What’s Happening with Li Zhi (and Cui Jian)? An Update on Online Music Censorship and Chinese Rock
Music censorship in China is not new, it has made the headline in the recent past during the infamous « hip-hop ban » of January 2018. During the so-called « hip-hop ban », we could literally see the panic of the official censors when confronted to the popularization of a youth subculture they knew nothing about. At first they used the most common tool available, direct censorship and SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) notice to the media. Then they tried the more complex form of (self)censorship: cooptation and promotion of « correct » form of hip-hop, like during the recent « Two Sessions » (两会), when a very weird song by Su Han praising the CCCP was widely covered by international media. Even Hassan Minhaj talked about CCCP cooptation of Chinese hip-hop in American Patriot’s episode on « Hip Hop and Streaming », making fun of Su Han’s improbable flow:
But that’s just the tip of the (censorship) iceberg. International media don’t cover all kinds of music censorship happening in China. In these past few months, a new kind of crackdown on – mainly – rock music has been taking place, first on the internet, now AFK.
The first account of online music censorship happened in November 2018. The online rock magazine « Gang of Rock » (摇滚帮) published on its Weibo page a video of Cui Jian’s (崔健) famous song « A piece of red cloth » (« 一块红布 ») – a poetic song that has many political interpretations. In a matter of hours, the post and the song were removed from Weibo.
But it didn’t stop here. Cui Jian’s songs were removed one by one from the Chinese internet and online streaming platforms. Another user complained that he couldn’t find anywhere on the Chinese internet old Cui’s song, like « Nothing to my Name » (« 一无所有 »), the symbol of Chinese rock and roll, the first rock song aired on national television during a charity concert at Beijing Worker’s Stadium in May 1986.
In an article published on Wechat, « Gang of Rock » (摇滚帮) reported the disappearance of Cui Jian’s songs, along with other rock artists. The article itself was censored in a matter of hours, but it contained a list of songs that have disappeared in the past few months. Among these songs, almost all the albums of Cui Jian were removed from Xiami (虾米), the most popular streaming app. If you search for Cui Jian’s songs on Xiami, you can only find very old songs (before 1986) and covers of Cui Jian’s songs…
Cui Jian is not the only artist whose songs have disappeared. Li Zhi (李志), a folk-rock singer famous for the song « Mr. Van Gogh »(梵高先生), has also disappeared from Chinese streaming platforms. The first album of Miserable Faith’s (痛苦的信仰), a now very famous reggae/rock band for Yunnan stoners, has also almost completely disappeared. In3’s (阴三儿) songs disappeared again, after the 2015 official ban on certain hip-hop songs. Some Hei Bao (黑豹)’s songs were also banned, as one song from Omnipotent Youth Society (万能青年旅店), « 在這顆行星所有的酒館 », or some of Zhang Yusheng (张雨生) and Zhou Yunpeng’s (周云蓬) songs.
I made a YouTube playlist of songs that have disappeared. As you can see, it touches all kind of music genres, from nu-metal to hip-hop, classic rock, folk, and pop.
I cannot find any logical explanation for this sudden censorship. Why censor Cui Jian, one of the most famous Chinese rocker, who is now participating to popular talent shows on national television? It’s true that some of his songs have (more or less) clear political meanings – like « A Piece of Red Cloth » or « The Last Shot » (« 最后一枪 ») which makes reference to the 1989 Tian’anmen massacre. But why now, after 30 years? Miserable Faith is now a very popular rock band, but their first nu-metal album, « This Is a Problem » (« 这是个问题 ») contained some challenging songs, like « When there is oppression, there is resistance » (« 哪里有压迫, 哪里就有反抗 ») – a famous quote of Mao Zedong. Why clear now their nu-metal past?
But the most interesting case is without any doubt Li Zhi. The folk singer received much attention last year, when he sued the popular talent show « The Coming One » (明日之子) for using his songs without his permission, and asked for 3 million yuan. The court agreed with the copyright infringement, but the compensation paid to Li Zhi was way below what he expected, and the TV show didn’t even have to apologize. The online censorship of Li Zhi’s songs can maybe viewed as a revenge for his lawsuit against a popular TV show. But Li Zhi’s songs are also very controversial, in several songs, Li Zhi makes clear references to the 1989 student’s movements, in songs like « The Square » (广场) – a reference to Tian’anmen Square – or « Goddess » (« 女神 ») – a reference to the Goddess of Democracy built by the students on Tian’anmen Square – you can find English translations of Li Zhi’s songs in this article by the China Digital Times.
But this weird online censorship craziness had recently some very real implications for Li Zhi. In February and April 2019, Li Zhi was supposed to perform in Sichuan, but the night before his first concert, Li Zhi sent a message on Weibo saying that he has to cancel his shows due to a medical condition, showing a photo of a medical band on his wrist. Li Zhi’s crew had to reimbursed 18.000 tickets for his Sichuan tour.
But, according to China Media Project, Chinese media mentioned that the shows were cancelled because of a « well-known vocal performer showing improper conduct » – Li Zhi being the well-known vocal performer showing apparently improper conduct. In another disturbing news, RadiiChina reports that since April 12 Li Zhi’s social media account have completely disappeared, along with his Douban page, and all of his songs.
The same month, as reported by Hong Kong Free Press, Apple had to remove several songs from its streaming app (Apple Music) in China – most of the songs were from Hong Kong pro-democracy artists, like Tat Ming Pair (達明一派) Jacky Cheung or Denise Ho. I wonder if one can access to Cui Jian’s songs on Apple Music in China…
On other news, hip-hop is, of course, not spared. Li Zhi is not the only artist forced to cancel his shows, the rap collective 红花会 (HHH) from Xi’an – whose most infamous member is no other that PG-One, the target of the Communist Youth League during the so-called hip-hop band of 2018 – also had to cancel its performance in Suzhou on May 5th, 2019. The official reason, published by HHH on Weibo, was that « the equipment broke down »:
The message from the HHH Weibo account on May 5th.
Weirdly enough, HHH changed its name the same day – 红花会 became 古德来福, GOOD LIFE, or GLDFMusic, and all the rappers associated with HHH also changed their names on Weibo, according to this article by 说唱HIPHOP. For instance the rapper DP changed his user name @红花会_DP to @SuicideOnThePrivateJet. Again, the reasons behind this new « rectification of names » are not clear – only that they probably felt some pressure from the authorities.
HHH Weibo account changed to GDLFOFFICIAL and rappers changed their Weibo user names.
Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise. We’re in 2019, 30 years after the Tian’anmen crackdown. The SAPPRFT must be on edge, two months before June 4th. That can indeed explain a lot of contradictory and apparently illogic moves. Like censoring songs written three decades ago. Or a folk singer who sings « The people doesn’t need freedom » (« 人民不需要自由 »).
« It’s the best of time » (« 这是最好的年代 »), indeed.
Li Zhi can’t perform, but others can still remember he’s one hell of a songwriter. On May 2nd 2019, the Midi Music Festival (迷笛音乐节) gave him the award of the « best male rock musician », showing that the Midi Music Festival is still politically active – way more than the Strawberry Music Festival owned by Modern Sky anyway. He was not there to receive his award, but a picture of him was displayed on the stage.
On its Weibo account, the Midi Music Festival announced the winner of this year (beside Li Zhi, the excellent post-rock band Wang Wen 罔闻 was awarded best band and best album of 2019). His name was replaced by « The Nanjing Citizen Mr. Li », but even with that kind of precaution, the Weibo post was quickly censored.
The Midi Music Festival was also the occasion for rock fan to show their support for Li Zhi: