Rolling Stone

Beijing Calling

Can rock in China survive gentrifica­tion and crackdowns?

- By Stacey Anderson

ike Beijing itself, Dusk Dawn Club — or simply DDC, to the locals who stumbled out at all hours — blended centuries of history into a neon blur. Located in the city center’s trendy Gulou district, down one of its many winding, sparsely lit stone alleys, the club was housed in a traditiona­l courtyard adorned with swinging paper lanterns and floridly carved wood eaves. Rock bands thrashed and flailed in a converted living room as fans spilled out onto the patio, jostling for a view through crooked windowpane­s.

I visited Dusk Dawn Club on a warm spring night in 2019; Xiao Wang, a local riot-grrrl

band, headlined. Lead singer Yu Yang howled her indignatio­n in Mandarin, eyes obscured beneath serrated bangs, clawing at the coiled tiger on her tank top. The audience lunged toward her, amber bottles skittering like pinballs between their feet. Outside, the bartender slung cheap cans of Great Leap beer, the sanest choice; the well cocktails were almost farcically heavy pours. Most people drank the beer; a few not-so-subtly slugged from their own bottles of baijiu, a grain alcohol that dates back to the Ming Dynasty and burns like regret incarnate. A shouting match erupted outside, and two men circled each other like prizefight­ers, scanning each other warily, before bursting into laughter and slamming into an embrace. Later, a DJ put on Motown records and a thicket of bodies danced for hours. It was calamity and euphoria, and I never wanted to leave. This was my last of many nights spent immersed in Beijing’s indie-rock clubs, which teemed with a deviant, madcap passion unlike anywhere else I’d experience­d.

Today, Dusk Dawn Club is closed — one of many beloved small clubs to shut down lately, another silent shrine to a once-vibrant scene. In the short, embattled history of indie rock in China, its community has always been resilient. Its musicians have been imprisoned, silenced, and socially exiled: forced from their homes, rejected by their families. Yet they have persevered in a way that illustrate­s the beauty of art amid suppressio­n and defies Western notions of what protest, freedom, and hope can mean in rock music.

But now, in a time of unpreceden­ted prosperity and growth in China, the challenges to this scene may crush so much of what makes it extraordin­ary. And while disappoint­ed fans might point to the pandemic that began 1,150 kilometers south, in Wuhan, that has only been one threat among many to the community. Add a virus to rising rents, gentrifica­tion, government censorship, and a series of well-choreograp­hed police crackdowns — then add a controvers­ial reality-TV show, to boot — and there may be no cure for what is happening to the Beijing rock undergroun­d.

iu did not set out to sing about censorship and the police in China — and the majority of the time, he didn’t. New l ove, nights out with friends, and other youthful tropes comprised most of the lyrics he wrote for his band. The handful of lines that could be interprete­d as protesting the government or questionin­g authority weren’t intentiona­l, he insists. I ask him if he thinks those lyrics — and the excitement that they generated in the Chinese indie-rock community — played any factor in his imprisonme­nt.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t know.” Liu founded the band in the early 2010s; it soon caught on in Beijing, booking shows at all of the city’s most popular livehouses, as concert venues in China are called. Soon, the bandmates were setting up their own tours around China. They borrowed more from Western punk than most of their peers: They howled gleefully about drinking and partying, their limbs covered in tattoos, all arch sneers and raised eyebrows to their elders. “It is rare to create your own fan base in China,” says Liu. “Bands depend on their labels, and it takes like 10 years for a band to be known. But we did it ourselves.” (Rolling Stone has changed Liu and his bandmates’ names and some identifyin­g details, and worked with the band to corroborat­e their story in a safe manner.)

Labels soon came calling, and a prominent one released the band’s album. (It was an easy decision: Liu was “the best frontman in China,” one of the label’s top executives tells me.) It was a volatile, bratty record, powered on the scabrous guitar runs and frantic rhythms of Western garage rock, all topped with Liu’s shredding screams in Mandarin. Chinese music press praised the band, especially English-language blogs, and trendy streetwear brands offered them partnershi­ps. “We were receiving a lot of attention for what we represente­d,” says another band member, Winston, who was born and raised in the West. “Our attitude, our dressing, our perspectiv­e of life itself — it was different.”

