Why did China cancel Bon Jovi's concert tour?

Jon Bon Jovi is the latest foreign artist whose politics have run afoul of Chinese censors, as did Björk and Bob Dylan before him.

Owen Sweeney/AP
Jon Bon Jovi performs in Philadelphia in 2013. Chinese fans were distraught to learn that the band's first-ever concerts in China, set to begin this week, would be cancelled, presumably over Bon Jovi's support for the Dalai Lama.

Last month, Grammy-winning singer Jon Bon Jovi released his 13th studio album, Burning Bridges – precisely what his band seems to have done in China.

Officials scrapped plans for Mr. Bon Jovi’s first concert tour in China at the last minute, leaving frustrated fans to puzzle over how the band might have offended the Culture Ministry, which previews all foreign performers’ sets to ensure songs don’t veer into politically taboo territory. 

The likely culprit: images of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader in exile, used as a concert backdrop in 2010. 

It may not seem like a serious offense, but this week marks the 50th anniversary of Tibet becoming a Chinese administrative region, and Beijing is determined to celebrate in Lhasa, the regional capital, with bells and whistles – and no protests. The Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk whom Beijing calls a separatist "wolf in monk’s robes," has been singled out for official condemnation amidst anniversary activities.

The Dalai Lama's decades-long advocacy for Tibetan autonomy has attracted a broad camp of celebrity admirers: Maroon 5 and Oasis were also forced to cancel concerts after expressing support. In 2008, Icelandic singer Björk closed a Beijing concert with the song "Declare Independence" and chants of “Tibet, Tibet!”, prompting a crackdown on entertainers who "threaten national sovereignty." 

Bon Jovi himself described his music as celebrating “individual freedom and expression” in a Chinese interview, which may have waved a red flag in front of the Culture Ministry.

Another musical icon of freedom, Bob Dylan, provoked fierce controversy with his 2011 performances.

US fans were outraged when their protest-anthem hero omitted politically charged songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from his Beijing song set, despite singing them elsewhere on the same tour.  

With rumors of self-censorship swirling, the famously reclusive artist penned his first-ever web message, strongly denying that he allowed censors any say over the performance. “We played all the songs that we intended to play,” he insisted.

It was not enough to mollify his critics, who bemoaned, "Like the corporate leaders that preceded him, Dylan appears to apply one standard when it comes to human dignity at home, and another while traveling abroad, especially when those who most routinely violate basic standards of human rights line his pockets."

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