BEIJING--British musician Elton John dedicated a recent concert here to Chinese artist and political critic Ai Weiwei, drawing gasps from many in the audience and a sharp reaction from the authorities.
The incident underlines the difficulty foreign artists encounter when performing in China.
Global Times, a Chinese tabloid daily, criticized the singer, saying, "He has aroused suspicion toward artists visiting China and brought a problem to exchanges in the field of art."
John said the Nov. 25 remark was off the cuff since he had previously purchased artwork by Ai, according to an official at a U.S. company that helped organize the concert, adding that the singer-songwriter now regrets making the comment.
The matter is still under discussion with the Culture Ministry and the Public Security Ministry, the official said. No punishment was handed out, but the incident could affect future approval for performances in China by Western artists.
Although one of China's goals is to become a global cultural power, it prohibits artists from making political statements at performances.
Approval for Western artists to perform in China can be a drawn out process, sources familiar with the matter explained. Chinese organizers licensed by Beijing are required to file with the Culture Ministry information about the venue, scale of the event and data about the artists, including songs to be performed and lyrics in both English and Chinese.
After at least 45 days of careful screening, if everything passes muster, the Chinese organizers are allowed to file visa requests for performers.
"Since standards of judgment are unclear, companies use self-restraint over programs that they consider to contain even tiny risky points," said a senior official at a music event-planning firm in Beijing.
After a 2011 performance in the Chinese capital, critical fans accused Bob Dylan of being a sell-out for not performing any of his songs that contained strong political messages.
Dylan responded on his website by saying that he submitted set lists from the previous three months and that he played all the songs he intended to play.
China’s showbiz market has been expanding. The government gave approval to 1,056 performances, including plays and ballets, by overseas artists in 2011, a sharp increase from 359 performances in 2002.
However, rates to use venues and other related expenditures have also been shooting up in recent years.
"We increasingly have difficulty making profits from performances, other than those by big-name artists, who can attract rich sponsors," a top official at an event company said.
The financial problems, troublesome application work and the political risks have been making performances in China by overseas artists more difficult.
A Chinese musician who put on a "guerrilla concert" by secretly inviting a band from the United States said: "Only concerts that are highly commercial can get over the political wall. We are far from an environment that allows the growth of a wide variety of music."
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