Uncertainty has once again gripped the Beijing music scene, embittering artists and fans as prospects were finally improving after a long ice age. After all, the zero-COVID measures that had kept venues from operating throughout much of 2022 had finally eased, and the industry seemed to be slowly recovering this year.
However, new uproars like a viral movement against ticket scalping and a Chinese comedian joking about the military – the latter resulting in not only penalties for the performer but massive fines for his employer – made musicians and gig goers once again skittish about a domino effect of restrictions and cancellations in the late spring. Sure enough, a highly anticipated music festival, and a number of performances of all types, were canceled in May in the wake of those controversies.
What’s more: a Canadian expat singer-songwriter with a huge following left lightning rod comments in a group chat on WeChat (China’s primary social network) at the time detailing how foreign musicians were not being permitted to take to stages, and bars were canceling shows as a result.
In an interview with ExpatRights (the musician declined The Diplomat’s interview request), the singer said a long-running, but rarely enforced, requirement for foreigners to have licenses to perform was poised to be followed to the letter. Surprising some readers, she welcomed such greater regulation. Some in the scene clearly see the logic in her argument: Greater enforcement of a policy that puts the onus on venues would help performers to play in safe spaces where everyone involved could hopefully avoid penalties.
International news outlets had more pessimistic outlooks, including the BBC, which published an article declaring a “crackdown” had begun.
Local lifestyle publication The Beijinger described restrictions on both “illegal performances” and on businesses lacking the licenses to put on live music, including those where foreign acts play. It also cited a raid at a jazz club near the Chinese capital’s embassy neighborhood this spring, where a pair of expat performers’ visas were revoked, and referenced restrictions in other Chinese cities.
Will this result in a lasting ban on foreign musicians in cities like Beijing, unless their paperwork is properly (and elusively) in order? As per usual in China, the situation on the proverbial front lines is more complicated than international media coverage of the biggest controversies might suggest.
Instead of leading to a complete freeze on hiring foreign talent, the chatter about stricter performing regulations has not impeded some of the capital’s most popular expat acts. But they have needed to proceed with caution.
Speaking to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, so as to avoid repercussions on his performances or life in China in general, an American expat musician who specializes in pop and soul said that after the controversies erupted, gigs featuring foreigners were not heavily promoted, or sometimes went unannounced until the day of the performance. He attributed that to venues fearing forced cancellations or raids. However, he added that promotion mostly returned to normal by the time the fervor had died down in late June. Meanwhile, the soul musician’s schedule of shows arranged prior to all the uproar was unaffected.
Another American expat musician who mostly plays the blues (and also asked to remain anonymous) said in early June, “I’m playing as many shows, if not more, than before” the recent controversies. While many of those gigs were less publicized than normal, the blues artist also pointed out that venues in sleepier neighborhoods outside Beijing’s third ring road face less scrutiny, and were promoting shows somewhat more freely than those in central neighborhoods.
One venue owner in Beijing’s bustling Chaoyang district, who also asked to remain nameless, said that venues have long operated in grey areas so that foreign acts could perform with some flexibility. “If it’s a small bar, with only a few hundred people, the authorities should just let it go. Don’t try to control everything like you would at [Beijing’s] Workers’ Stadium where 10,000 people attend,” the venue owner told The Diplomat. He pointed out that enforcement on the level that the Canadian singer-songwriter described to ExpatRights is arduous enough to bog down artists and venues to the point that only a fraction of the capital’s expat acts could take to the stage.
Because the vast majority of foreign musicians in China have day jobs, rather than work visas for performing full time, the venue owner worried that greater enforcement of regulations would mostly benefit performers flown in to China to play venues like hotel lounges, to the detriment of scrappier and more popular stages across town. And while the Canadian singer-songwriter persuasively pointed out to ExpatRights that artists in most countries need to, and do, follow labor regulations, the venue owner interviewed by The Diplomat said that the convoluted and glacial application process in China would prevent many gigs from taking place in a timely manner, could sap all spontaneity out of the scene, and could drain venues operators of time, attention and resources as they navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth.
The ExpatRights article pointed out a third party agent is required to handle this process. The Canadian singer-songwriter deemed it a worthwhile “administrative journey” that will “legitimize” live music in China, before also expressing hope that the process will be streamlined.
