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Music Festivals Are Being Stamped out in Beijing

Fears about public safety since a New Year's stampede in Shanghai have led to a near wipeout of Beijing music festivals — but organizers say there is an underlying agenda to repress music and culture.
May 8, 2015, 11:20am
Photo by Yan Min

On March 28 this year Kou Zhengyu sat down on stage at Beijing's 330 Metal Fest, the annual heavy metal event he'd organized since 2002, and began to cry. Two hours earlier, during the second band performance of the day, police had stormed the Tango nightclub where the event was taking place. They said the one-day festival was too crowded, and despite Kou's desperate negotiation attempts, an order to cancel was given.

There had been no reports of crowd trouble or violence at the festival. And while in the US or UK such a police order might result in a riot, many members of the 1,300-strong crowd just embraced each other and shouted to Kou about how they wouldn't be seeking refunds. They quietly accepted that Beijing's boot had crushed yet another music festival and went home. "I started shedding tears thinking about how I would face the audience," Kou told VICE News. "But they showed so much understanding and cooperation, hugging each other and crying. That made me cry again."

Kou Zhengyu was devastated when officials cut off his 330 Metal Fest midway through. Photo by DM Simon.

2015 has been a washout for music festivals in the Chinese capital. Many blame a perfect storm of increasingly hardball local and central governments, a spike in officials' paranoia about potential crowd disasters, and good old-fashioned disorganization among promoters. What is arguably Beijing's biggest outdoor music event, the Strawberry Festival, was refused a permit for the first time since its 2009 inception. The same thing happened to MIDI, Strawberry's main rival which was founded in 1997, forcing organizers to relocate the event 740 miles south to the city of Suzhou. And the electronic music bash INTRO was moved from the centrally located Chaoyang Park to a site 40 minutes drive away from the city.

Promoters of events such as these have to jump through a huge amount of administrative hoops to get festivals approved — everything from submitting band lyrics to the Ministry of Culture to proving safety reports on different locations. And since last New Year's Eve, when 36 Shanghai revelers died in a stampede, a tragedy blamed on Shanghai government officials' incompetence, these hoops have got smaller.

Festival goers at rock festival MIDI, now held hundreds of miles away from Beijing. Photo by Yan Min.

"Even if you find a perfect venue police sometimes won't give permits due to safety concerns — it's so, so hard to get permits," DJ Weng Weng, organizer of the INTRO festival, told VICE News. "The police are under huge pressure in the sense that their careers may be impacted or ruined if an accident happens. Safety is always given as the reason, but whose safety is it? The audience's or the officials'? People just don't want to assume responsibility."

The Shanghai incident caused big ripples in China, with President Xi Jinping personally ordering an investigation to determine culpability. It's logical the tragedy would lead to a greater focus on the safety of public events — but the festival crackdown has taken place exclusively in Beijing, on the doorstep of the central government's top brass, suggesting that reputations are actually the real priority.

"The Beijing municipality is where all the 'emperor' figures are," said Dr. Willy Lam, professor of China studies at Akita International University in Japan and the adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Officials are paranoid about running foul of President Xi and other powerful figures so they don't take any chances there."

"Had the events of New Year's Eve not happened our festival in Beijing would have been fine," Michael LoJudice, director of international booking affairs for Strawberry Festival, told VICE News. "But you can see where these guys [the public security bureau] are coming from — why would they even think of risking [being blamed for any accidents]?"

Archie Hamilton, founder of Split Works, the gig promoters behind Shanghai and Beijing's multi-venue festival JUE, agrees. "Imagine you work for the Beijing Public Security Bureau and you know the leaders hang out in Chaoyang Park on the holiday weekend," he said. "You're going to be a lot more careful about what goes on in that park, whereas four hours from Beijing it's unlikely that Xi Jinping is going to come strolling past any big crazy festival."

"There is an element of caution in Beijing that doesn't exist elsewhere," he told VICE News. "These powers that be have very little interest in culture and when the pressure is on them, which it really is now, it's a great excuse for them to shut everything down."

President Xi's crackdown on dissent that has geared up since he came into power in 2012 hasn't helped the festival scene either. The government sees any large youth gathering as having protest potential, especially those based around the arts. Its natural instinct is to crush them, or better still, never let them take place at all. "They are very nervous about any kind of gathering," said Lam. "It could be a totally innocuous gathering with no political flavor to it, but they will still be suspicious."

Festival organizers say officials are more concerned with their reputations than public safety. Photo by Yan Min.

Police and other authorities have specific objections to rock and roll concerts as well, argues Lam. "Xi is more puritanical than his predecessor Hu Jintao, and so the government is less tolerant of expressions of western culture," Lam told VICE News. "Artists are merely seen as a cog in the machinery, they are supposed to serve the party. Xi gave a big speech on this recently because the government perceives artists, including musicians, as potentially subversive people."

Given that music festivals in China only started becoming a big deal around 10 years ago, their lack of cultural heritage is likely another reason why authorities view them with suspicion. Nowadays there are many across the country, featuring line-ups mainly comprised of Chinese bands plus a couple of international acts.

This year the Hives, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tricky, and Dinosaur Jr were among the acts flown in for Strawberry. While they made it to the stage, international acts have borne the brunt of the official crackdown and bureaucratic headaches.

Japanese rockers Boris were banned from playing the JUE festival in Beijing earlier this year despite having already travelled to China. They were allowed to play a show in Shanghai, but according to promoters Split Works, someone wrote to Beijing authorities saying Boris were unsuitable to appear in the capital.

In 2013 meanwhile, British singer-songwriter James Blake — hardly a figurehead of political revolution — was not allowed into China to play scheduled gigs. Many thought the decision came after authorities found out he played a pro-Tibet show in 2012. "I've been doing this for nine years and I have very little sanity left," laughs LoJudice, whose company was promoting Blake.

The festival promoters and their colleagues don't always help themselves. 330 Metal Fest organizer Kou said he found out that the Tango venue only had a legal capacity of 600 despite an estimated 1,300 people attending. It's hardly surprising that police got concerned with that one. And LoJudice admits that at last year's Beijing Strawberry Festival Hong Kong actress/singer Maggie Cheung attracted a "way over capacity" audience, resulting in huge overcrowding. There was also overcrowding at Strawberry's Shanghai leg last year, stoking fears from authorities that things could get worse in Beijing if they granted a 2015 permit.

Many festival promoters agree that while Beijing will be a difficult place to organize a festival for the foreseeable future, things will get easier when officials' public safety paranoia naturally fades. "This particular focus on [live events] will go," Hamilton told VICE News. "The authorities will focus on other things. It's a moment in time where we have to be prudent and careful in getting to the next stage."

Kou is determined that his heavy metal festival will return too, having learned from his mistakes this year. "The Tango venue hid the truth [about capacity] from us — to some degree we were a victim there," he says. "But we will definitely continue. Rock music in China is gaining more and more influence, and after this accident we need to make up for our loss — not just financially, but spiritually too."

An eager crowd at Beijing's annual heavy metal festival, 330 Metal Fest. This year's event was canceled midway through. Photo by DM Simon.

But while the shadow of the Shanghai disaster might fades, the same is unlikely of government's negative attitude towards the arts in general. "Artists and musicians are all being tarred with the same brush," said Lam. "I don't think it'll get any better soon — the authorities are really nervous about potential instability."

Hamilton is more optimistic. "The festival industry doesn't always fit into a nice little box that the authorities would like it to fit in, but I do think there's an unspoken understanding that entertainment needs to be part of the conversation of an emerging China as an economy," he said. "So it's important to try and work within the system to move things forward."

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1

Cissy Young contributed to this report.