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'The times they are a-changin',' or are they?


American folk-rock icon Bob Dylan, right, performs with his band in Beijing on Wednesday.

BEIJING — It was a performance that many didn’t think would happen, particularly not in the current climate.

The musician who exemplified 1960s counterculture in America, Bob Dylan, performed live for the first time ever in China on Wednesday night.

Dylan had been slated to tour in Beijing and Shanghai last year but the stops were canceled, apparently because of a financial disagreement with the concert promoter.

But after weeks of speculation about whether he would still come to China, the Ministry of Culture last month gave its nod of approval.

Although the cheapest tickets for his concert at the Workers’ Gymnasium in central Beijing sold out immediately, the venue -- which normally seats 12,000 -- looked only to be 65 percent full.  (Your correspondent forked over nearly $150 for her nosebleed seat, a hefty price for the average Chinese university graduate who might earn three times that a month in Beijing.)

Nevertheless, Dylan was warmly welcomed by the audience -- a mix of Chinese and Western fans who cheered and whistled to crowd favorites like “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Forever Young.” 

Today.com: Dylan gets rapturous reception in China

Though there was high energy in the nosebleed area, Dylan and his band seemed to power through their set, and the two encores seemed perfunctory.  There was no banter in between songs and certainly no allusion to the detention of outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  (Rumors had widely circulated on the Internet that Dylan might pull a Bjork.  The Icelandic pop singer created a stir when, at the end of her Shanghai concert in 2008, she appeared to support Tibetan independence.)

There wasn’t even a “Hello Beijing!”  (Although some fans who have attended previous Dylan concerts have argued on Twitter that his performances tend to be minimalist.)

It was still somewhat surreal to be watching an icon of social unrest perform in the capital of this increasingly repressive state.

As the Global Times newspaper, which is published by the Chinese Communist Party, noted in its Wednesday English edition, “Bob Dylan is playing in Beijing, an iconic voice of dissent in a nation that values harmony.”

In that very same newspaper was an editorial that lashed out at critics of China’s government, specifically Ai — who was prevented from boarding a flight to Hong Kong from Beijing’s airport on Sunday and who has not been seen or heard from since. 

Adrienne Mong/NBC News file

Ai Weiwei during an interview with NBC News in 2009. By Adrienne Mong/NBC News File

The man best known amongst the mainstream for consulting on the design of the Bird’s Nest Stadium is the highest-profile intellectual to have been detained in the continuing roundup of independent thinkers, artists, activists and lawyers across the country.  His disappearance has sparked alarm about just how far the Chinese government is willing to go to prevent dissenting voices from being heard.

Dubbing Ai “a maverick of Chinese society (who) likes ‘surprising speech’ and ‘surprising behavior,’” the Global Times piece went on to say:

“Ai Weiwei chooses to have a different attitude from ordinary people toward law. However, the law will not concede before ‘mavericks’ just because of the Western media's criticism.  Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice, which is the same in any society. China as a whole is progressing and no one has power to make a nation try to adapt to his personal likes and dislikes, which is different from whether rights of the minority are respected.”

That is familiar language that doesn’t suggest “the times they are a-changin’.”

If anything, they appear to herald a return to an era of disappearances, arrests and severe authoritarianism.