IN the latest sign of the government's tight hold on culture, Beijing barred China's only all-women rock group from traveling to Australia for a performance that should have taken place yesterday.
The travel ban on the Beijing group Cobra spotlights the subtle grip of communist authorities on forms of artistic expression, say Western diplomats and Chinese involved in the music world.
The strict controls thrust Cobra into a quandary: It may perform, but not before a large audience.
"The Culture Ministry doesn't openly oppose Cobra, but it doesn't give it any form of support either," says a Chinese source on condition of anonymity. Without official backing, it is extremely difficult for bands like Cobra to perform at large venues.
Officials indicated to the band after a raucously successful 1990 concert in China that it could no longer play to big crowds. Cobra now performs at international hotels and private parties.
The denial of Cobra's first opportunity to perform abroad apparently was intended as a message to rock musicians and fans overseas. The group was to play at a festival of Chinese culture in Melbourne. In order to perform abroad, musicians must gain the approval of the ministry.
"The Culture Ministry probably feared Cobra would give foreigners the impression that Chinese youth are rebellious and decadent, even though Cobra's music is comparatively tame," the Chinese source says.
Formed in 1989, the group plays a broad range of styles, from reggae to fusion to standard "California" rock. It shies from direct political comment but expresses the disillusionment and alienation of many Chinese youth with China's repression and the pell-mell rush to prosperity.
Yet even blunted lyrics apparently prove too sharp for China's leaders.
After suppressing student-led protest in June 1989, the communist leadership purged the ministry and imposed virulent Maoist restrictions on artistic expression.
The shakeup was most clearly illustrated in the replacement of Wang Meng by He Jingzhi as minister of culture.
Mr. Wang, executive vice chairman of the Chinese Writers' Association, is a comparatively open-minded novelist, while Mr. He, a Maoist poet, is considered one of China's most outspoken champions of conservative ideology. He remains acting minister.
The five members of Cobra applied in July for passports to go to Australia as tourists at the invitation of friends there. After they had secured their passports, the band members received an invitation in November to perform at the Melbourne festival. The group then secured visas from the Australian Embassy.
The Culture Ministry last month told three members of the band that they could not make the trip.
No explanation was given to the musicians, who are associated with the ministry. Soon the band's other two members were given the same message by their "work units," the offices that handle their salary, housing, food coupons, and other essentials.
Officials eventually said the trip was denied because the musicians' plan to perform abroad contradicted their applications to travel as tourists, the Chinese source says.