As one famous artist vanished in Beijing, another appeared. Bob Dylan has begun a tour
of China in the same week as Ai Weiwei became the most prominent victim of Beijing’s current repression
drive. Ai has been unlawfully incarcerated for what the authorities describe as ‘economic crimes’, and the cry has gone out for his release.
Except that the cry has been more of a whimper. Western governments have largely ignored Beijing’s clampdown, which began in February as democratic activism spread from Cairo to Chinese
websites. No trade sanctions or UN Resolutions are being issued here, just stern communiqués.
Some human rights activists have called on Bob Dylan’s celebrity to condemn the Chinese government outright. Dylan has left them as disappointed as his fans at the Manchester Free Trade Hall
in 1966, prompting a spokesman from Human Rights Watch to spit upon Dylan’s ‘collusion’ with censorship.
Given that it’s nearly 50 years since Dylan purposefully stopped being the ‘voice of conscience’, his reticence does not come as a shock. And, as David Aaronovitch observes in
today’s Times (£), why should Dylan do what we are too timid and politic to do? Besides, what could he
achieve? Dylan’s words might be welcome to some Western ears, but he’s just one man selling records. He does not command divisions, even in the metaphorical sense. Human rights
violations in China are for governments to challenge. Perhaps Dylan’s silence expresses that.