Fascinating things happen, the Pussy Riot trial reminds us, when music is used to give the finger to a stagnant government — especially an authoritarian one. In light of this, and the recent uptick in works (such as Slate editor William J. Dobson’s "The Dictator’s Learning Curve") arguing convincingly that the 2012 incarnations of still-Communist China and post-Communist Russia have more in common than anyone imagined, I was interested in learning more about possible parallels between the Pussy Riot phenomenon and Chinese punks, rebels, and rockers. So I shot off an email full of questions to Jonathan Campbell. Why turn to him? Because he spent 10 years living among, writing about, promoting, and playing the music of rockers in Beijing and is the author of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (see Ali Pechman’s review here).
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: When contemporary China analogies have been brought up in coverage of the Pussy Riot trial, commentators have tended to veer away from music. For example, some have compared Pussy Riot's in-your-face form of dissent to that of Ai Weiwei and noted that, again, an authoritarian state's repressive moves have increased the global fame of the person or people being punished. There have also been some references to Pussy Riot's "show trial" taking place at the same time as that of Gu Kailai, a very different figure, of course, accused of a very different crime. Is there any parallel related to censorship and dissent, and contemporary Chinese music, that comes to mind for you? Or, if not, any thoughts on the Ai Weiwei analogy?
JONATHAN CAMPBELL: I think that what unites Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot, and some of China’s most interesting and noteworthy rockers is that socialist legacy of the responsibility of artists to be examples to society, to use their art to make a difference. Looking at the closing statements of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, it’s clear that this is not just about punk rock.
JW: Are there ways, though, that you think the Ai Weiwei analogy doesn’t work?
JC: The main point at which the Ai Weiwei analogy fails for me is that he became a big international deal for his work, and, perhaps more so, for speaking out, rather than for being suppressed — that unlike Pussy Riot, who were not well known prior to this incident, Ai already had a degree of fame, though I would agree that his arrest and various punishments certainly increased that.
Also, I think that in the Chinese context, the reaction to dissent, musical or otherwise, is far more insidious than in Pussy Riot’s case. In Russia, the trio has been charged with a crime and put on trial; the line they crossed is pretty clear. In China, however, that line is never clear. There’s the old Sinologist saw abo...