MUSIC

Revolutionary sounds

China’s rock stars are outlets for dissent

LOUISE BRANSON June 4 1990
MUSIC

Revolutionary sounds

China’s rock stars are outlets for dissent

LOUISE BRANSON June 4 1990

Revolutionary sounds

MUSIC

China’s rock stars are outlets for dissent

The voice and the words recall a protest song from the Sixties—except that the slim, gravelly voiced singer is Chinese. Cui Jian, 28, is one of the most popular performers in a burgeoning world of rock singers whose lyrics are practically the only avenue of dissent in a repressive country. “I want to leave ... I want to die and start all over again,” he sang to 10,000 fans in Beijing’s Workers’ Gymnasium, the first concert in a 10city tour that was abruptly cancelled in early May. His most famous song,

Man Who Has Nothing, has become an anthem for many young Chinese since the bloody quelling of the pro-democracy uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last June 4. Though Cui did not participate in those demonstrations, he sings of the feelings of frustration and alienation that led to the Tiananmen events. Said one Beijing woman, a 24-year-old government secretary: “He is a rebel, and that is unusual in China. When we go to his concerts, he can drive out some of the anger in our hearts.”

But Cui, and other rock groups, are walking a razor’s edge. There are signs that authorities are turning against rock performers as part of an official campaign against “bourgeois liberalism”—code words for Western culture—which the government launched in the wake of last June’s demonstrations. In a surprising development, government authorities, who earlier had banned Cui from appearing onstage, decided last December to sponsor his tour, which began in January.

The tour was to serve as a fund raiser for this fall’s Asian Games in Beijing, but the government also clearly hoped that its sponsorship of Cui's performances would help win back plummeting support for the Communist party. But then the authorities abruptly called off the singer’s tour in early May. That latest aboutface on Cui, perhaps the result of fears that the audience reaction could ignite another prodemocracy outpouring, came after just three performances in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Young men and women in the crowds went wild, waving their fists in the air and making the “V-for-victory” sign that became the symbol of Tiananmen.

Observers say that Chinese authorities had underestimated the rallying power of rock music. Said a lesser-known rock musician— who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal: “Chinese leaders have no experience with our kind of music. They don’t listen to the words and they don’t understand how powerful they are.” Officially, the tour is only postponed, but, as one fan explained, “That means cancelled.” Cui, who has made no public statement on the fate of his tour, is the most popular act in a

vibrant rock scene in China’s capital city. Many factories and colleges have their own bands, and noninstitutional ones are constantly forming. Most take their cue from Western music rather than the sugary-sweet melodies and lyrics that until now have been a hallmark of contemporary Chinese music. One group, 1989, performs reggae numbers heavily derivative of the British group UB40. A threemember female group, the All Girl Band, performs some numbers in English, including the Rolling Stones song I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Even heavy metal has filtered into the music scene with musicians performing Chinese versions of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple numbers.

Those groups have been allowed to perform relatively freely, appearing at ramshackle clubs around Beijing with such names as the Song and Dance Club or the New World Bar. Occasionally, they play in more up-market night spots—Pierre Cardin’s Maxim’s de Paris

or the Cosmos Club at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel—which are patronized mainly by foreigners and children of the elite who can afford the hefty prices.

Cui himself appeared frequently in the small clubs, even when he was banned from performing onstage. The singer attended other rock bands’ concerts and, late in the evening, he would sing from the floor. But some of Cui’s fans now say they fear that he may suffer the same fate as Hou Dejian. A rock star who defected from Taiwan to China six years ago, the 33-year-old Hou enjoyed the support of the Chinese leadership. Recognizing his propaganda potential, they provided him with two homes, a maroon Mercedes-Benz and limitless official publicity. But, last year, Hou wrote lyrics for songs at the Tiananmen protest. His protests were short-lived. After the June 4 massacre, in which hundreds, perhaps even thousands, according to some Western estimates, of pro-democracy demonstrators died, he appeared on Chinese TV stating that he had witnessed no deaths in Tiananmen Square.

Now, he lives under virtual house arrest in Beijing. He is not allowed to perform or record his songs, although he reportedly still writes. One of Hou’s earlier ballads contains the lyrics “Friends who love freedom, spread our wings. Listen carefully. No one can lie again. Open your eyes, no one can twist the truth again.” Those words must be echoing in the minds of Cui—and his devoted Chinese fans.

LOUISE BRANSON in Beijing