News that the Chinese authorities have cancelled Oasis’ planned live dates in Beijing and Shanghai is depressing on a number of levels, but what it makes so profoundly troubling – apart from the ruthless levels of state censorship it represents – is that it turns the clock back on years of progress in bringing rock music to the youth of China.
The government’s ‘beef’ with Oasis apparently relates to the fact that the band played a Free Tibet concert all the way back in 1997. Evidently, no sleight is too minor or too far in the past to escape the insane hypersensitivity of the Communist regime’s officials. But then we already knew that about China.
More than the intolerance and officialdom, what I find so intensely frustrating about the Oasis ban is that, just a couple of years ago, the country seemed to be taking baby steps towards achieving a more relaxed, open-minded and generous attitude to touring rock bands, and, by extension, Western culture in general.
In November 2006 I travelled to China with Maximo Park. They’d been invited to a play a series of small gigs by an independent promoter. All manner of red tape had to be negotiated before the band were allowed into the country. Paul Smith’s lyrics were carefully vetted (what authorities made of the riddling surrealism of ‘Graffiti’ is anyone’s guess).
But what struck me was the flowering, nascent enthusiasm for rock music, especially in Shanghai. To watch Chinese teenagers hurl themselves around to ‘Going Missing’ – tentatively working out the basics of moshing as they went along – was to witness the uncaged passion of kids discovering pleasures that had long been denied them.
Very few bands ever tour China. Over there, the superstar DJ culture still holds sway. Middle-of-the-road acts, such as Katie Melua, are among the few non-dance artists capable of making a profitable trip. But talking to promoters and gig-goers at the tail-end of 2006, you could sense a genuine hunger for a more authentic, sweaty, visceral gig-going experience.
I had a powerful feeling that something was germinating, that rock music might have a real future in China. But this hope has now been snuffed out. The promoter who brought Maximo Park to Beijing and Shanghai tells me the credit crunch has made artists wary of taking risks. No-one wants to tour there anymore. And now, thanks to the inflexibility and paranoia of the regime, even the rich artists who can get out there, such as Oasis, are being prevented from doing so.
For the sake of the country’s openness and diversity – and, more than that, for the sake of the sheer unchained joy that live rock music can instill – this is a minor tragedy for a youthful populace who already live under one of the strictest, most authoritarian regimes on the planet.