Authorities have banned one of China's most popular singers from making cassettes or performing in public places at a time of conflicting official signals on artistic freedom.
The decision to place these controls on Zhang Xing, possibly the country's most popular male singer at the moment, was reported to have been made by officials in charge of cultural affairs in the city of Shanghai, where Zhang has been performing.
Shanghai's Liberation Daily recently reported that the singer was arrested there for "seducing and philandering with many women under the guise of courting them." It said Zhang was a "hooligan by nature."
The arrest of Zhang, whose songs seem to be nonpolitical, comes at a time when there appears to be some uncertainty in the Chinese arts world. Currents for greater artistic freedom, as seen in some official commentaries that have praised the great diversity in the arts, have been met by other currents that seem to warn artists against straying too far. Some commentaries have deplored the "corrosive influence of capitalist and feudalist ideology" on arts and culture.
It is unclear where Zhang's arrest fits into this pattern, which has become clearer in recent weeks.
A five-day-long writers' workshop ended in Peking recently with officials calling for more "self-restraint" on the part of China's writers. Writers were urged to explore themes that "serve socialism."
To some observers, these appeals marked a partial retreat from the National Writers' Congress last December at which Hu Qili, a ranking member of the Communist Party Secretariat, pleased writers by saying they must be guaranteed "creative freedom."
In another move, the Peking production of a controversial play that drew sellout crowds earlier this month has been closed. Called "Wo Men," which means "We" in Chinese, the play was remarkably free of propaganda. It described the lives of seven teen-agers who survive bitter hardship in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. The play's message is that Chinese youths are vulnerable to the same ills that afflict their counterparts in the West; the Chinese society portrayed is far from ideal.
The play makes clear, too, that a youth who is the son of a high-ranking government official can rise much faster in his profession than others of equal talent.
The most recent sign of a cultural chill came this week when the China Youth Daily newspaper spoke of a campaign against unofficial scandal sheets, describing them as "spiritual rubbish." These words reminded some observers of the 1983 campaign against "spiritual pollution," which intimidated many artists and writers.
In the case of singer Zhang Xing, interviews with other singers in Shanghai and official statements seem to indicate that his troubles related more to his easygoing life style and his high earnings than to the content of his songs. A top-selling cassette of his that has been extremely popular among young people this fall includes a love song praising a beautiful woman. The song is called "I'm Saying Goodbye to You."
The unmarried Zhang is said to have had numerous love affairs. In his twenties, he is reported to be earning money at a rate that exceeded the wildest fantasies of most Chinese.
At a time when the current economic liberalization has come under criticism by some who feel that the policy has gone too far, Zhang's high earnings seemed to draw close scrutiny.
In September, the official magazine Democracy and Law published two letters concerning Zhang Xing. One of them said that a tendency to put money above everything else had reached a "dangerous level" in China.
"Some cultural, propaganda and other units invited Zhang Xing to perform and paid him a considerable sum of money," the letter said. "Some periodicals also gave him too much publicity. This should make us more vigilant."
Most singers in Shanghai who sing in bars, hotels and coffee houses, as well as in concert halls, earn 10 to 30 yuan, or $3.12 to $9.37, for a performance. Zhang Xing was earning 100 yuan, or $31.25, per concert. He also had a two-year contract with a cassette distributor.
According to other singers in Shanghai, once Zhang Xing became a nationally known star, he made enemies. He sent other singers to take his place at concerts that he had booked, they said. People were jealous of both his wealth and his popularity; some thought him too proud.
A foreigner who knows several singers in Shanghai came away with the impression recently that Zhang's arrest did not have much impact on the work style of most singers.
"But it does contribute to a general feeling of not wanting to stick your neck out and not wanting to sing in bars," this observer said.
One ironic result is that the Chinese public may end up having more access to the popular Taiwan-based singer Deng Lijun than they do to one of their most famous local stars.
The Chinese government has grown fairly tolerant of her music, and young people all over China seem to be listening to her on tapes, although the singer cannot be heard on the official radio. A reporter once heard her music being carried over the public address system of a factory in northeastern China.
A check last week of several shops selling cassettes in Peking showed an absence of any music by Zhang.
Reached by telephone from Peking concerning the singer's case, an official with the government's foreign affairs bureau in Shanghai said he could not respond to queries over the telephone. A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture in Peking was unavailable for comment.