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Beijing Calling: Suspicion, Hope, and Resistance in the Chinese Rock Underground

China has produced some of the most vital indie rock on the planet. But can the scene survive gentrification, government crackdowns, and a hit TV show?

Like Beijing itself, Dusk Dawn Club — or simply DDC, to the locals who stumbled out at all hours — blended centuries of history into a neon blur. Located in the city center’s trendy Gulou district, down one of its many winding, sparsely lit stone alleys, the club was housed in a traditional courtyard adorned with swinging paper lanterns and floridly carved wood eaves. Rock bands thrashed and flailed in a converted living room as fans spilled out onto the patio, jostling for a view through crooked windowpanes.

I visited Dusk Dawn Club on a warm spring night in 2019; Xiao Wang, a local riot-grrrl band, headlined. Lead singer Yu Yang howled her indignation in Mandarin, eyes obscured beneath serrated bangs, clawing at the coiled tiger on her tank top. The audience lunged toward her, amber bottles skittering like pinballs between their feet. Outside, the bartender slung cheap cans of Great Leap beer, the sanest choice; the well cocktails were almost farcically heavy pours. Most people drank the beer; a few not-so-subtly slugged from their own bottles of baijiu, a grain alcohol that dates back to the Ming Dynasty and burns like regret incarnate. A shouting match erupted outside, and two men circled each other like prizefighters, scanning each other warily, before bursting into laughter and slamming into an embrace. Later, a DJ put on Motown records and a thicket of bodies danced for hours. It was calamity and euphoria, and I never wanted to leave. This was my last of many nights spent immersed in Beijing’s indie-rock clubs, which teemed with a deviant, madcap passion unlike anywhere else I’d experienced. 

Today, Dusk Dawn Club is closed — one of many beloved small clubs to shut down lately, another silent shrine to a once-vibrant scene. In the short, embattled history of indie rock in China, its community has always been resilient. Its musicians have been imprisoned, silenced, and socially exiled: forced from their homes, rejected by their families. Yet they have persevered in a way that illustrates the beauty of art amid suppression and defies Western notions of what protest, freedom, and hope can mean in rock music. 

But now, in a time of unprecedented prosperity and growth in China, the challenges to this scene may crush so much of what makes it extraordinary. And while disappointed fans might point to the pandemic that began 1,150 kilometers south, in Wuhan, that has only been one threat among many to the community. Add a virus to rising rents, gentrification, government censorship, and a series of well-choreographed police crackdowns — then add a controversial reality-TV show, to boot — and there may be no cure for what is happening to the Beijing rock underground. 

Liu did not set out to sing about censorship and the police in China — and the majority of the time, he didn’t. New love, nights out with friends, and other youthful tropes comprised most of the lyrics he wrote for his band. The handful of lines that could be interpreted as protesting the government or questioning authority weren’t intentional, he insists. I ask him if he thinks those lyrics — and the excitement that they generated in the Chinese indie-rock community — played any factor in his imprisonment.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t know.”

Liu founded the band in the early 2010s; it soon caught on in Beijing, booking shows at all of the city’s most popular livehouses, as concert venues in China are called. Soon, the bandmates were setting up their own tours around China. They borrowed more from Western punk than most of their peers: They howled gleefully about drinking and partying, their limbs covered in tattoos, all arch sneers and raised eyebrows to their elders. “It is rare to create your own fan base in China,” says Liu. “Bands depend on their labels, and it takes like 10 years for a band to be known. But we did it ourselves.” (Rolling Stone has changed Liu and his bandmates’ names and some identifying details, and worked with the band to corroborate their story in a safe manner.)

Labels soon came calling, and a prominent one released the band’s album. (It was an easy decision: Liu was “the best frontman in China,” one of the label’s top executives tells me.) It was a volatile, bratty record, powered on the scabrous guitar runs and frantic rhythms of Western garage rock, all topped with Liu’s shredding screams in Mandarin. Chinese music press praised the band, especially English-language blogs, and trendy streetwear brands offered them partnerships. “We were receiving a lot of attention for what we represented,” says another band member, Winston, who was born and raised in the West. “Our attitude, our dressing, our perspective of life itself — it was different.”

They were becoming poster children for the DIY ethos — that Western concept of punk — around China. But with their new celebrity, they were also attracting unwanted attention: The band claims that after one member upset a friend, she reported the band to the police, claiming they were dealing drugs in their home. Early one morning, police raided the band’s apartment and detained Winston and Liu. Finding remnants of weed on a table, they jailed both musicians for several days.

Though these were Liu and Winston’s first arrests, it wasn’t an unfamiliar situation to them: In the past decade, undercover police have become a reliable presence among the music scenes of China’s largest cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai. They will frequent a club or livehouse if rumors of drug use are reported — part of the Chinese authorities’ steadily increasing crackdown on drugs, from marijuana on up — and their presence is guaranteed to scare away patrons.

