The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How George Michael’s Wham! baffled Communist China and inspired its youth

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley perform during a Wham! concert in Peking, China, in 1985. Michael died at 53 on Sunday, his publicist said. (AP Photo)

It was a culture shock to rival the best of them. The bouffant, coiffured hair, exuberant dancing and extravagant image of Britain’s leading pop band, and the Communist Party’s dour insistence on uniformity.

When George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley undertook a historic tour of China in 1985, they may have baffled many of the locals, but they may also have had a lasting influence on a country still emerging from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution.

About 15,000 people were packed into the People’s Gymnasium in Beijing on April 7 that year to watch the first Western pop act to visit the country. News media reports at the time describe many in the audience as unsure how to react — partly because the authorities were deeply ambivalent about the whole affair, and police kept telling people not to stand up. An account on describes the mood as a mixture of joy, confusion and paranoia.

But across the country, a young generation, throwing off the shackles of Communist austerity, was inspired by the duo.

“I was dancing to their music in underground disco and rock parties in my art school in Chongqing,” said Rose Tang, who went on to become a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. “Wham!’s music and their hair styles were all the rage among art students then.”

Tang, who now lives in Brooklyn, said the duo's music helped her on the path to activism. “The music was really instrumental in cultivating our rebellious spirit,” she said.

The band’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, had reportedly spent 18 months persuading Communist authorities that the country was ready for Western pop culture, as the country opened to the world and tried to attract foreign investment. In Beijing, though, many in the audience were either members of the Communist Party, or they were their younger relatives. Most were probably hearing the band’s music for the first time.

According to a British Embassy report published by the Guardian, Michael struggled to get the crowd to clap along to "Club Tropicana," instead getting a round of polite applause. There was, the report decided, “a certain lack of mutual understanding.”

But some younger members of the audience danced — or tried to.

“Whenever people got up to clap or dance, the cops would make them sit down,” Richard Hornik, a former journalist who attended the show, tweeted Monday.

In a 2005 BBC interview, Napier-Bell blamed the awkward situation on his decision to send a break dancer into the crowd during the show, which appeared to horrify authorities.

"In the interval, they announced on the loudspeaker that nobody could stand up. Everyone had to sit down through the whole show — which was 100 percent my fault. I really killed the atmosphere," he said.

The crowd downstairs also mistook TV cameras for secret police filming them, he said. "There were 7,500 people downstairs intimidated by the lights and the police standing around the outside, and upstairs you had 7,500 people getting more and more wild and crazy.

This hour-long video documents the tour. In it, the pair visit the Great Wall, play soccer, meet Communist Party officials — a vice minister tells them that he too is a musician and composer and that he hopes art can promote friendship between their nations — and wind up at a reception at the British Embassy, where they appear almost equally out of place among the upper class, cricket-playing, diplomatic elite.

They are gawped at by locals in blue, green and gray Mao suits, and praised by concert goers, who described the event as “inspiring” and “something like romantic” and who earnestly expressed a desire to have better understood the lyrics.

As the BBC’s Celia Hatton reported in 2015, concertgoers were also given a free cassette tape, with original Wham! material on one side and a Chinese singer’s version on the other, with lyrics, as she says, given “some added Communist flair.”

“Wake me up before you go go,” this Chinese version went. “Women are on the same journey and will not fall behind.”

Cheng Fangyuan, a rising star in China’s Oriental Dance and Song Troupe, recorded the Chinese language versions. “That was the first time we’d heard music that loud,” she told China's Caixin Online on Monday.  “Most Chinese audiences didn’t know how to react to this kind of music and performance.”

In the video to the band’s song "Freedom," the pair talk about the culture shock they and their Chinese hosts experienced, combined with more footage of the tour.

A later show in the southern city of Guangzhou was more successful. South China was more open politically and more exposed to Western influence — and more familiar with Wham! music.

In an interview with the Taipei Times, Napier-Bell said the concert had helped attract foreign investment to China, and he claimed a degree of credit for success of the country’s reforms.

"In the end everybody got what they wanted from it — Wham! became the biggest, most famous band in the world and the Chinese got a concert that proved they meant what they said about opening up,” he said.

It may also have inspired China to develop popular music of its own. The man known as the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, reportedly attended the concert and emerged musically a year later.

But after the band packed up and left, authorities in Chongqing were still grappling with the tour’s legacy, Tang said.

“The school principal often came to our parties to turn off the boom boxes, telling us to avoid ‘Western spiritual pollution,'” Tang said.

On Chinese social media Monday, users remembered Wham! as the first cassette they had ever bought, their first memory of British popular music and their generation's favorite music.

"RIP. He is so young. God maybe wants to listen to music this year," one person wrote.