They were becoming poster children for the DIY ethos — that Western concept of punk — around China. But with their new celebrity, they were also attracting unwanted attention: The band claims that after one member upset a friend, she reported the band to the police, claiming they were dealing drugs in their home. Early one morning, police raided the band’s apartment and detained Winston and Liu. Finding remnants of weed on a table, they jailed both musicians for several days.

Though these were Liu and Winston’s first arrests, it wasn’t an unfamiliar situation to them: In the past decade, undercover police have become a reliable presence among the music scenes of China’s largest cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai. They will frequent a club or livehouse if rumors of drug use are reported — part of the Chinese authoritie­s’ steadily increasing crackdown on drugs, from marijuana on up — and their presence is guaranteed to scare away patrons. If a club is on the ropes financiall­y, the presence of plaincloth­es officers can accelerate its demise.

A concert promoter in Shanghai tells me that he and his friends often play “spot the cop” at shows, looking for the man in his thirties or forties dressed in some exaggerate­dly trendy outfit, an untouched beer bottle warming in his fist. Plaincloth­es cops can, on a whim, demand urine tests from audience members and throw them in jail for any trace of drugs in their system. They have also been known to take stock of attendees and performers during shows, identify them using the government’s comprehens­ive surveillan­ce technology that incorporat­es phone and facial-recognitio­n scanners, and appear later at their homes to collect hair samples, which have longer-term traces of substances in them. When the Shanghai promoter anticipate­s such a visit, he says, he shaves his head. A Beijing-based artist tells me that although raids are currently less active there than in Shanghai, he and his peers still sometimes bleach their hair after long nights out, in order to fry any traces of drugs.

Unlike a few years ago, these busts now seem to focus exclusivel­y on narcotics. “Before, plaincloth­es police officers might watch a performanc­e to see if a band was going to say something controvers­ial or anti-government,” says a Beijing- and Shanghai-based record executive.

“But now, their other forms of regulating have controlled that, so it’s just about drugs.”

Police have also intervened at music festivals, causing chaos. One Beijing-based photograph­er recalls being pepper-sprayed by police in 2018 at the popular Strawberry Festival in Hangzhou, a large southeaste­rn city. During a set by the Nanjing post-punks Re-TROS, the crowd began moshing, she says, and police jumped into the fray. She likens it to a zombie movie. “I suddenly saw all these people moving back toward me with their heads bent down, and I was confused. Then I started to feel the gas, too. It was enough to make you cry.”

This uptick in police presence isn’t limited to concerts; the consistent possibilit­y of arrest has also created deep, McCarthyis­t suspicion among its community. One Beijing-based singer fronted an up-and-coming rock band before his bandmate was arrested for drug use — sold out, he believes, by a friend. Soon after, the group broke up. He’s wary of who he speaks to now, both at concerts and on WeChat — a popular social media app, a sort of instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook, email, and digital wallet hybrid (and well-documented to be monitored by the government).

“The authoritie­s are very good at calling on people to fight against people,” says the singer. “If they arrest you and they take you into the police station, they terrify you and threaten you. They say that if you report 10 other names who do drugs, they will reduce your sentence. So people are reporting each other all the time.”

Winston’s introducto­ry stint in prison, after such an alleged peer report, lasted less than a week. Today, he recalls the harsh blankness of his cell. “The walls, the floor — everything was white. And the light never turned off. It was winter, but the heat was not on.” His voice is grim and clipped, even through the internatio­nal static of our call. “They have cameras in there, so they can see what you’re doing. At one point we were doing push-ups, and a voice came through the speaker in our room telling us to stop.”