If a club is on the ropes financially, the presence of plainclothes officers can accelerate its demise. A concert promoter in Shanghai tells me that he and his friends often play “spot the cop” at shows, looking for the man in his thirties or forties dressed in some exaggeratedly trendy outfit, an untouched beer bottle warming in his fist. Plainclothes cops can, on a whim, demand urine tests from audience members and throw them in jail for any trace of drugs in their system. They have also been known to take stock of attendees and performers during shows, identify them using the government’s comprehensive surveillance technology that incorporates phone and facial-recognition scanners, and appear later at their homes to collect hair samples, which have longer-term traces of substances in them. When the Shanghai promoter anticipates such a visit, he says, he shaves his head. A Beijing-based artist tells me that although raids are currently less active there than in Shanghai, he and his peers still sometimes bleach their hair after long nights out, in order to fry any traces of drugs.

Unlike a few years ago, these busts now seem to focus exclusively on narcotics. “Before, plainclothes police officers might watch a performance to see if a band was going to say something controversial or anti-government,” says a Beijing- and Shanghai-based record executive. “But now, their other forms of regulating have controlled that, so it’s just about drugs.”

Police have also intervened at music festivals, causing chaos. One Beijing-based photographer recalls being pepper-sprayed by police in 2018 at the popular Strawberry Festival in Hangzhou, a large southeastern city. During a set by the Nanjing post-punks Re-TROS, the crowd began moshing, she says, and police jumped into the fray. She likens it to a zombie movie. “I suddenly saw all these people moving back toward me with their heads bent down, and I was confused. Then I started to feel the gas, too. It was enough to make you cry.”

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Security guards look on at the Beijing Pop Festival in 2007. Chien-min Chung/Getty Images

This uptick in police presence isn’t limited to concerts; the consistent possibility of arrest has also created deep, McCarthyist suspicion among its community. One Beijing-based singer fronted an up-and-coming rock band before his bandmate was arrested for drug use — sold out, he believes, by a friend. Soon after, the group broke up. He’s wary of who he speaks to now, both at concerts and on WeChat — a popular social media app, a sort of instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook, email, and digital wallet hybrid (and well-documented to be monitored by the government).

“The authorities are very good at calling on people to fight against people,” says the singer. “If they arrest you and they take you into the police station, they terrify you and threaten you. They say that if you report 10 other names who do drugs, they will reduce your sentence. So people are reporting each other all the time.” 

Winston’s introductory stint in prison, after such an alleged peer report, lasted less than a week. Today, he recalls the harsh blankness of his cell. “The walls, the floor — everything was white. And the light never turned off. It was winter, but the heat was not on.” His voice is grim and clipped, even through the international static of our call. “They have cameras in there, so they can see what you’re doing. At one point we were doing push-ups, and a voice came through the speaker in our room telling us to stop.” 

Liu’s and Winston’s criminal records changed their daily life in China. Liu’s state ID card was permanently marked, and Winston’s working permit was also affected. Per police protocol, Liu could be forced to take a urine test any time he uses his state ID — to buy train or airplane tickets or enter public buildings, or if stopped in a random check on the street. If his test showed any drugs, he’d be sent back to jail. Liu insists he went completely clean after his first arrest, and has not touched drugs since. He says he was forced to do spontaneous urine tests many times in the years after his arrest, but it was still a significantly lower number than usual for former inmates. “I was very careful,” he says. “I don’t use ID cards anywhere now. I use my passport.”

Despite this increased scrutiny, the months after the release of the band’s record were good ones. The band was leveling up financially, commanding enough to live comfortably on just its music. It booked shows around China and started organizing a tour that would take it outside the country. The band wrote material for a new album.

But one morning, shortly before the band was scheduled to depart for a major show, police raided its home again. This time, Winston was not there, but Liu was. Police brought Liu to the local precinct, saying he had been reported again for drug use. The police tested Liu’s urine and hair, and claimed to find evidence of narcotics. Despite Liu’s protests, he was sentenced to two years in a rehabilitation prison.  

Winston — who was midway through his routine visa renewal — was brought in by police separately for questioning in order to receive his passport back. “When I arrived I was completely shaved: my whole body, eyebrows, beard,” Winston says. “Not because I thought I was guilty, but because I didn’t want to give them any chance to put something against me.” After a quick, cordial interview, he left and soon received his passport in the mail. This time, instead of being granted his normal visa of several months or a year, he had been allotted just a few weeks. “It seemed like they were asking me to leave gently.” He returned to his home country. The band’s tour and next album were canceled.

In his first weeks in prison, Liu had persistent insomnia. “It felt unreal,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I had to find a way out, mentally.” He began reading fervently, and chatted with his many cellmates, all of whom were significantly older and serving even longer terms for alleged drug use. He meditated. His arrest was not reported in any Chinese media. 

