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Chinese promoters riled by Bjork outburst
By Ian Ransom
BEIJING (Reuters) – Icelandic singer Bjork’s pro-Tibet outburst at a Shanghai concert has not only angered China’s wary cultural guardians, but annoyed music promoters who say politics is bad for business and worse for Chinese fans.
China’s Culture Ministry on Friday said it would tighten controls over foreign singers and other performers after Bjork chanted “Tibet! Tibet!” after her song, “Declare Independence.”
China has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since People’s Liberation Army troops marched into the Himalayan region in 1950 and denounces any challenge to its authority.
Bjork’s performance, which the Culture Ministry said had “hurt the feelings of Chinese people,” would also make it harder for foreign acts to perform in China, promoters told Reuters.
“It is unfortunate that this has happened. I know artists have to stand up for their beliefs, but she can’t expect to accomplish any good in doing what she did,” said John Siegel from China West Entertainment.
“I am concerned that tougher restrictions will apply, when it was finally getting a little more relaxed. Also, artists may not want to comply with tougher restrictions and choose not to come to China altogether.”
Despite hosting a raft of high-profile foreign acts in recent years, including the Rolling Stones and the late James Brown, China takes pains to ensure concerts are politically correct.
Artists are forbidden to perform content that would harm “national unity” or “stir up resentment” and promoters are asked to submit set-lists and lyric sheets for approval.
Performers deemed to have hurt national sentiments are put in the freezer indefinitely, or until seen to have made due penance.
China banned Taiwan pop star Chang Hui-mei for a year after she sang the self-ruled island’s anthem at anti-China President Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration in 2000. China considers Taiwan sovereign territory.
Last year, a Beijing concert for U.S. rock act Sonic Youth was nearly scuppered at the last minute after local authorities were tipped off that it had played at “free Tibet” concerts.
“The Ministry of Culture sent one person from each of their 17 departments to make sure nothing went wrong,” said Archie Hamilton, general manager of Split Works, the concert’s promoter.
Hamilton, whose company warns artists to not play politics in China, said he didn’t expect major changes after Bjork’s performance, but that officials would inevitably react and “take a closer look” at foreign acts’ backgrounds.
“The Chinese government situation is that they have to keep a fairly strong handle on this to stop it getting out of control.”
The Culture Ministry has launched an investigation into the concert, and will handle the matter according to the law, state media have reported. The ministry could not immediately provide comment when contacted by Reuters.
While Bjork is unlikely to be invited to reprise her Athens Olympic opening ceremony performance at the Beijing Games in August, authorities will probably focus their wrath on the concert organizers rather than the officials who approved it, said Leo de Boisgisson, a Beijing-based music promoter.
“Avoiding responsibility is like a ping-pong game for government departments,” de Boisgisson said. “None want to take it when organizing security and other things for concerts, and they certainly don’t want it when things go wrong.”
Staff at China-based Emma Ticketmaster, which promoted Bjork’s concert, have refused to comment, beyond saying that they are monitoring developments. Other Chinese event organizers have also refused to comment.
China has demanded that politics be kept separate from sport as it prepares for the arrival of thousands of athletes for the Olympic Games, and dozens of pressure groups eager to use the world’s biggest stage to press their agendas on the sidelines.
Demanding that politics be kept from art, however, was like “red rag to a bull” for some performers, Hamilton said.
“But that’s part and parcel of what we do. You can’t control what happens on stage 100 percent of the time.”
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Nick Mackie and Santee Milan)