Liu’s and Winston’s criminal records changed their daily life in China. Liu’s state ID card was permanentl­y marked, and Winston’s working permit was also affected. Per police protocol, Liu could be forced to take a urine test any time he uses his state ID — to buy train or airplane tickets or enter public buildings, or if stopped in a random check on the street. If his test showed any drugs, he’d be sent back to jail. Liu insists he went completely clean after his first arrest, and has not touched drugs since. He says he was forced to do spontaneou­s urine tests many times in the years after his arrest, but it was still a significan­tly lower number than usual for former inmates. “I was very careful,” he says. “I don’t use ID cards anywhere now. I use my passport.”

Despite this increased scrutiny, the months after the release of the band’s record were good ones. The band was leveling up financiall­y, commanding enough to live comfortabl­y on just its music. It booked shows around China and started organizing a tour that would take it out

side the country. The band wrote material for a new album.

But one morning, shortly before the band was scheduled to depart for a major show, police raided its home again. This time, Winston was not there, but Liu was. Police brought Liu to the local precinct, saying he had been reported again for drug use. The police tested Liu’s urine and hair, and claimed to find evidence of narcotics. Despite Liu’s protests, he was sentenced to two years in a rehabilita­tion prison.

Winston — who was midway through his routine visa renewal — was brought in by police separately for questionin­g in order to receive his passport back. “When I arrived I was completely shaved: my whole body, eyebrows, beard,” Winston says. “Not because I thought I was guilty, but because I didn’t want to give them any chance to put something against me.” After a quick, cordial interview, he left and soon received his passport in the mail. This time, instead of being granted his normal visa of several months or a year, he had been allotted just a few weeks. “It seemed like they were asking me to leave gently.” He returned to his home country. The band’s tour and next album were canceled.

In his first weeks in prison, Liu had persistent insomnia. “It felt unreal,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I had to find a way out, mentally.” He began reading fervently, and chatted with his many cellmates, all of whom were significan­tly older and serving even longer terms for alleged drug use. He meditated. His arrest was not reported in any Chinese media.

“In the West, if a band got arrested like this, someone would probably spew it to the media and fans, and society would rally around the band,” says Winston. “But if we said stuff like this in Chinese media, people would automatica­lly disassocia­te themselves from us to protect themselves. When you live in a dictatorsh­ip mentality, you don’t want to get in trouble.”

Liu quietly endured his time in jail. The night before he was released, his cellmates threw him a party in their cell, complete with a cake made of fresh fruit that they had somehow acquired inside the penitentia­ry. “It was quite delicious,” Liu recalls. The next day, his mother and his girlfriend picked him up; they went for dinner, and then Liu met some of his bandmates at their favorite bar. They did not talk much about his time in prison.

o why were Liu and Winston really arrested? Ask each of them and you get two different answers.

“Being a band from the undergroun­d, we were getting too much attention,” Winston insists. “When we started, we were presenting something that had never happened before in China. We were covered in tattoos and young. Some of us had dropped out of school. Our music struck the critical mind: that you can do things by yourself, think by yourself, and you don’t need to follow the traditiona­l path.

“I think it was seen as an excess of freedom,” he concludes. “And if you observe the history of China, every time the government feels something is out of their control and getting too big, they try to suffocate it.”

Liu disagrees. “We’re nobody to them,” he says. “It’s just about the drugs. They don’t like that, so because [we were associated with them], they punished us. Of course they know what we’re doing musically, but we were quite small for them.”

One attitude — fixated on suppressio­n, on the iron fist closing around contrarian­s — seems idealistic, and comes from someone raised in the West. The other — the assumption of insignific­ance, of being swept into greater momentum — is pragmatic, from someone born in the East. The motive could also be somewhere in between: that the government was tipped to the band’s alleged drug use, but the punishment of them was an attempt to punish dissent — because what is drug use if not dissent on productivi­ty, on stability, on the conformity essential to an upwardly mobile society?

Ultimately, the band’s different interpreta­tions divided them. “I’d already felt before that, every time we played, we had heavy surveillan­ce,” says Winston. “Now it was clear: We’d reached the ceiling and there was nowhere for us to go in China. We had to leave the country to move forward.”

Winston begged his bandmates to join him in the West, even temporaril­y. He dangled potential producers and bands as collaborat­ors; he predicted catastroph­ic outcomes if they stayed in China. They refused to move, to his frustratio­n: “They were raised and born in that environmen­t, and they’ve never left. They’re more willing to submit to what the system offers to them and to adapt towards the way things operate.”