“In the West, if a band got arrested like this, someone would probably spew it to the media and fans, and society would rally around the band,” says Winston. “But if we said stuff like this in Chinese media, people would automatically disassociate themselves from us to protect themselves. When you live in a dictatorship mentality, you don’t want to get in trouble.”

Liu quietly endured his time in jail. The night before he was released, his cellmates threw him a party in their cell, complete with a cake made of fresh fruit that they had somehow acquired inside the penitentiary. “It was quite delicious,” Liu recalls. The next day, his mother and his girlfriend picked him up; they went for dinner, and then Liu met some of his bandmates at their favorite bar. They did not talk much about his time in prison.

So why were Liu and Winston really arrested? Ask each of them and you get two different answers.

“Being a band from the underground, we were getting too much attention,” Winston insists. “When we started, we were presenting something that had never happened before in China. We were covered in tattoos and young. Some of us had dropped out of school. Our music struck the critical mind: that you can do things by yourself, think by yourself, and you don’t need to follow the traditional path.

“I think it was seen as an excess of freedom,” he concludes. “And if you observe the history of China, every time the government feels something is out of their control and getting too big, they try to suffocate it.”

Liu disagrees. “We’re nobody to them,” he says. “It’s just about the drugs. They don’t like that, so because [we were associated with them], they punished us. Of course they know what we’re doing musically, but we were quite small for them.”

One attitude — fixated on suppression, on the iron fist closing around contrarians — seems idealistic, and comes from someone raised in the West. The other — the assumption of insignificance, of being swept into greater momentum — is pragmatic, from someone born in the East. The motive could also be somewhere in between: that the government was tipped to the band’s alleged drug use, but the punishment of them was an attempt to punish dissent — because what is drug use if not dissent on productivity, on stability, on the conformity essential to an upwardly mobile society?

Ultimately, the band’s different interpretations divided them. “I’d already felt before that, every time we played, we had heavy surveillance,” says Winston. “Now it was clear: We’d reached the ceiling and there was nowhere for us to go in China. We had to leave the country to move forward.”

Winston begged his bandmates to join him in the West, even temporarily. He dangled potential producers and bands as collaborators; he predicted catastrophic outcomes if they stayed in China. They refused to move, to his frustration: “They were raised and born in that environment, and they’ve never left. They’re more willing to submit to what the system offers to them and to adapt towards the way things operate.”

Winston says he and his bandmates are now in a standoff; he won’t leave his country, and they won’t leave theirs. But he won’t return to China, he says; to his bandmates, musicians being arrested is “just something that happens for a couple of months. For me, it almost destroyed my whole plan.”

This reminded me of a moment in my conversation with Liu not long after his release. I’d noted that no double-jeopardy laws exist in China, so he could be arrested again and again, for charges he claims are false. I asked him, “Do you want to leave the country?” “I don’t believe moving is a solution, and I don’t want to leave everything behind,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t want to run away. Yes, sometimes I worry that I’ll be arrested again, but I shouldn’t, because I’m innocent. I don’t do any drugs now, and I don’t want to live my life in worry.”

For now, without their Western member, the band is playing shows again and planning to record another album. Liu is also working on new songs, with lyrics he began during his time in prison. “They’re not about jail, they’re about the world,” he says. “Because I feel like the world is just a bigger jail.” 

Rock music quickly exposed my glaring Western bias upon my arrival in Beijing. My American upbringing had steered me to a pretty ethnocentric assumption: that in a totalitarian government, defiance would exhibit itself as bluntly and topically as in the United States, just with additional concealment. I pictured singers gathering in secretive, riotous speakeasy spaces and clubs, railing against conformity and the omniscience of the Communist Party. In other words, something that slotted into the West’s notion of protest. But those looking for such dens of iniquity in China will be looking for a long, long time. 

In 2019, when I told this theory to Michael Pettis, founder of the indie-rock label Maybe Mars and a New York expat, he nodded knowingly. “When [Westerners] come to China, they have expectations about what they’re going to see,” he said as we sat with cold drinks in his label’s siheyuan, a traditional courtyard painted in plummy greens, reds, and blues. “Some people say, ‘Well, it’s a dictatorship, so the music scene is going to be a bunch of punks shaking their fists at the government.’ No, most of the artists in China are not that interested in politics. And anyway, if you shake your fist at the government, you go to jail. If you do that in the U.S., you sell more CDs.”

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Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” became the de facto student rallying cry of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. XINHUA/EYEVINE/REDUX

It’s been a quick learning curve for China’s rockers; not so long ago, Western rock music came to the country as literal trash. In the 1980s, as the country’s long-closed economic and cultural borders began to open, Anglo pop music was allowed inside for the first time, starting with a 1985 performance by Wham! in Beijing. But as recently as the 1990s, rock was still not permitted into China because it was deemed too controversial by the Communist Party. In 1986, Beijinger Cui Jian had released “Nothing to My Name,” a self-empowerment anthem that merged traditional Chinese woodwinds with Western guitars and drums; it became the de facto student rallying cry of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. Heavier bands, like the metal pioneers Tang Dynasty and the all-female hard rockers Cobra, gained traction in the late Eighties and early Nineties, especially in the capital. But with the music’s association with revolution, the Communist Party began censoring it strictly, and it disappeared from airwaves.

Yaqiu Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who covers censorship in China, says the Western reputation of rock music has long been known to the party. “Rock music has a grand ideology in the West, which is to challenge the society norm, challenge the political norms,” she says. “If that kind of spirit were shared among rock musicians within China, the government would see this as a threat.” (China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.)

But in the 1990s, while rock was verboten in China, it was booming in America and Europe. Record companies were printing classic- and alt-rock CDs in unprecedented volumes. With unsold copies ultimately returned to them from stores, these labels needed to dispose of this overstock, so they embraced an increasingly popular option in other industries: They shipped these CDs and cassettes to China, to be recycled or junked. 

And so five decades of rock and punk arrived simultaneously in China, in great equalizing heaps: Nirvana next to Blondie, Galaxie 500 and Sonic Youth with the Ramones, Atlantic on top of 4AD on top of SST. Shrewd record-store owners, doing brisk business on Kenny G and the Carpenters in their front rooms, kept bins of this contraband in the back, where teens flocked each weekend for illegal, chaotic buying sessions. They clambered all over one another to snatch new CDs, shattering jewel cases and tearing liner notes. “Once I found blood on my hand, and it was from other people,” says Zhang Shouwang, frontman of the veteran Beijing rockers Carsick Cars. “We were so eager for new music, we were just grabbing everything we could.” 

The shipments of Western albums — and their dangerous allure — sparked a second, late-Nineties rock wave in China. Bands found clever ways to merge their Western influences with Mandarin, the dominant tongue of mainland China. (Mandarin is a tonal language, with different pitches distinguishing meaning. Writing melodies around these different tones is notoriously tricky.) Influential Beijing rock groups such as Black Panther, the Flowers, and Hang on the Box released landmark albums and, in some cases, embarked on previously unheard-of national tours. To the south, in Nanjing, the now-revered P.K. 14 formed, drawing inspiration from Joy Division and other Eighties post-punks.

But as it grew, rock music was met with consistent hostility. P.K. 14 moved to Beijing not long into their career, frontman Yang Haisong says, to escape the stigma of being rock musicians. “All our parents, teachers, and friends agreed that if you listened to or played rock music, you were dangerous and destroying your life,” recalls Yang, now a prominent rock producer. “People would treat you as if you were really bad and you didn’t belong in society. You were an outsider.” It was a much less glamorous fringe status than their counterparts were enjoying in the West. Yet with no financial incentive, and no social safety net, this generation of Chinese rockers endured, grinding out albums and demonstrating a rare display of artistic passion above commerce. Today, to a new era of Chinese rockers, they are cult icons.

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Revered Nanjing band P.K. 14 drew inspiration from Joy Division and other post-punks. SHI XIAOFAN

In the late 2000s, as the Chinese government prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — spending billions on new buildings, infrastructure, and digital technology for what economists have dubbed the country’s “coming-out party” on the world stage — its rock scene seemed to be opening to the world, too. Carsick Cars’ self-titled debut, produced by Yang, was a national hit, and landed the band an opening slot on their spiritual forebears Sonic Youth’s 2007 European tour. Shen Lihui, frontman of the college-rock group Sober, founded Modern Sky, now the largest indie label in China, and staged the company’s first rock festival, headlined by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Rock clubs drew lively, loyal crowds; D22 in Beijing, founded by Pettis, is talked about in the same sepia tones of CBGB in New York. (D22 closed in 2012.)

Since that Olympic boom, conspicuous wealth has skyrocketed in the country’s biggest cities. Shanghai, especially, has seen a revitalization; its city center is dense with gleaming skyscrapers. Hip-hop and electronic music dominate its minimalist clubs. One night in Shanghai in 2019, in an industrial-warehouse party that felt ripped from Berlin or Bushwick (aside from the bar of DIY noodle bowls in the corner), I watched a member of the local record label and party collective Genome 6.66Mbp spin a coarse electro set. She sported a faithful Sailor Moon costume, down to the pigtails, with just one prescient deviation: She sang in eerie, falsetto shrieks through a paper face mask — the kind favored at the time by commuters who were averse to smog or still cautious from the 2003 SARS outbreak, but that, in six months, would become ubiquitous. 

Today, Beijing remains China’s highest-profile rock scene, though streaming platforms like QQ Music and Douyin have boosted bands around the country. Southern cities Wuhan and Chengdu boast fertile punk and post-punk scenes, due in part to their large university communities. 

