Cui Jian: The man who rocks China

His song was the anthem for a generation of protesters. He played Tiananmen Square in May 1989, just before Deng Xiaoping sent in thetanks. David Eimer talks to Cui Jian, Beijing's answer to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, about his rehabilitation

Cui Jian, the father of Chinese rock music, doesn't create much of a stir when he walks into a bar in Beijing on a cold Wednesday night. A few heads turn as he walks by with his trademark white baseball cap with red star pulled low over his face, but no one rushes over for a word with the man who's been described as a cross between Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain.

Until recently, Cui Jian (pronounced "Sway Jen") didn't exist as far as the authorities were concerned. Ever since his song "Nothing To My Name" became the unofficial anthem of the tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who gathered in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, Cui, the only genuine rock star to have emerged from China, has been regarded as a dissident in all but name.

Whether tweaking the noses of the government by going on stage with a red blindfold over his eyes, putting out albums with titles like Balls Under The Red Flag (which has a far more derogatory meaning in Chinese), or using his lyrics to offer pointed social commentary on the state of his homeland, Cui has been an uncomfortable reminder to the authorities of the power that popular figures can wield. Sixteen years after Tiananmen, he's as forthright as ever.

"What I say is that in China now it is good weather, but it's not a good climate," he says. "They'll let you make more money, they'll give you good food and let you have all the things you have in the West while still controlling things. It's like, 'do whatever you want but don't talk about democracy'. They don't believe Western democracy will enable China to get better smoothly. I understand why foreigners don't trust that and I'd agree with them."

It's hard to overestimate the effect that Cui's ballad "Nothing To My Name" had when people first heard it in 1986. "Back then, people were used to hearing the old revolutionary songs and nothing else, so when they heard me singing about what I wanted as an individual they picked up on it. When they sang the song, it was as if they were expressing what they felt."

Students all over China started playing their own versions and it's still Cui's most famous song. "I know I have to sing it when I play live," he says, smiling. "It made me feel good, but I didn't really think it was my song when they sang it. Some people thought it was a political song, some thought it was a song about sex - it doesn't matter. People added their own meaning."

By the time Cui played in Tiananmen Square in May 1989, he had become the figurehead of China's fledgling rock scene just when it seemed the Communist Party's iron grip on power really was loosening. "If you were there, it felt like a big party. There was no fear. It was nothing like it was shown on CNN and the BBC," he recalls.

But when China's President Deng Xiaoping sent in the tanks and troops on 4 June, the festival-like atmosphere gave way to repression on a scale that shocked the world. No one knows exactly how many demonstrators died that day; hundreds certainly, possibly thousands. Many more were rounded up and sent to labour camps for re-education, or given prison sentences. Others fled into exile.

"You can't rewind, you can't go back. I think maybe some of the government feel guilty about what happened. I don't think they want to see the same thing happen again," says Cui. "I think Tiananmen changed the whole world. The Berlin Wall went, the USSR and all those countries in eastern Europe changed after it. That's because those governments knew that if they kept control, more people would die. They didn't want that, so their only choice was to change. Maybe what happened on 4 June was the only thing that could make change happen."

For Cui, it was the beginning of the end of a brief period when he had the freedom to play where he wanted. Until Tiananmen, he had even been allowed to play abroad. "I played the Royal Albert Hall in early 1989. It was my first-ever foreign show. But it was a mostly Chinese audience, so I felt like I was playing in Hong Kong rather than England." It was the only time he's played in the UK.

His career playing big venues came to an abrupt end in 1990 when he started taking to the stage in peasant clothes and with a red blindfold over his eyes. The symbolism was obvious - and it wasn't lost on the authorities, who reacted by restricting where he could play. It wasn't until this September, when he played before 10,000 adoring fans in the Workers Stadium Gymnasium, that Cui was able to play anywhere bigger than a bar in Beijing. "Some people thought that because Beijing is where the government is, they didn't want me playing there, but there was never anything written down on paper that said 'Cui Jian can't play in Beijing'. It's like a game and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. In September, I think I won," he says.

He claims he never feared being detained. "I never believed I would because the government has humans working for it and a lot of them love music." His rehabilitation was supposed to have happened in 2003, when he was booked to open for the Rolling Stones on the Beijing leg of their "Forty Licks" tour, but the gig was cancelled after the outbreak of Sars.

It's perhaps fortunate that Cui is a calm character, because few musicians in the West have had to cope with what he's faced. "I've always been pretty balanced. I don't feel bad if I can't play," shrugs Cui. "I know it's not the end and tomorrow will be different." The fact that the Tiananmen generation is now middle-aged - Cui is 44 - and no longer perceived as a threat by the government has enabled Cui to step out of the shadows. He's still prepared to say what he thinks, though. "I think the biggest enemy of the government now is corruption. The enemy isn't America or the west or Tibet; it's themselves. If they understand that, then they'll see that democracy isn't their biggest enemy."

He is resigned about the way so many Chinese have thrown themselves into the pursuit of Western-style materialism. "They believe in money more than ideas now. My generation made a lot of noise back then and now they want to see something in their hands that can really change their lives. They want to make good money, so they can buy a new house and give their kids a good education. I understand that, but we've lost something doing that."

China's music business, which has embraced the "Pop Idol" model of manufactured pop stars, depresses him even more. "For a lot of people in China, music is just an industry. In most of China, people don't really have a musical education, so they don't know what real music is. Maybe it's because I'm old, but a lot of modern music seems to be about pretty girl, pretty boy, pretty video, make lots of money. I like some of the hip-hop, some of the electronic music. But people don't want music with a message in it now. Pop music is just about counting the money."

Having sold more than 10 million CDs around the world, Cui has prospered despite his troubles with the authorities. He's composed movie soundtracks, organised festivals, and tours outside Beijing frequently. His music is a sometimes bewildering mix of styles that reflects his two biggest influences, Miles Davis and The Clash, and his classical background.

Born to ethnic Korean parents, he was playing trumpet with the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra when he was just 20. By the mid-80s, he had formed his own band, playing covers of Western rock and pop, and had been asked to leave the orchestra. "For me, there are only two kinds of music in the world: good music and bad music. I still like the energy of classical music, but rock music appealed to me more because I could see myself in it more than in other kinds of music and I felt closer to the outside world." His 1987 debut album was entitled Rock and Roll on The New Long March and, given the vagaries of his career, it was a harbinger of things to come.

"When I used the title, it was to say that Chinese rock and roll wasn't an easy thing to do," says Cui. "Then from the lyrics, people could see it's actually about searching for yourself. It's a personal Long March."

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