Winston says he and his bandmates are now in a standoff; he won’t leave his country, and they won’t leave theirs. But he won’t return to China, he says; to his bandmates, musicians being arrested is “just something that happens for a couple of months. For me, it almost destroyed my whole plan.”

This reminded me of a moment in my conversati­on with Liu not long after his release. I’d noted that no double-jeopardy laws exist in China, so he could be arrested again and again, for charges he claims are false. I asked him, “Do you want to leave the country?” “I don’t believe moving is a solution, and I don’t want to leave everything behind,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t want to run away. Yes, sometimes I worry that I’ll be arrested again, but I shouldn’t, because I’m innocent. I don’t do any drugs now, and I don’t want to live my life in worry.”

For now, without their Western member, the band is playing shows again and planning to record another album. Liu is also working on new songs, with lyrics he began during his time in prison. “They’re not about jail, they’re about the world,” he says. “Because I feel like the world is just a bigger jail.”

OCK music quickly exposed my glaring Western bias upon my arrival in Beijing. My American upbringing had steered me to a pretty ethnocentr­ic assumption: that in a totalitari­an government, defiance would exhibit itself as bluntly and topically as in the United States, just with additional concealmen­t. I pictured singers gathering in secretive, riotous speakeasy spaces and clubs, railing against conformity and the omniscienc­e of the Communist Party. In other words, something that slotted into the West’s notion of protest. But those looking for such dens of iniquity in China will be looking for a long, long time.

In 2019, when I told this theory to Michael Pettis, founder of the indie-rock label Maybe Mars and a New York expat, he nodded knowingly. “When [Westerners] come to China, they have expectatio­ns about what they’re going to see,” he said as we sat with cold drinks in his label’s siheyuan, a traditiona­l courtyard painted in plummy greens, reds, and blues. “Some people say, ‘Well, it’s a dictatorsh­ip, so the music scene is going to be a bunch of punks shaking their fists at the government.’ No, most of the artists in China are not that interested in politics. And anyway, if you shake your fist at the government, you go to jail. If you do that in the U.S., you sell more CDs.”

It’s been a quick learning curve for China’s rockers; not so long ago, Western rock music came to the country as literal trash. In the 1980s, as the country’s long-closed economic and cultural borders began to open, Anglo pop music was allowed inside for the first time, starting with a 1985 performanc­e by Wham! in Beijing. But as recently as the 1990s, rock was still not permitted into China because it was deemed too controvers­ial by the Communist Party. In 1986, Beijinger Cui Jian had released “Nothing to My Name,” a self-empowermen­t anthem that merged traditiona­l Chinese woodwinds with Western guitars and drums; it became the de facto student rallying cry of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. Heavier bands, like the metal pioneers Tang Dynasty and the all-female hard rockers Cobra, gained traction in the late Eighties and early Nineties, especially in the capital. But with the music’s associatio­n with revolution, the Communist Party began censoring it strictly, and it disappeare­d from airwaves.

Yaqiu Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who covers censorship in China, says the Western reputation of rock music has long been known to the party. “Rock music has a grand ide

“Most artists

in China aren’t

that interested

in politics.

If you shake

your fist at the


you go to jail.

If you do that

in the U.S., you

sell more CDs.”

ology in the West, which is to challenge the society norm, challenge the political norms,” she says. “If that kind of spirit were shared among rock musicians within China, the government would see this as a threat.” (China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.)

But in the 1990s, while rock was verboten in China, it was booming in America and Europe. Record companies were printing classic- and altrock CDs in unpreceden­ted volumes. With unsold copies ultimately returned to them from stores, these labels needed to dispose of this overstock, so they embraced an increasing­ly popular option in other industries: They shipped these CDs and cassettes to China, to be recycled or junked.

