Bob Dylan set to make China debut

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Counter-culture legend Bob Dylan was set to make his long-awaited China debut Wednesday, finally getting approval to bring his charged songs of protest and struggle to a nation bent on quelling dissent.

Dylan will play the Worker's Gymnasium in central Beijing before a show in Shanghai on Friday and two more in Hong Kong next week - commemorating his first major performance on April 11, 1961 in New York, promoters said.

After Dylan was reportedly banned from playing here last year, China's culture ministry said last month he could perform, but only "strictly according to an approved programme" - which means his songs will be vetted by censors.

Dylan is best known for the politically-inspired songs of his early career, including "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and his anti-war anthem "Blowin' in the Wind".

"Bob Dylan is very famous in China, especially among music fans - his albums have been on sale here for years," Zhou Yan, a spokeswoman for the promoters of the Beijing and Shanghai shows, told AFP on Wednesday.

"The Beijing show is nearly sold out and sales for the Shanghai show are going well."

State media are widely covering Dylan's concerts, with the current edition of the influential Lifeweek magazine running a cover story on the soon-to-be 70-year-old singer entitled "The Answer Is Still Blowin' in the Wind".

The article follows Dylan's career as a folk singer influenced by Woody Guthrie and continues through his influential role in the American civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war era in the 1960s.

"Bob Dylan is playing in Beijing, an iconic voice of dissent in a nation that values harmony," the English-language Global Times said in its take on the iconic singer's appearances.

"The subject of Dylan's songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person."

An eight-page article on Dylan in the Beijing News on Wednesday documented the singer's failed attempt to perform here last year, while naming other "counter-culture" rock bands who have been banned in China.

Chinese authorities are widely presumed to be squeamish about Western rock and its counter-culture references to politics and sex.

The culture ministry reportedly nixed the Rolling Stones' sex-and-drugs anthem "Brown Sugar" from the set list when they played Shanghai in 2006.

Iceland's Bjork closed a 2008 Shanghai show by shouting "Tibet!" at the end of her song "Declare Independence".

In comments to the Beijing News, Chinese musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou called Dylan the "most gifted and talented folk and rock musician of the 1960s".

"He was sharply critical of the government and he saw rock and roll musicians as being the voice of the weak and of the lower classes.... I am very thankful of the influence he has had on me," he said.

On Sunday, Zuoxiao was questioned by police in connection with the detention of outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, a close friend whose disappearance comes as part of an ongoing government crackdown on dissidents and activists.

Dylan is scheduled to perform in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday - between the shows in Shanghai and Hong Kong.