Dylan in China

I want to wrap up 2011 with a brief note on Dylan’s trip to China. In April, Dylan played a number of shows in Asia: Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong (twice), and Singapore. This became something of an international scandal. China had just arrested dissident artist Ai Weiwei the week before, and the irony of the American protest singer in China was a lot to take for political commentators. Rumours circulated that Chinese authorities refused Dylan permission to perform “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Desolation Row”. That seems extremely odd to me, particularly the latter, which doesn’t strike me as a very political song.
This article in The Guardian is fairly typical of the coverage that came out at the time, and it seems bizarrely misguided. Dylan is criticized for not playing “Desolation Row” in Beijing, but there is no mention of the fact that he played it in Shanghai, Taipei and Honk Kong. So if it was banned by Chinese authorities, they did a poor job of it. More likely, Dylan rotated the song out because that is exactly what Dylan does and did. His shows have had (until this year) a constant fluctuation. Dylan’s sets in China were extremely akin to the ones he did on the same tour in Australia.
This article by Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), in The New Republic, hits the nail on the head when the author writes: “Yet I still hang on to the old-fashioned belief of my youth, when we listened to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, convinced that artists were effective because they were the consciences of their societies—because their commitment was not to any political ideology, sect, or party, but to truth. Truth that is dangerous no matter what times we live in, because it is always a call to action. Once we know it, we can no longer justify our silence.” Nafisi couches disappointment in a personal reaction that has little to do with Dylan and everything to do with her. She accuses him of “morphing into Barry Manilow” by singing love songs, which tells me that she has not spent much of the past four decades listening to Dylan.
Arguably the oddest article that I found was this one in The Telegraph, where Dylan’s show was live-blogged and tweeted to the British public. It is almost impossible to overstate how bizarre this reads after the fact – Dylan in Beijing is breaking news for a few hours, where his every move is tweeted out. By Shanghai, the furore was over, it seems.
Dylan himself put out a rare statement on the controversy, posted on his website. I’m dumping the entire text of that here:

To my fans and followers

Allow me to clarify a couple of things about this so-called China controversy which has been going on for over a year. First of all, we were never denied permission to play in China. This was all drummed up by a Chinese promoter who was trying to get me to come there after playing Japan and Korea. My guess is that the guy printed up tickets and made promises to certain groups without any agreements being made. We had no intention of playing China at that time, and when it didn’t happen most likely the promoter had to save face by issuing statements that the Chinese Ministry had refused permission for me to play there to get himself off the hook. If anybody had bothered to check with the Chinese authorities, it would have been clear that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the whole thing.

We did go there this year under a different promoter. According to Mojo magazine the concerts were attended mostly by ex-pats and there were a lot of empty seats. Not true. If anybody wants to check with any of the concert-goers they will see that it was mostly Chinese young people that came. Very few ex-pats if any. The ex-pats were mostly in Hong Kong not Beijing. Out of 13,000 seats we sold about 12,000 of them, and the rest of the tickets were given away to orphanages. The Chinese press did tout me as a sixties icon, however, and posted my picture all over the place with Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The concert attendees probably wouldn’t have known about any of those people. Regardless, they responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last 4 or 5 records. Ask anyone who was there. They were young and my feeling was that they wouldn’t have known my early songs anyway.

As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.

Everybody knows by now that there’s a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.

I don’t know why, but “scibble your own book” on Dylan sounds appropriate to me now.
Should Dylan have said something? Well, that wouldn’t have been very Dylan. I’m actually sympathetic to the suggestion made by Nafisi and in The Guardian that he had nothing to lose and that the Chinese might have had an awful lot to gain. 
A fascinating moment: Dylan criticized in the western press for not playing “Desolation Row” in China, a few days after he played “Desolation Row” in China….