视,一群伪善者. Contemptible, just a bunch of hypocrites.
哎,好想吃狗肉啊… 猪肉牛肉都吃腻了. Mmm, now I really want to eat some dog meat. I’m sick of pork and beef.
我认为狗比人更值得拯救,你救了人可能会被反咬一口,而狗不会。I think dogs are more worth saving than people. If you save a person,  you’re liable to get kicked in the teeth, but not so with a dog.
I’ve been consistently surprised by the amount of backlash against activists who protest the eating of cats and dogs. Could it be that people just love eating Fluffy and Fido that much? I doubt it. It makes me wonder what “the right to eat cats and dogs” is actually standing in for…

Dowd on Dylan in the PRC

As controversy and news coverage over Bob Dylan’s recent performances in the PRC die down, I thought I’d contribute a little perspective from someone on the ground on the show… and one very skewed, but very interesting, piece of coverage.

Let me start out by saying that I didn’t even want to go to Dylan’s Beijing show. I saw him perform around ten years ago, and he wasn’t that great then; I’d heard that in the years since, he’s only gotten worse. Plus, the cheapest tickets we could find were almost 500 kuai. For those of you who don’t deal in Maos, 500 RMB = 75 USD = 1/3 of my monthly rent = 83.33 bowls of noodles. But I’m a sucker, and so I went.

It was probably the worst show I’ve ever seen – not because Dylan didn’t sing some of his best-known protest songs, and not because he failed to rally the 6,000-strong crowd over the detention of well-known artist and political prisoner Ai Wei Wei. It was because the sound sucked. And our seats sucked. And some guy pretending to work at the venue ran off with our tickets.

It may have been an event of huge international cultural and political importance – but it was also the most boring concert I’ve ever seen. The sound was so low we could barely hear anything, a situation made worse by Dylan’s nearly non-existent vocal range (he didn’t so much sing as he did yell his way through the songs). Hits like “Tangled Up in Blue” roused a few cheers, along with some anemic clapping-along that petered out a few measures in. When the show finally ended, my companion and I breathed a sigh of relief. “God that was boring,” I said. “Yeah,” he answered. “Let’s go get some food.”

In other words, for us, it was kind of a non-event. Which is why I was surprised when I logged onto the New York Times a few days ago and read Maureen Dowd’s idiotic new column about how Bob Dylan is a giant sellout for not inciting revolution during his recent performance in Beijing. What could be more Sinosploitative than that? She writes:

The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.

I guess since Thomas Friedman was off today, someone had to spew a little Sino-ignorance all over the NYT’s Opinion Pages…

Defenses of Dylan in the comment section seemed mainly to revolve around the recurring ideas that “well, Dylan never wanted to be a revolutionary” and “hey, we all gotta make a living somehow, right?”

What was missing from the discussion was a real understanding of how protest works (or doesn’t work) in China. The problem here is not that Dylan missed an opportunity to make a statement, but that there was never an opportunity in the first place. The notion that Dylan should have – even could have – whipped out a little of the sixties revolutionary spirit in 21st-century China, and in this way made a statement, is beyond absurd. The significance of such an act not only would’ve been lost on the crowd (which, according to various articles, was only vaguely aware of Dylan’s cultural significance), but it would’ve incited a government crackdown like the one that followed Bjork’s misguided mention of Tibet during a show here two years ago.

Local musician Luddy Harrison makes the point effectively in a post on James Fallows’ blog, mentioning a crucial point that most other respondents missed: namely, that there is nothing courageous or effective about the course of action that Dowd suggests:

There’s another aspect to this whole question, namely, what is in fact the most effective thing for a foreign performer to do, if they hope to increase openness and democracy in China? I was at Bjork’s concert when she muttered ‘Tibet’ a few times in the encore. It was off-mic and hardly seemed courageous to me, in fact I couldn’t make it out and didn’t understand what had happened until I read the papers the next day.

While I don’t want to say that protest in China is pointless, for Chinese it is dangerous and largely ineffective. For famous, privileged Westerners, it’s beyond ineffective – it’s pure vanity. Nobody’s going to throw Bjork or Bob Dylan in a secret Chinese prison for twenty years. They’ll make their “statement” and be on their merry way, while back in China, we won’t see another big Western act for years.

But Dowd, I reckon, isn’t interested in the reality of the situation here in China. Nor does she seem particularly interested in the reality of Dylan as a performer, who (despite his lyrics) has no interest in serving as a moral beacon or revolutionary. She’s interested in the symbology of the event – one in which the Chinese government is a monster, the public are a huddled mass, yearning for freedom, and Bob is an ambassador of American freedom.

There’s been tons of coverage of the Dylan show. On the [English-speaking] Chinese side is government mouthpiece, The Global Times, which printed an amusing analysis of the cultural significance of Bob Dylan (or lack thereof) in China. Best of all are the translated song titles on page 2. Predictably, after the show they printed an overly optimistic review of the concert.

The L.A. Times, by contrast, relayed a factual account that focused on the political implications of the performance.

James Fallows at the Atlantic showed remarkable restraint in a recent post entitled “Dylan, Dowd, and China: Did Bob Really Sell Out?”  He then diplomatically steps back and allows his friends to answer the question. Reading between the lines, the answer is “no” and “Dowd has no idea what she’s talking about.”

More recently, The Nation and Huffington Post both offered rebuttals to Dowd’s article, though more on the basis of Dylan’s artistic integrity and complexity than on Dowd’s complete ignorance of the circumstances in China.

My favorite quote of all the articles I read was from Bob Dylan expert Sean Wilentz, who tried to convince Dowd she was making a mistake writing the article:

Whatever the facts are, Dylan knows very well — as I tried to tell Dowd when she interviewed me for her column — that his music long ago became uncensorable. Subversive thoughts aren’t limited to his blatant protest songs of long ago. Nor would his political songs from the early nineteen-sixties have made much sense in China in 2011. Dowd, like Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” is as clueless about all of this as she is smug.
哈哈 – indeed.