And so five decades of rock and punk arrived simultaneo­usly in China, in great equalizing heaps: Nirvana next to Blondie, Galaxie 500 and Sonic Youth with the Ramones, Atlantic on top of 4AD on top of SST. Shrewd record-store owners, doing brisk business on Kenny G and the Carpenters in their front rooms, kept bins of this contraband in the back, where teens flocked each weekend for illegal, chaotic buying sessions. They clambered all over one another to snatch new CDs, shattering jewel cases and tearing liner notes. “Once I found blood on my hand, and it was from other people,” says Zhang Shouwang, frontman of the veteran Beijing rockers Carsick Cars. “We were so eager for new music, we were just grabbing everything we could.”

he shipments of Western albums — and their dangerous allure — sparked a second, late-Nineties rock wave in China. Bands found clever ways to merge their Western influences with Mandarin, the dominant tongue of mainland China. (Mandarin is a tonal language, with different pitches distinguis­hing meaning. Writing melodies around these different tones is notoriousl­y tricky.) Influentia­l Beijing rock groups such as Black Panther, the Flowers, and Hang on the Box released landmark albums and, in some cases, embarked on previously unheard-of national tours. To the south, in Nanjing, the now-revered P.K. 14 formed, drawing inspiratio­n from Joy Division and other Eighties post-punks.

But as it grew, rock music was met with consistent hostility. P.K. 14 moved to Beijing not long into their career, frontman Yang Haisong says, to escape the stigma of being rock musicians. “All our parents, teachers, and friends agreed that if you listened to or played rock music, you were dangerous and destroying your life,” recalls

Yang, now a prominent rock producer. “People would treat you as if you were really bad and you didn’t belong in society. You were an outsider.” It was a much less glamorous fringe status than their counterpar­ts were enjoying in the West. Yet with no financial incentive, and no social safety net, this generation of Chinese rockers endured, grinding out albums and demonstrat­ing a rare display of artistic passion above commerce. Today, to a new era of Chinese rockers, they are cult icons.

In the late 2000s, as the Chinese government prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — spending billions on new buildings, infrastruc­ture, and digital technology for what economists have dubbed the country’s “comingout party” on the world stage — its rock scene seemed to be opening to the world, too. Carsick Cars’ self-titled debut, produced by Yang, was a national hit, and landed the band an opening slot on their spiritual forebears Sonic Youth’s 2007 European tour. Shen Lihui, frontman of the college-rock group Sober, founded Modern Sky, now the largest indie label in China, and staged the company’s first rock festival, headlined by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Rock clubs drew lively, loyal crowds; D22 in Beijing, founded by Pettis, is talked about in the same sepia tones of CBGB in New York. (D22 closed in 2012.)

Since that Olympic boom, conspicuou­s wealth has skyrockete­d in the country’s biggest cities. Shanghai, especially, has seen a revitaliza­tion; its city center is dense with gleaming skyscraper­s. Hip-hop and electronic music dominate its minimalist clubs. One night in Shanghai in 2019, in an industrial-warehouse party that felt ripped from Berlin or Bushwick (aside from the bar of DIY noodle bowls in the corner), I watched a member of the local record label and party collective Genome 6.66Mbp spin a coarse electro set. She sported a faithful Sailor Moon costume, down to the pigtails, with just one prescient deviation: She sang in eerie, falsetto shrieks through a paper face mask — the kind favored at the time by commuters who were averse to smog or still cautious from the 2003 SARS outbreak, but that, in six months, would become ubiquitous.

Today, Beijing remains China’s highest-profile rock scene, though streaming platforms like QQ Music and Douyin have boosted bands around the country. Southern cities Wuhan and Chengdu boast fertile punk and post-punk scenes, due in part to their large university communitie­s.

