Elton John Tribute to Ai Weiwei Sparks Fear of Concert Crackdown

Elton John and Ai Weiwei
Elton John and Ai Weiwei
 Ai Weiwei/Instagram

HONG KONG – Mainland Chinese bloggers have expressed fears of a slowdown in official approval for live performances in the country after Elton John’s onstage “dedication” of his Beijing concert to dissident artist Ai Weiwei on Nov. 25.

“I predict controls will be tightened in approving artistic performances [in China], especially those involving foreign artists,” wrote local blogget ratbit in response to Ai’s own Twitter comments about John’s onstage message of solidarity.

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Ai has never shied away from controversy. An acclaimed sculptor who often tackles themes of social injustice in his work, he has been barred from leaving China thanks to his political views. His profile in the West rose in the last year thanks in part to Alison Klayman's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which has generated buzz in the best feature documentary Oscar category.

According to reports from audience members at the concert, John made the announcements minutes into the show.

On his Twitter feed, which remains banned in China, Ai said he was at the concert and felt “moved” by John’s expression of solidarity. “I super like him, although we only spent ten minutes together,” he wrote, referring to the pair’s meeting before the gig. He also described the singer as “sincere” and “generous.”

The mainstream mainland media carried reports about the concert on Nov. 26, but did not mention John’s tribute to Ai. The authorities’ displeasure about the event was made more evident later when Ai posted another message on Twitter reporting the disappearance on his Sina Weibo portal of photos featuring himself and John.

John is not the first pop artist challenge the Chinese authorities’ stringent control of live performances in the country: in 2008, Icelandic pop singer Bjork caused a massive stir when she chanted “Tibet, Tibet” towards the end of her song “Declaration Independence” during in a live performance in Shanghai.

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The move generated heavy backlash among Chinese internet users – and was followed by the authorities keeping even closer scrutiny on the content of concerts to be held in the country.

John’s public support of Ai followed an Amnesty International-backed video released online last week, featuring artists – among them India-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and representatives of major museums in the US – imitating the “Gangnam Style” dance routine to demand freedom of expression for detained dissidents around the world.

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