It seems that China can’t get enough of turfing out American institutions: first Google, and now Bob Dylan. The singer-songwriter had planned to tour east Asia this month, but his shows in Beijing were abruptly cancelled by the Chinese authorities, who were anxious, no doubt, that his very presence would lead to the utter collapse of the Communist Party, the liberation of Tibet and revolution on a scale not seen since Jesus of Nazareth walked on water, saying: “Hey, check this.”
After a 2008 Björk concert that ended with the Icelandic singer shouting “Tibet, Tibet”, China imposed explicit new rules for foreign musicians interested in performing in the country. “Those who used to take part in activities that harm the nation’s sovereignty,” the government announced, “are firmly not allowed to perform in China.”
It’s interesting that Dylan, at 68, is still perceived as a threat at all — even in his politicised youth, his attitudes to socialism were ambivalent, bordering on sympathetic. In songs such as “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, he was more likely to poke fun at American “patriots” obsessed with rooting out Russian spies than at the card-carrying party members themselves:
I wus lookin’ high an’ low for them Reds everywhere
I wus lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
They got away . . .
Besides which, Dylan’s post-millennial career has hardly been politically inflammatory. His most recent release was a homely Christmas album; and, true to the sentiment of his towering 1997 blues “Highlands”, he has reportedly upped sticks to Scotland to play golf with his brother.
The Guardian suggests that the Chinese ban could restore Dylan’s credibility as “the prophet from Desolation Row”. Such a mantle, however, never did suit an artist more interested in eternal truths and American mythology than the act of predicting the future.
When Leonard Cohen tried to play Ramallah on the West Bank in 2009, his concert, too, was cancelled, but for very different reasons. His Palestinian bookers pulled the plug amid claims that the show would be a concessionary gesture, with the sole purpose of “balancing” his performance in Tel Aviv.
The accusation was cruel — the proceeds of Cohen’s tour in the region, after all, were intended for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation fund started by the singer — yet the arguments of his detractors raise an interesting point with regard to Dylan’s later snub.
Shir Hever, an economist and activist with the Alternative Information Centre, said that Cohen had “missed the point”, and that his Tel Aviv gig served as “a kind of validation” of Israel’s conduct in the West Bank. Israelis “point out the willingness of people like Madonna and Leonard Cohen to give shows as a sign that Israel is normal, like a European country”.
If this logic applies to China, the country’s reluctance to send the message of normalcy through its cultural interactions provides a curious insight into its sense of exceptionalism. Keen to assert its independence from the world’s major powers (as its growing tensions with the US demonstrate), China seems happy to announce its abnormality, its special place in the changing global hegemony — which could be bad news for music fans in Beijing.