In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.
But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”
There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”
This was the concert that almost didn’t take place. It was canceled last year, when the Culture Ministry did not give the needed approvals. And this year, it was on-again, off-again as Dylan’s promoters and the government censors haggled over what songs would be included.
In the end, according to the government, Dylan agreed to a concert “performed with the approved content.”
His arrival comes at a particularly sensitive time in China. On Sunday, the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by security agents at Beijing’s international airport and has not been heard from since. Ai’s arrest has prompted an international outcry, including calls from the United States, Britain and others for his immediate release.
But China has remained defiant, on Wednesday using a Communist-owned newspaper, the nationalist tabloid Global Times, to sharply criticize Ai as an “activist” and a “maverick” who was pushing China’s red lines of tolerable dissident and free expression.
“He has been close to the red line of Chinese law,” the paper said in a lead editorial, adding, “as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.”
Also Wednesday, the departing U.S. ambassador, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., made a farewell address in Shanghai, bringing up the detention of Ai, as well as imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and others.
“The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur,” Huntsman said, according to a transcript provided by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Huntsman is leaving his post at the end of April and is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination.