China Restricts Foreign Performers To Graduates Only, After Elton John Mentions Ai Weiwei

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February 15, 2013 8:44 AM EST

Earlier this week, China invited Celine Dion, viral-video sensation Psy, and the Backstreet Boys to be the main performers on the televised Lunar New Year variety show. If the pop stars ever planned on coming back to China to perform, they may find out that they can't, legally. The reason? They did not graduate college. 

According to a report in the Guardian, China’s culture minister, Cai Wu, has vowed to tighten the nation’s restrictions on foreign musicians:   only those with university degrees would be allowed to play.

Cai’s recommendation for college-degree qualifications comes a few months after Elton John’s November performance in Beijing, during which he made a dedication to the “spirit and talent” of artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei.

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China, a nation whose government is hyper-sensitive to any public acknowledgement related to censorship or political dissent, was not amused by the shout-out given by the British pop star. The solution for the risk of more Western stars shouting embarrassing things on stage? Ban those who did not graduate college. Which handily leaves out most of them. 

The Global Times, a state-run newspaper that has been heavily critical of Ai Weiwei, ran an editorial piece regarding Elton John’s dedication.

“John’s unexpected action was disrespectful to the audience and the contract that he signed with the Chinese side. He forcibly added political content to the concert,” the article read.

The Global Post also suggested that it is not just the government that does not want to hear politically charged statements, but regular audience members too.  

“If they had known that this concert would be dedicated to Ai Weiwei, many in the audience would not have come to see this concert.”

The irony is that Sir Elton John, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, would still technically qualify to perform again.

But he was not the first musician to surprise concertgoers with a political message.

Bjork, the Icelandic alternative/folk/jazz-fusion potpourri singer, also had a politically divisive moment at her Shanghai performance in 2008, when she yelled “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of the song ‘Declare Independence’. Under the new musicians-with-degrees-only rule, Bjork never would have been able to make her stance on Tibet known to Chinese concertgoers.

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China’s music scene has gradually begun to open itself up to mainstream Western music as musicians are able to more easily reach fans thanks to the internet.

Classic-rock legends the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, R&B crooner Usher, rock band Incubus and Latin crossover singer Shakira have all played concerts in China. Also, none of them are university graduates.

Another source told the Guardian that it isn’t just pop stars that will be subjected to the new restrictions. The report cited two unnamed sources saying that classical musicians were also required to supply proof of degrees and other qualifications when applying for touring permission in China, adding that some licenses have already been rejected.

However, it is not likely that Cai’s plans to tighten the eligibility of foreign performers comes from the desire for more educational shows. Rather it comes as a way to minimize future concert mishaps. But to the disappointment of China’s music fans, finding degree-holding musicians is hard. 

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