BEIJING — Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.
Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list – which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.
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.
Among those in the crowd for the concert Wednesday night at the Workers’ Gymnasium was an artist, surnamed Qi, who watched Dylan’s show and afterward said, “China is really unthinkable. You know the artist Ai Weiwei? Somebody can lose his freedom, and you can go see a show by Bob Dylan who sings about freedom.”
Qi shook his head and said, “It’s very strange.”
For many of the Chinese fans in the audience, the concert was the chance to see an American icon in person — even if they didn’t understand the songs or even know much about his legacy.
“It’s great. Perfect,” said a young woman named Hao Wen, 23, who works for a movie production company. “But he doesn’t speak.”
Another young woman, Ilaria, 23, a student, said, “He didn’t sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I was waiting for that song.”
Ryo Takada, a 22-year-old Japanese exchange student at Peking University, said he wanted to come because “I’ve never seen him.
“He’s a famous guy from the ’60s. His voice is as good as in the ’60s.” He said he had Dylan CDs in his apartment and was a longtime fan.
The audience included a large percentage of foreigners, members of Beijing’s expatriate community and many of them baby boomers who grew up with Dylan’s music. Among them was Cory Vietor, originally from Minnesota, who has been a Beijing resident for 18 years, working in advertising. He was at the concert with his 3-year-old son, named Dylan, who sported an oversize T-shirt that read, “R U Bob? I’m Dylan.”
Among those not impressed was a group of Italian women in the crowd, who came to see an icon and were angry that Dylan came back for an encore. “We hated him,” said one, named Elena. The concert, she said, “was just plain.”
But most of the crowd seemed pleased, if not overwhelmed. The applause was polite but not sustained. And the most popular songs were the old-time crowd favorites, like “Highway 61” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
Censorship of foreign acts is common in China. When the Rolling Stones made their debut performance here in 2006, the Culture Ministry restricted the band from performing five songs, including “Beast of Burden,” “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Rough Justice.”
And in 2008, Bjork stunned the Chinese censors by shouting out “Tibet! Tibet!” during her song “Declare Independence.” That outburst led to a dearth of A-list foreign acts for years here.
A second and final Dylan concert is scheduled for Friday in Shanghai.