Some Chinese rock artists have enjoyed mainstream popularity for years: Established groups like Black Panther and Yu Quan, and solo artists like He Yong, have filled arenas since the 1990s. Taiwanese bands like Mayday and F.I.R. have had long careers in the country, too; their heavy orchestrations often derive from sweeping, sugary Cantonese and Mandarin pop (genres called Cantopop and Mandopop, respectively), and might conjure the phrase “lite rock” to Western listeners. The concept of “rock” itself has also proven media-friendly; the 2017 film City of Rock follows a chubby, slapstick frontman wanna-be as he assembles a ragtag group of musicians to avenge the soul of music with endless riffing guitar solos, hyperproduced power-ballad climaxes, nonspecific lyrics about happiness and love, and other dated staples of the genre. (Yes, it ripped a few dozen pages from the School of Rock playbook.) City of Rock is a particularly interesting statement, as it lionizes rock music and its lifestyle while avoiding all connotations of rebellion and protest that the music has long held in the West. It asked those audiences, by omission: How does music of social dissent flourish in a suppressive society?

To some of Chinese rock’s Western fans, the answer is in its radical sincerity — in its recurring themes of alienation, anxiety, and other discomforts. Ricky Maymi, guitarist of the San Francisco group the Brian Jonestown Massacre, first visited China in 2015, and has returned “between eight and 10” times. He distributes Chinese rock releases in the West with his company Far Out Distant Sounds, and brought the Beijing rockers Chui Wan and Birdstriking on tour with BJM.

“The musicians in the Chinese rock scene are finding a place to put ideas and feelings where otherwise, in their culture, they wouldn’t have a place,” Maymi says. “This music has real heart, devoid of any kind of irony. That gives it a built-in power, a magic that Western music hasn’t had for a long time.”

China’s monitoring system processes 1.4 billion citizens daily, to say nothing of visitors. Millions are employed to review posts and search keywords on social media and compile reports for authorities. Many of its estimated half-billion surveillance cameras use cutting-edge facial-recognition technology and contribute to several overlapping data policing networks with names like Sharp Eyes, City Brain, and Skynet (yes, as in the Termi-nator films, which are popular in China). An oft-cited analogy, coined by the scholar Perry Link, is that the government’s omnipresent monitoring and censorship authority is like “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier” — one that doesn’t have to strike to frighten people and make them change their behavior. 

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Crowd surfing at Mao Livehouse in Beijing, 2013 Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch is more blunt: She says the country’s surveillance apparatus is integral to its “very repressive authoritarian state.”

“The Chinese government wants to control the speech and ideas of people who want to be independent,” she says. “The government considers anybody who wants autonomy, wants agency, wants to explain their own ideas as a threat to its rule.”

Yet as a tourist, it can be easy to ignore this machine when you’re in the thrall of all the country has to offer: the casual decadence of ancient shrines and monuments; the glorious, endless new iterations of cheap street food (why are these deep-fried quail eggs skewered on a stick, and how have I already eaten a coop’s worth?); the hectic street tableaus of gregarious vendors, stylish youths, and brisk elders, all jostling for space. As a half-Chinese woman who grew up in the West, who has felt conditioned to be apologetic for my presence at the table — to say nothing of the Orientalist hypersexualization and fetishization from Pinkerton creeps that all Asian American women know well — being surrounded by my own face, and seeing nary a submissive gesture in sight, was revelatory. It was stunning in its empowerment. In 2021, with anti-Asian violence surging in America, the memory is even more bittersweet and cherished.

On the surface, Chinese life can also feel effortlessly autonomous, symbiotic with restriction. CCTV cameras blend into trees. Banned musicians don’t have blacklist-style posters in stores; their albums just aren’t sold. WeChat is surveilled, but try finding one citizen under the age of 50 who isn’t glued to it. In my time in China, it felt as easy to accept the monitoring there as in my home, New York: How different, really, was using WeChat from having my iPhone GPS movements tracked in Manhattan? As we toured Tiananmen Square, a tourist from Australia asked why I didn’t flinch at the armed guards patrolling the crowds; it was because, in my work commute, I’d acclimated to passing police officers with machine guns in the Financial District.

But it is this lulling veneer of normalcy that makes a demonstration of suppression — or even the suspicion of one — all the more alarming. One sunny afternoon in Beijing, while walking alone to my Airbnb in the well-heeled Sanlitun district, I was introduced via a messaging app to Winston, who had already been deported to his home country in the West. The exchange was short; we agreed to a call the following week, when I would be back in America.

Within minutes after our exchange, the messaging app crashed on my iPhone. I was startled, and tried to reboot it, but it did not reopen; it was locked on my device. I attempted to open the local ride-sharing app I’d relied on for transportation. It also did not open.

