Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.
Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list – which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.
In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.
But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”
There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”
This was the concert that almost didn’t take place. It was canceled last year, when the Culture Ministry did not give the needed approvals. And this year, it was on-again, off-again as Dylan’s promoters and the government censors haggled over what songs would be included.
In the end, according to the government, Dylan agreed to a concert “performed with the approved content.”
His arrival comes at a particularly sensitive time in China. On Sunday, the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by security agents at Beijing’s international airport and has not been heard from since. Ai’s arrest has prompted an international outcry, including calls from the United States, Britain and others for his immediate release.
Does Dylan really need gigs so badly that he’s prepared to kowtow like this? And what’s the worst that could have happened to him if he had defied the ban and sang the unapproved songs anyway?
Imagine how powerful it would have been if he had performed “Chimes of Freedom” and dedicated it to Ai Weiwei or Liu Xiaobo and the thousands of other Chinese political prisoners?
And for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing