Music Festivals and Rule of Law

To the best of my knowledge, a concert has never been cancelled in the United States due to a “sensitive political climate” (I may be wrong about this – post in the comments if you know otherwise!)

The idea seems ridiculous; the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly ensure that people can get together and enjoy some good music. In China, however (which has similar freedoms in name but not in practice), cancellation of music festivals and concerts is an all too common occurrence.

This October, Shanghai was to be host to to the Black Rabbit Music Festival, a multi-day gathering of musicians representing a variety of genres from all around the world. Last year, the Black Rabbit festival was the largest of its kind in Shanghai, and this year’s festival promised to be even bigger and better.

The festival was abruptly cancelled, however. Its organizers cited “doubts raised over what will happen during the politically sensitive September/October period” as a primary reason for their decision to call off the festival. Sadly, situations like this are all too common in China, where a local government can decide on a whim that a band’s music is politically insensitive, refuse to approve the necessary permits, and just like that, months of planning go up in smoke.

A similar fate was met by a festival that my favorite Chinese band, Omnipotent Youth Society, was to play at (check out their song “Non-Omnipotent Comedy” here, and if you like that, you can find a recording of them performing in Taiwan here). On September 27th, the organizers of the Play Stone Music Festival announced that “due to numerous factors outside of our control,” the festival would be postponed and moved to a different location, not yet determined.

Luckily for me, the organizers of the Black Rabbit Music Festival worked quickly to organize a new, smaller event, with a slightly less prominent line-up. The Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival was an attempt to bring together local Chinese bands and international musicians to provide a quality experience to Shanghai music lovers, in spite of the cancellation of Black Rabbit. Yet Rabbit’s Foot, too, was hindered by the “sensitive political climate,” and Norwegian post-rock group Caves of Steel had to be pulled from the roster. In their place, the alternative rock group Tree (树) of Hangzhou, China was brought on board.

The concert was great, when I went – Tree turned out to be quite a good band, and the other band playing that night, a band from the UK called Third Cortez, was solid as well. While I enjoyed the concert, however, I couldn’t help but think about the issue of musical performances being cancelled in China.

“Rule of law” is discussed a lot by China experts. Rule of law is the idea that there are certain laws on the books, and that they are consistently, fairly, and equally enforced; thus, by knowing the rules, individuals can follow them and expect to not be accused of breaking them. In today’s China, it often seems that rule of law is lacking: social status, economic background, connections to elites, country of origin, etc. can all influence how an individual or corporation is treated under the law. The expulsion of Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan and the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai/Wang Lijun/Neil Heywood scandal highlighted the problems with rule of law in China today. With less and less rule of law, China becomes more and more unstable and unreliable for doing business (or holding a music festival). Eventually, it’s not going to be worth the effort; why put in hundreds (or thousands) of manhours of work only to have them all go to waste because a government official didn’t take a liking to you? Perhaps Confucius put it best when he said “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”1 (名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成 - Which, by the way, is the tagline of the excellent blog Rectified.Name, linked to earlier in this post – check it out!)

For some pictures of Tree performing at the Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival, click here.

1. James Legge (1971). Confucian analects: The great learning, and The doctrine of the meanDover Publications. pp. 263–264.