About 15 minutes later, outside a sidewalk cafe, I attempted to open both apps again, to no avail. That’s when I noticed a man in my peripheral vision, about 20 feet away: short, with a shaved head, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, with a black messenger bag diagonally across his chest. He was watching me intently — not an entirely rare experience for me in China, as many gregarious locals had already approached to enquire about my ethnicity. (Being biracial can be quite a social beacon, on any continent.) But this man’s expression was pointed, unwavering. I walked down the block and turned back quickly; he had not moved, and was still staring.

The messaging and ride-sharing apps reopened on my phone a few hours later, within minutes of each other. I saw this same man, in the same outfit, twice more the next day, both times within a few blocks of where I was staying. He was watching me intently both times; both times, I was alone. And both times, as I scurried to lose him on the street, I wondered how much of this was blatant surveillance — how much was intentional transmission — versus mere coincidence, or my own skittishness. The inability to know was more frightening than his vigil, which felt like a reflection of the power of monitoring itself.

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Singer and actress Denise Ho was exiled from mainland China in 2014. Tyrone Siu/Reuters/Alamy

Still, my uncertainty was a luxury. In China, dissenting speech in music can end in severe consequences for artists, whether citizens or visitors. The Cantopop star Denise Ho was exiled from mainland China in 2014 after demonstrating against the party’s encroachment of Hong Kong. In 2018, a Chinese social media star was jailed for five days for performing the national anthem in a manner the government found disrespectful. The primary composer of “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem that defined the 2019 protests against China’s extradition efforts in the region, went into hiding for fear of retaliation; that same year, the folk-rock singer Li Zhi went missing after allegedly singing about Tiananmen Square on the eve of the riots’ 30th anniversary; Uyghur artists have been marginalized heavily in media as oppression of the ethnic group grows in the Chinese northwest. And China has regularly censored gay artists and content in its broadcasts. There’s a reason Ai Weiwei, the prolific visual artist and even more prolific critic of authoritarianism, refuses to listen to music: He says his upbringing in China has left it permanently associated with propaganda in his mind.

Jasmina Lazović, program coordinator of global monitoring at Freemuse, an international NGO that advocates for freedom of artistic expression, says the Chinese government is “very much aware of how people can be mobilized through music and art.”

“Keeping in mind the scope of human rights violations in China, [artists’ safety] is another area that needs to be emphasized and advocated at the international level,” she says.

Western artists have also been barred from the country after expressing support for the independence of Tibet, which China has violently imposed sovereignty over since 1950. After Björk yelled her support of Tibet during a 2008 concert in Shanghai, she was forbidden from performing in China again. Other artists who have performed in Tibetan Freedom concerts or publicly supported the Dalai Lama have reportedly been banned, too, including Lady Gaga, Oasis, and Maroon 5. (Other artists, like Justin Bieber, have been banned for allegedly unacceptable personal behavior, and Jay-Z is one of many stars who have been banned for allegedly inappropriate lyrical content.) While in Beijing, I found Björk to be a telling barometer of the “Great Firewall,” the heavily restricted internet that Chinese citizens can access. (Google, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked on it, after being allowed in the 2000s; Bandcamp and Spotify are also banned, though the platform QQ Media is part of a joint venture between Spotify and the Chinese media conglomerate Tencent.) China’s most popular search engine is called Baidu, and entering “Björk” in it offered a few, scant biographical details and an abridged discography. Entering “Björk” with “Tibet” on it revealed no information about that controversy.

And that’s just the music that surfaces in the search engine. To release an album, Chinese artists and labels must first navigate bureaucracy behind the scenes. “Everything goes through a censorship process now, but there’s no one censor, and no clear list of what’s allowed and what’s not,” explains Nevin Domer, a metal musician and former operations manager at Maybe Mars. “To release albums, you need to submit all your materials to a publisher, which is a partly government-owned company that [a label] has to pay. If the label doesn’t get their approval, the factory can’t print the album.” The materials include all song lyrics, information about band members, their government IDs, the recorded songs, and everything to be printed in the liner notes. These publishers can be capricious in their verdicts, and if an album is denied — as it often is — a label will usually reapply with another company and begin the entire process again. 

“It’s a fundamental strategy of censorship, jumping through bureaucratic hoops,” says Human Rights Watch’s Wang. “The control is from the very root.”

Musicians who have navigated this process say the specter of censorship still follows them everywhere, particularly when talking to Westerners. But to some of them, it is even more important that they not be defined by their response to such suppression. To these artists, resistance is about continuing to create art in a system that antagonizes them. In this climate, the punk ethos is creating something full of beauty — of optimism, even — for as long as you can. 

“People always ask us why we’re not being critical of censorship, which I think is unfair,” says Carsick Cars’ Zhang. “In China, first of all, we have to make sure we keep playing music.