Should such a process were to become the norm in China, the blues musician is much more skeptical about the impact on the music scene. “I feel it would be temporary, non-transparent, and not equally enforced, as usual, with some places being more ‘exempt’ from a ban than others,” the musician said.
Another nuance has puzzled some onlookers: Why would a Chinese comedian’s unflattering jokes about the military affect foreign musicians, who were (mostly) already careful to avoid politically sensitive content in one of the world’s most notoriously censored and restriction-prone music scenes?
The venue owner who spoke to The Diplomat said that geopolitical tensions between China and Western countries, especially the United States, have left some local level enforcers concerned about how their higher ups would react to expat artists stirring up any trouble in their jurisdictions, especially now that live entertainment is under greater scrutiny after the comedian flap.
The pop-soul musician agreed, saying, “I do believe that the recent crackdown is directly related to the controversy with the stand-up comedian going too far with his joke about the Chinese army. It drew a lot of attention to the entertainment industry and all facets are feeling the brunt of the aftermath.”
These developments, along with soaring inflation and the zero-COVID tensions that led numerous foreigners to flee China have all taken their toll on the country’s live music industry, the venue owner said. It’s an almost unfathomable state of affairs compared to what he calls a live music heyday in the years following the 2008 Summer Olympics, when Chinese officials eagerly opened the nation up and spurred business friendly policies that caused an influx of expats.
That view is shared by Jonathan Campbell, who literally wrote the book on live music in China, “Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll.” The Canadian writer and former Beijing expat told The Diplomat that his time between 2000-2010 coordinating shows and tours, playing gigs of his own, and writing about it all “was defined by a gray zone that was, in hindsight, a pretty easy place to be in. Especially in the years before the 2008 Olympics. In the late post-Olympic aughts it felt like things started to turn.”
“But generally speaking,” Campbell added, “it felt like we were able to get away with a lot that it sounds like is no longer even remotely possible: From bringing in bands from overseas to being able to perform all kinds of music, as foreigners or locals, in all kinds of venues.”
He said that at that time, major news events – parliamentary meetings, Olympic expos, a major fire code violation, or politically sensitive developments – would lead to temporary limited clampdowns. Campbell offered examples: “Bjork saying something scandalous at a Shanghai show, and Harry Connick Jr. has to tweak his setlist. A fire breaks out at an internet café and live venues are shuttered while local authorities head across town with checklists. But things would tend to cool off after a while.”
Campbell contrasted those occasional period of heightened scrutiny with today: “The difference watching from afar these days is that it sounds like it’s just been general policy, part of the bigger story of a general turn inward, and a desire for harmoniousness, that’s been building up and getting harsher over the last 10-ish years.”
And while things have certainly changed since then, some of the biggest movers and shakers in China’s live music sector refuse to despair. A major expat gig organizer, promoter and head of a musician collective, who asked to remain anonymous, said that this spring’s spate of restrictions “were more like hiccups. I wouldn’t call it a crackdown. A crackdown is widespread.”
The organizer went on to say that he and the artists he worked with endured far worse throughout 2022, when zero-COVID measures lead to constant uncertainty about when shows could take place. Even then, foreign musicians were eyed with particular skepticism and scrutiny by the authorities, as always, because officials worry about any high-profile scandals involving those expats becoming major news. “Is there more consistent enforcement of regulations than there was prior to COVID? Sure, yes. And is that a headache for a band and touring? Yes,” he said.
But now over a month has passed since the controversies, and the initial concerns that foreign musicians would be tied up in endless red tape that would keep most of them offstage now seem overblown. Many of the sources for this story say the uproar has died down, and they are operating mostly as normal – meaning the new normal before the comedian’s fiery comments, because the boom times that Campbell described have long since ended.
Going forward, if work visas and permits are more strictly enforced, and the grey zone Campbell looks back on fondly is even further diminished, the ability of performances in Beijing and other Chinese cities to keep performing will “depend on the venue and maybe their relationship with the local authorities,” said the organizer.
Regardless, the organizer said: “If you work in the cultural industry in China, you always have to be flexible. I say be like bamboo: bend without breaking. And if you’re not, then you shouldn’t be here.”