Artists who’ve dared to broach Tiananmen pushed into shadows
It has been three months since Chinese rock musician Li Zhi disappeared from public view.
First, an upcoming tour was canceled and his social media accounts were taken down. Then his music was removed from all of China’s major streaming sites — as if his career had never existed at all.
Li is an outspoken artist who performs folk rock. He sang pensive ballads about social ills, and unlike most entertainers in China, dared to broach the taboo subject of the Tiananmen Square prodemocracy protests that ended in bloodshed on June 4, 1989.
“Now this square is my grave,” Li sang. “Everything is just a dream.”
China’s ruling Communist Party has pushed people like Li into the shadows as it braced for the 30th anniversary of the military crackdown last week. Hundreds, if not thousands, are estimated to have died on the night of June 3 and in the early hours of June 4.
The party’s effort to scrub any mention of the movement has been consistent through the decades since then and ramps up before major anniversaries every five years. This year, the trade war with the U.S. has added to government skittishness about instability.
“They are certainly nervous,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Under (President) Xi Jinping, no stone will be left unturned.”
Many of the actions appear aimed at eliminating any risk of individuals speaking out, however small their platforms. Bilibili, a Chinese video streaming site, announced last week that its popular real-time comments feature was disabled until June 6 for “system upgrades.”
Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said 13 people have either been detained or taken away from their homes in connection with the anniversary. Among them are several artists who recently embarked on a “national conscience exhibit tour” and a filmmaker who was detained after tweeting images of a liquor bottle commemorating June 4.
The bottle’s label featured a play on words using “baijiu,” China’s signature grain alcohol, and the Chinese words for 89, or “bajiu.” A court convicted four people involved in designing the bottle in April.
Foreign companies are not immune. Apple Music has removed from its Chinese streaming service a song by Hong Kong singer Jackie Cheung that references the Tiananmen crackdown. Tat Ming Pair, a Hong Kong duo, have been deleted entirely from the app. They released a song this month called “Remembering is a Crime” in memory of the protests.
Wikipedia also announced this month that the online encyclopedia is no longer accessible in China. While the Chineselanguage version has been blocked since 2015, most other languages could previously be viewed, Wikipedia said.
The disappearance of Li, the musician, has left fans searching for answers.
On Feb. 20, the official Weibo social media account for the 40-year-old’s concert tour posted a photograph of its team in front of a truck about to embark on scheduled performances in Sichuan province in China’s southwest.
Just two days later, however, the account posted an image of a hand wearing what appeared to be a hospital wrist band and the words: “Very sorry.” The next post, published the same day, announced without explanation that the tour was canceled and that ticket purchasers would shortly receive a refund. Fans flooded the comment section with wishes for a speedy recovery.
But the suggestion that a health issue was behind the cancellations was later thrown into doubt.
A statement published in April by Sichuan’s culture department said it had “urgently halted” concert plans for a “well-known singer with improper conduct” who was previously slated for 23 performances — the same number of concerts which Li had scheduled in the province. It said 18,000 tickets were fully refunded.
Authorities in China regularly use “improper conduct” to describe political transgressions.
A computer screen shows web content from outside China including a clip of Chinese singer Li Zhi singing his song “The Square” with the lyrics “Now this square is my grave.”