I think this environment gives us even more creativity to write about what matters to us.”

P.K. 14’s Yang Haisong echoes this. “I don’t want to write songs against something. As an artist, that’s a trap,” he says. “As a musician, you need to write your feelings, to find yourself. It can’t be only anger. I don’t want to fight using my words; that’s bad for me.” 

When Zhang Jincan opened Dusk Dawn Club in 2014, Beijing’s Gulou neighborhood was full of scrappy rock livehouses. There was School Bar: a dim, sticky punk den located down the road from a gilded Buddhist temple and a KFC. A few blocks over was Temple Bar: a wide, smoky loft in an industrial mini mall that felt ripped from a Midwestern basement. Then Yugong Yishan, a courtyard dive with regular international acts, photography exhibits, and the largest sectional couches in the Eastern Hemisphere. And the most famous of them all, Mao Livehouse: a boxy, heavily graffitied hall with the best, most ear-splitting soundsystem in town. 

Today, only School Bar remains open. “I walked around Gulou recently and it’s totally different now. It’s quiet. Too quiet,” says Zhang. “I don’t think the music scene has a chance in the city center anymore. It’s lost; it’s gone.”

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DDC’s last night, May 31st, 2020. Courtesy of DDC

Dusk Dawn Club and Temple Bar were the two most recent to close. Predictably, Beijing’s coronavirus lockdown played a role; livehouses were closed for more than eight months and were some of the last businesses to reopen in the city, along with movie theaters. Dusk Dawn Club was hit hard by the lack of income and ever-shifting reopening projections. “By May [2020], we had no hope that the pandemic in China would get under control,” says Zhang. “It was a disaster for us.” After reopening, Temple Bar started receiving more scrutiny from inspectors, leading to its landlords’ imposition of new curfews for shows and temporary closures to bring the facilities up to code. Finally, after an unsuccessful bid to renew its lease, the club closed in January.

When the surviving livehouses began reopening in September, they were packed. Quarantine had translated to months of musicians livestreaming from their apartments and, occasionally, broadcasting shows from stages running on skeletal staff. There was angst to burn. 

But some of these returns were short-lived. Temple Bar’s closure showed that Gulou’s livehouses could still shutter due to legal problems that predated Covid-19. To hold a concert in China, performance licenses are required for both the artist and venue, and both can be difficult to obtain. The artist must submit their lyrics, ID, and video footage of prior performances to a censor, who might deem them offensive and reject their application, much like the process for releasing an album. Clubs must be located within city-designated “cultural zones” to receive such permits, and in Beijing, these zones tend to appear far from the city center. After Mao Livehouse closed in 2016, reportedly because of “rising rent and meddlesome officials,” it reopened in one such approved zone — about 30 miles from Gulou.

“It will only take a matter of time for local governments to squeeze the remaining venues out of the city center who have been able to stay there because of their guanxi — their connections — and because they’ve been there for several years. But eventually, they’ll be pushed out,” says Domer. “The only spaces for venues will be in spaces designated for arts and culture.”

For his part, Dusk Dawn Club’s Zhang believes this community can persevere in Beijing — with some compromises. Though he is currently focusing on the club’s sister venue, DDC Aranya — a performance space in a well-heeled, private beachside community about 300 kilometers from the capital — he plans to open a new DDC location in Beijing in the fall. It’s inside a mall in Chaoyang, a district east of Gulou, so not as far a displacement as other livehouses have faced. “I feel very lucky,” he says. Still, he acknowledges the area doesn’t have much of a music scene — and that another recently relocated club in the area, Lantern, was closed by the government after just one month of operation. But, he adds, “I told the landlord my worries about this, and they said they will give me help if I need it.”

Helen Feng, frontwoman of the Beijing rockers Nova Heart and a former MTV China VJ, stresses that this censorship of music, and the increased scrutiny toward livehouses, are not efforts to suppress art so much as they are initiatives to support larger gentrification and economic development in city centers. Culture is a casualty of this change, she says — not a catalyst. “People get wrong that most of the pressure on the scene is coming from the government. It’s coming from economic revitalization,” says Feng, who splits her time between Beijing and Berlin. “It’s not like in the music community, you’re this medic who’s running into the field and everybody is bleeding and you need to patch them up, and you have a noble purpose. It’s more like you run into the field and the enemy is just doing a general spray, and you just happen to be in the way.”  

This urban gentrification and restructuring — which, party messaging repeatedly celebrates, is boosting the country’s middle class — may also be a temporary boon before sharper economic decline. “You have to be an idiot to think that everything’s always on the upswing, and it’s been on the upswing for 40 years in China. No real economy can sustain that; it’s impossible,” says Feng. “China is a totalitarian government that is terrified of its own people, which is a very unique thing. And a terrified totalitarian government is going to make certain moves very quickly that democracies cannot.”

