਀㰀䴀䔀吀䄀 渀愀洀攀㴀䜀䔀一䔀刀䄀吀伀刀 挀漀渀琀攀渀琀㴀∀䴀匀䠀吀䴀䰀 㠀⸀  ⸀㘀  ㄀⸀㄀㤀 ㄀㤀∀㸀㰀⼀䠀䔀䄀䐀㸀 Censor in the Chinese wind
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - At the age of 69, American folk-rock legend Bob Dylan was finally welcomed to China this month. Meanwhile, Chinese rock bands - as well as other artists of all stripes - are being silenced left and right by the iron hand of censorship.

And don't even think about sponsoring a political discussion or debate in China these days. Unauthorized religious gatherings are also out, along with anything else that could be seen to threaten the leadership's grip on power and possibly create social instability.

The so-called "Jasmine" revolutions that have spread across the Middle East and northern Africa - ousting dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, creating civil war in Libya and threatening authoritarian rule across the region - have so thoroughly spooked Chinese leaders that any whiff of protest is now being snuffed out by Beijing's army of thought police.

Apparently, even Dylan had to strike a deal with the Ministry of Culture if he wanted his music to be heard by Chinese audiences. Hardcore Dylan fans were incensed by reports that, in order to win concert dates in Beijing and Shanghai, the singer agreed to a government-approved list of songs pointedly not including politically charged anthems such as The Times They Are A-Changin' and Blowin' in the Wind.

"Sell out!" they cried. "Coward!" they steamed.

But compromise with Chinese censors - even by aging rock stars who have built iconoclastic careers on flouting authority - seems to be the order of the day. Indeed, Chinese artists are learning that, without such compromise, they will have no career.

Since the arrest of internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei as he was attempting to board a plane to Hong Kong at Beijing Capital International Airport nearly four weeks ago, the government crackdown on dissent, already the harshest in years, has intensified even further.

Lesser-known dissidents had been disappearing for months, but the high-profile detention of Ai, who had previously been thought untouchable because of his worldwide fame, served notice that no one enjoys immunity from the harsh edicts of the Communist Party.

In an effort to blunt protests from human-rights advocates, authorities have stated that Ai, a persistent critic of the government, was arrested for "economic crimes" that are unrelated to any political stance he has taken. But, a month after his arrest, no specific charges against him have been made public, and Ai has been neither seen nor heard from during his detention.

Also during that time, Beijing has cracked down on other perceived threats.

First and foremost, anything even remotely related to Ai and his work has been targeted. Online expressions of support for Ai are quickly deleted, and any hint of a street protest is stamped out before it can get started, as artist Wang Jun discovered when he tried to organize a gathering called "Action A: Everyone is Ai Weiwei" in Beijing's 798 Art District.

The district, one of Ai's old stomping grounds, is now under the closest possible official scrutiny, so it was no surprise that Wang was seized by police two days prior to the scheduled event, which was subsequently canceled.

Other casualties of Ai paranoia include popular rock band Happy Avenue. The band was forced to cancel a May 13 concert at Beijing's Mao Livehouse because the concert theme - "Love Future" - sounds too much like Ai's name in Chinese.

"Police asked me to cancel the concert," wrote vocalist and bandleader Wu Hongfei on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. "I was upset. Why can I not sing in my own motherland?"

In a hopeful sign that the censors are not as all-knowing and all-seeing as they would like everyone to believe, however, her post appears to have escaped their notice. But pity those who have not evaded China's long censorial arm - and the list is long and getting longer.

An annual documentary festival, launched in 2003 but abruptly canceled this year, is another recent victim. Held in Songzhuang, the biggest and most famous of the arts villages in Beijing, the festival generally features screenings and awards for filmmakers as well as seminars for students of film. While it is not unusual for its films to be censored, this is the first time authorities have shut down the festival altogether.

In addition, last month police drew the shutters on a Songzhuang art exhibition showcasing a piece entitled "Jasmine Blossoms", detaining its creator and two other artists.

Gone too are the weekly lectures on politics and social trends that had become a popular Saturday staple at Beijing's Sanwei Bookstore and the Transition Institute. The lectures were reportedly suspended for the Lunar New Year holiday in February but have not resumed; no explanation was offered.

Even a long-planned inter-university debate competition to honor the centenary of the 1911 revolution that ended dynastic rule in China was apparently deemed a danger to the public weal; the debate series was canceled a day before its scheduled April 9 opening at Beijing University.

The competition would have focused on the guiding philosophy for the revolution, Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People: Nationalism, Democracy and Livelihood. Probably, it was the democracy piece that raised official alarm.

Taboo words such as "jasmine" and "democracy" draw immediate attention whenever and wherever they appear. The Communist Party excepted, large groups and organizations, especially religious groups, are also regarded as a threat. For example, members of Beijing's Shouwang Protestant Church, one of many unregistered "house churches" in China, have been ill treated for years. Lately, however, harassment of church members has escalated.

Shouwang elders have repeatedly sought official recognition of the church, whose congregation of mostly well-educated professionals has grown to nearly 1,000 members, since it was founded in 1993. Instead, the church has been forced to move more than 20 times, even though it has never failed on a rent payment.

This month, the Shouwang congregation was evicted yet again, this time from a film studio it was hiring, after the landlord caved in to official pressure. Authorities also prevented the church from moving into office space that it had purchased for 27 million yuan (US$4.15 million).

When - three weeks ago, without any indoor home - members began gathering outdoors for worship services in the city's Zhongguancun technology hub, police stepped in to break up the meetings and arrest worshippers.

Pastor Jin Tianming has been under house arrest since April 9, and more than 250 of his parishioners have also been detained, 36 of them on Easter Sunday. Members who have so far avoided arrest vow to give their alfresco service another try this coming Sunday, although the result will almost certainly be the same.

When will all this persecution and skittish censorship end? The ethereal answer to that question, my friend, can be found in one of Dylan's aforementioned songs.

Unfortunately, he didn't sing it in China.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at