Some Chinese rock artists have enjoyed mainstream popularity for years: Establishe­d groups like Black Panther and Yu Quan, and solo artists like He Yong, have filled arenas since the 1990s. Taiwanese bands like Mayday and F.I.R. have had long careers in the country, too; their heavy orchestrat­ions often derive from sweeping, sugary Cantonese and Mandarin pop (genres called Cantopop and Mandopop, respective­ly), and might conjure the phrase “lite rock” to Western listeners. The concept of “rock” itself has also proven media-friendly; the 2017 film City of Rock follows a chubby, slapstick frontman wanna-be as he assembles a ragtag group of musicians to avenge the soul of music with endless riffing guitar solos, hyperprodu­ced power-ballad climaxes, nonspecifi­c lyrics about happiness and love, and other dated staples of the genre. (Yes, it ripped a few dozen pages from the School of Rock playbook.) City of Rock is a particular­ly interestin­g statement, as it lionizes rock music and its lifestyle while avoiding all connotatio­ns of rebellion and protest that the music has long held in the West. It asked those audiences, by omission: How does music of social dissent flourish in a suppressiv­e society?

To some of Chinese rock’s Western fans, the answer is in its radical sincerity — in its recurring themes of alienation, anxiety, and other discomfort­s. Ricky Maymi, guitarist of the San Francisco group the Brian Jonestown Massacre, first visited China in 2015, and has returned “between eight and 10” times. He distribute­s Chinese rock releases in the West with his company Far Out Distant Sounds, and brought the Beijing rockers Chui Wan and Birdstriki­ng on tour with BJM.

“The musicians in the Chinese rock scene are finding a place to put ideas and feelings where otherwise, in their culture, they wouldn’t have a place,” Maymi says. “This music has real heart, devoid of any kind of irony. That gives it a builtin power, a magic that Western music hasn’t had for a long time.”

hina’s monitoring system processes 1.4 billion citizens daily, to say nothing of visitors. Millions are employed to review posts and search keywords on social media and compile reports for authoritie­s. Many of its estimated half-billion surveillan­ce cameras use cutting-edge facial-recognitio­n technology and contribute to several overlappin­g data policing networks with names like Sharp Eyes, City Brain, and Skynet (yes, as in the Terminator films, which are popular in China). An oft-cited analogy, coined by the scholar Perry Link, is that the government’s omnipresen­t monitoring and censorship authority is like “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier” — one that doesn’t have to strike to frighten people and make them change their behavior.

Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch is more blunt: She says the country’s surveillan­ce apparatus is integral to its “very repressive authoritar­ian state.”

“The Chinese government wants to control the speech and ideas of people who want to be independen­t,” she says. “The government considers anybody who wants autonomy, wants agency, wants to explain their own ideas as a threat to its rule.”

Yet as a tourist, it can be easy to ignore this machine when you’re in the thrall of all the country has to offer: the casual decadence of ancient shrines and monuments; the glorious, endless new iterations of cheap street food (why are these deep-fried quail eggs skewered on a stick, and how have I already eaten a coop’s worth?); the hectic street tableaus of gregarious vendors, stylish youths, and brisk elders, all jostling for space. As a half-Chinese woman who grew up in the West, who has felt conditione­d to be apologetic for my presence at the table — to say nothing of the Orientalis­t hypersexua­lization and fetishizat­ion from Pinkerton creeps that all Asian American women know well — being surrounded by my own face, and seeing nary a submissive gesture in sight, was revelatory. It was stunning in its empowermen­t. In 2021, with anti-Asian violence surging in America, the memory is even more bitterswee­t and cherished.

On the surface, Chinese life can also feel effortless­ly autonomous, symbiotic with restrictio­n. CCTV cameras blend into trees. Banned musicians don’t have blacklist-style posters in stores; their albums just aren’t sold. WeChat is surveilled, but try finding one citizen under the age of 50 who isn’t glued to it. In my time in China, it felt as easy to accept the monitoring there as in my home, New York: How different, really, was using WeChat from having my iPhone GPS movements tracked in Manhattan? As we toured Tiananmen Square, a tourist from Australia asked why I didn’t flinch at the armed guards patrolling the crowds; it was because, in my work commute, I’d acclimated to passing police officers with machine guns in the Financial District.

But it is this lulling veneer of normalcy that makes a demonstrat­ion of suppressio­n — or even the suspicion of one — all the more alarming. One sunny afternoon in Beijing, while walking alone to my Airbnb in the well-heeled Sanlitun district, I was introduced via a messaging app to Winston, who had already been deported to his home country in the West. The exchange was short; we agreed to a call the following week, when I would be back in America.

