Artist Ai Weiwei, seen by the mainland authorities as a thorn in their sides, said yesterday he was "deeply touched" by pop star Elton John's surprise shout-out at his first concert in Beijing on Sunday night.
In front of an audience of 12,000 at Beijing's MasterCard Centre, originally built as the basketball venue for the 2008 Olympics, the British singer said he dedicated his "whole show" to Ai, who was at the concert with his young son.
Ai told the South China Morning Post that he was particularly moved because his name is banned from the public domain on the mainland. "I couldn't believe my ears … I was quite surprised and was deeply touched," Ai said by phone. "I am very impressed by his free spirit - he was very honourable and decent in what he did."
But John's gesture is likely to have antagonised the mainland's cultural minders, and he risks being barred from further concerts there. After the Icelandic singer Bjork chanted "Tibet, Tibet" at a 2008 concert in Shanghai, authorities refused to grant permits to numerous Western acts to perform in China for years.
Calls to the Ministry of Culture went unanswered yesterday. John is due to give a concert in Guangzhou late next week after touring Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
"Obviously, he is brave and honest, and is a very 'pure' artist," Ai said. He said John was unlike many Western politicians who eagerly turned a blind eye to human rights issues for fear of straining trade relations with China.
Ai said John's courageous move had sent a message to the authorities. "The message is clear: people's hearts and minds belong to freedom, and no power or authority can take that away," he said. "No one can refuse people the joy and love for art."
Ai said he did not know John before and met him only briefly before the concert.
Ai said he was also encouraged by the reaction on social media.
"My favourite thing about Elton John dedicating his concert to Ai Weiwei [is that] party leaders' sons and daughters in the audience [would] hear it," said a blogger on Twitter yesterday.
Ai, a renowned contemporary artist and a fierce government critic, was detained by police for 81 days last year amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent. He faces a possible jail sentence on tax evasion charges - an accusation he denies - after fighting unsuccessfully against a bill for about 15 million yuan (HK$18.3 million) in alleged back taxes and penalties.
The authorities also in late September revoked the business licence of the company that produces his art, saying it had failed to complete re-registration requirements. But Ai said the necessary documents were being held by the government after police confiscated papers when he was taken into custody last year.