Last summer, the second season of reality show 乐队的夏天 (usually translated to The Big Band or Summer Rock Show) aired on the online video network iQiyi. An American Idol-style talent competition for indie-rock bands, its first season in 2019 had been popular and a career boost for its participants (especially the winners, the perky dream-pop band New Pants). But its second season was a sensation, abetted by a bored and housebound population: 170 million people watched as 33 bands of varying ages performed under jewel-tone lights, faced emotional elimination tribunals, and gave variably gossipy confessionals to the cameras. (They also consumed a lot of yogurt; a yogurt company was the main sponsor.)

It wasn’t the first time a music competition had exploded a subculture into a countrywide trend — the show’s predecessor on IQiyi,中国有嘻哈 (The Rap of China), was a hit in 2018-19 and made stars of several upstart MCs — but it was a quantum leap for the bands that participated. By the fall of 2020, as bars and clubs reopened across China, the impact was clear: Suddenly, bands that had been unknown outside their modest DIY circles before lockdown were selling out national tours. Their songs were being sung between BTS and Ariana Grande at karaoke bars.

The winners of the season, the Nanjing post-punks Re-TROS, were well-established going into the show — they’d played festivals, been the subject of a tour documentary, and opened for Depeche Mode and Xiu Xiu — but now, they are headlining arenas. (Re-TROS, through a representative, declined to comment for this story.) Other bands have leveled up similarly: Despite being eliminated in an early round, the Xi’an post-punks Fazi reportedly sold out a fall show in Beijing within minutes. “The show was a very big switch for the indie music scene,” says Carsick Cars’ Zhang. His band finished outside the top 10. “We are now playing clubs twice as big as before. People recognize us at train stations and airports. And after every show, we have to sign CDs or take photos with people for an hour and a half. This never happened before.”

Perhaps most improbably of all, School Bar —Gulou rock’s grungy, sneering, stubborn holdout — is suddenly an influencer hot spot. Because the livehouse was mentioned regularly on the show as a favorite spot of many of the bands and judges, and a place where “real” rock could be found, fans of the show now clamor to take pictures and tag themselves at the location. “When School Bar reopened, it had lines around the block. The venue would just pack out with them,” says Domer. “That spilled over to shows, though many people leave by 11 o’clock and it fills up with regulars. It has become a very trendy spot because of the TV show.”

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Fans gather outside School Bar. Aurelien Foucault

But to some longtime patrons, concerts are now a disorienting experience. “We’re always taken aback just by the amount of energy. Some of it feels very performative,” says Krish Raghav, an artist currently working on a graphic novel about underground Chinese music. “A lot of people are coming to shows the same way you would go to an amusement park. It’s like you’ve bought a ticket for a theme-park ride: ‘Give me the rock-show experience.’ ”

Some accuse The Big Band of having similar artifice. A music-industry figure familiar with the casting process says that musicians who have been jailed are not allowed on camera. The lyrics the musicians sing can be unfamiliar, too. “Some of those bands are quite subversive, but because they are on this show, there is basically national-level censorship,” says Yan Cong, a Beijing-based photographer. “Everything is either toned down or they just have to pick songs that are very harmless.”

Raghav says The Big Band is creating a template that ambitious new rock bands are already following. “It’s a very particular kind of sanitized indie rock that has nothing to say, is catchy, and comes with a background story you can sell on TV,” he says. “A few bands I like are moving in that direction already. Their new music feels different. It’s all positive energy and feel-good phrases, where in the past it was angrier and weirder.”

Carsick Cars’ Zhang notes that because of the show’s popularity, new livehouses are being built — far outside the city center, in the culturally-

approved zones — but that they have large capacities, often more than 500. “Maybe that’s the downside of this growth of indie music. Everything will be more commercial,” he says. “A lot of small clubs are closing and very big venues are opening, but young bands can’t afford to play those. So they are doing research on what the most people will like and playing that.”

But Zhang believes that even if indie rock’s trendiness declines, the music will retain many of those supporters. “Some of our new fans only know us because of the show, and before that they only listened to K-pop idols,” he says. “Maybe some of [indie rock’s] followers will leave, but I think most of them will keep listening to this kind of music because, honestly, I think it’s much more powerful and honest than most of the pop music in China.”

If these millions of fans keep listening, indie rock may prove popular in the Chinese mainstream for years. The Big Band may run for many seasons, pushing new bands into riches. New livehouses will spring up, new albums will be released. Maybe Mandarin- and Cantonese-language rock will have the crossover success of K-pop or música urbana, spreading outward to global domination.

But if that happens, some might say those fans may never know what they’re missing. They may never know how truly powerful this music can be. They won’t have seen the fear, the euphoria, the loneliness, the community. The suffering, the stubbornness, the reproach, the pride. Where the music happened before it reached their screens, before it filled their air.

What it sounded like — who it looked like — before it was allowed.