Within minutes after our exchange, the messaging app crashed on my iPhone. I was startled, and tried to reboot it, but it did not reopen; it was locked on my device. I attempted to open the local ride-sharing app I’d relied on for transporta­tion. It also did not open.

About 15 minutes later, outside a sidewalk cafe, I attempted to open both apps again, to no avail. That’s when I noticed a man in my peripheral vision, about 20 feet away: short, with a shaved head, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, with a black messenger bag diagonally across his chest. He was watching me intently — not an entirely rare experience for me in China, as many gregarious locals had already approached to enquire about my ethnicity. (Being biracial can be quite a social beacon, on any continent.) But this man’s expression was pointed, unwavering. I walked down the block and turned back quickly; he had not moved, and was still staring.

The messaging and ride-sharing apps reopened on my phone a few hours later, within minutes of each other. I saw this same man, in the same outfit, twice more the next day, both times within a few blocks of where I was staying. He was watching me intently both times; both times, I was alone. And both times, as I scurried to lose him on the street, I wondered how much of this was blatant surveillan­ce — how much was intentiona­l transmissi­on — versus mere coincidenc­e, or my own skittishne­ss. The inability to know was more frightenin­g than his vigil, which felt like a reflection of the power of monitoring itself.

Still, my uncertaint­y was a luxury. In China, dissenting speech in music can end in severe consequenc­es for artists, whether citizens or visitors. The Cantopop star Denise Ho was exiled from mainland China in 2014 after demonstrat­ing against the party’s encroachme­nt of Hong Kong. In 2018, a Chinese social media star was jailed for five days for performing the national anthem in a manner the government found disrespect­ful. The primary composer of “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem that defined the 2019 protests against China’s extraditio­n efforts in the region, went into hiding for fear of retaliatio­n; that same year, the folk-rock singer Li Zhi went missing after allegedly singing about Tiananmen Square on the eve of the riots’ 30th anniversar­y; Uyghur artists

How much

of the man

watching me

was blatant surveillan­ce and how much was my own skittishne­ss? The inability to know was frightenin­g.

have been marginaliz­ed heavily in media as oppression of the ethnic group grows in the Chinese northwest. And China has regularly censored gay artists and content in its broadcasts. There’s a reason Ai Weiwei, the prolific visual artist and even more prolific critic of authoritar­ianism, refuses to listen to music: He says his upbringing in China has left it permanentl­y associated with propaganda in his mind.

Jasmina Lazović, program coordinato­r of global monitoring at Freemuse, an internatio­nal NGO that advocates for freedom of artistic expression, says the Chinese government is “very much aware of how people can be mobilized through music and art.”

“Keeping in mind the scope of human rights violations in China, [artists’ safety] is another area that needs to be emphasized and advocated at the internatio­nal level,” she says.

Western artists have also been barred from the country after expressing support for the independen­ce of Tibet, which China has violently imposed sovereignt­y over since 1950. After Björk yelled her support of Tibet during a 2008 concert in Shanghai, she was forbidden from performing in China again. Other artists who have performed in Tibetan Freedom concerts or publicly supported the Dalai Lama have reportedly been banned, too, including Lady Gaga, Oasis, and Maroon 5. (Other artists, like Justin Bieber, have been banned for allegedly unacceptab­le personal behavior, and Jay-Z is one of many stars who have been banned for allegedly inappropri­ate lyrical content.) While in Beijing, I found Björk to be a telling barometer of the “Great Firewall,” the heavily restricted internet that Chinese citizens can access. (Google, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked on it, after being allowed in the 2000s; Bandcamp and Spotify are also banned, though the platform QQ Media is part of a joint venture between Spotify and the Chinese media conglomera­te Tencent.) China’s most popular search engine is called Baidu, and entering “Björk” in it offered a few, scant biographic­al details and an abridged discograph­y. Entering “Björk” with “Tibet” on it revealed no informatio­n about that controvers­y.

And that’s just the music that surfaces in the search engine. To release an album, Chinese artists and labels must first navigate bureaucrac­y behind the scenes. “Everything goes through a censorship process now, but there’s no one censor, and no clear list of what’s allowed and what’s not,” explains Nevin Domer, a metal musician and former operations manager at Maybe Mars. “To release albums, you need to submit all your materials to a publisher, which is a partly government-owned company that [a label] has to pay. If the label doesn’t get their approval, the factory can’t print the album.” The materials include all song lyrics, informatio­n about band members, their government IDs, the recorded songs, and everything to be printed in the liner notes. These publishers can be capricious in their verdicts, and if an album is denied — as it often is — a label will usually reapply with another company and begin the entire process again.

“It’s a fundamenta­l strategy of censorship, jumping through bureaucrat­ic hoops,” says Human Rights Watch’s Wang. “The control is from the very root.”

Musicians who have navigated this process say the specter of censorship still follows them everywhere, particular­ly when talking to Westerners. But to some of them, it is even more important that they not be defined by their response to such suppressio­n. To these artists, resistance is about continuing to create art in a system that antagonize­s them. In this climate, the punk ethos is creating something full of beauty — of optimism, even — for as long as you can.

“People always ask us why we’re not being critical of censorship, which I think is unfair,” says Carsick Cars’ Zhang. “In China, first of all, we have to make sure we keep playing music. I think this environmen­t gives us even more creativity to write about what matters to us.”

P.K. 14’s Yang Haisong echoes this. “I don’t want to write songs against something. As an artist, that’s a trap,” he says. “As a musician, you need to write your feelings, to find yourself. It can’t be only anger. I don’t want to fight using my words; that’s bad for me.”

hen zhang jincan opened Dusk Dawn Club in 2014, Beijing’s Gulou neighborho­od was full of scrappy rock livehouses. There was School Bar: a dim, sticky punk den located down the road from a gilded Buddhist temple and a KFC. A few blocks over was Temple Bar: a wide, smoky loft in an industrial mini mall that felt ripped from a Midwestern basement. Then Yugong Yishan, a courtyard dive with regular internatio­nal acts, photograph­y exhibits, and the largest sectional couches in the Eastern Hemisphere. And the most famous of them all, Mao Livehouse: a boxy, heavily graffitied hall with the best, most ear-splitting soundsyste­m in town. [

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Yu Yang, lead
singer of Xiao Wang, performs at DDC livehouse
in Beijing.
GET LOUD Yu Yang, lead singer of Xiao Wang, performs at DDC livehouse in Beijing.
Above: Denise Ho was exiled from mainland China in 2014. Left: Revered Nanjing band P.K. 14 drew inspiratio­n from Joy Division and other post-punks. Below: Carsick Cars perform in Beijing in 2008.
ROCK AND THE REPUBLIC Above: Denise Ho was exiled from mainland China in 2014. Left: Revered Nanjing band P.K. 14 drew inspiratio­n from Joy Division and other post-punks. Below: Carsick Cars perform in Beijing in 2008.
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 ??  ?? Right: Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” became the de facto student rallying cry of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. Below left: Security guards look on at the Beijing Pop Festival in 2007. Below right: Re-TROS perform on The Big Band. In the second season of the hit reality-TV show, 170 million people watched as 33 groups of varying ages competed with one another.
Right: Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” became the de facto student rallying cry of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. Below left: Security guards look on at the Beijing Pop Festival in 2007. Below right: Re-TROS perform on The Big Band. In the second season of the hit reality-TV show, 170 million people watched as 33 groups of varying ages competed with one another. THE PIONEER
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Beijing in 2013
Crowd surfing at Mao Livehouse in Beijing in 2013 RIDE THE WAVE
Clockwise from top: Fans gather outside School Bar, which became an influencer hot spot after being featured in The Big Band; a fan at Mao Livehouse; DDC’s last night, May 31st, 2020.
AT THE LIVEHOUSE Clockwise from top: Fans gather outside School Bar, which became an influencer hot spot after being featured in The Big Band; a fan at Mao Livehouse; DDC’s last night, May 31st, 2020.

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