A US amateur production of To Kill a Mockingbird staged in Hong Kong at the weekend will not be seen on the mainland after the authorities made a late demand for a permit to perform in Beijing.
Visas had been issued to the cast and crew and the authorities have known for almost five months about the performances of the play, an adaptation of Harper Lee's novel of the same name, at Tsinghua University planned for this week by the Mockingbird Players of Monroeville, Alabama.
But about two weeks ago, the Ministry of Culture asked the group to obtain a permit.
The play - about racial inequality in 1930s Alabama and in which a black man is wrongly convicted of raping a young woman by a white jury - may have been considered sensitive, with the imminent trial of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and leadership changes looming at the party congress next month. The book is not banned on the mainland.
"In the run-up to the party congress, the Ministry of Culture is not giving out any more permits and are suspending others for the time being," said George Landegger, who, with Ronnie Chan Chichung, chairman of Hang Lung Properties, funded the play's performances in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
Raymond Cheng, CEO of the SoZo Group, a corporate advisory and economic development company which helped bring the play to the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, said: "We met [former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa] the other day, and he gave us some good insight.
"We met with some other China experts, and they're all saying the same thing - that there's a lot of uncertainty, there's a lot of instability and they [the Chinese government] don't need any more surprises."
The play is not the only act from the United States waiting for permits, Cheng said. The Philadelphia Orchestra is also waiting for permission to perform.
Nicholas Platt, president emeritus of the Asia Society and a former US ambassador, said: "It's just hard to get anyone to commit to anything at this stage. Everything is on hold right now. No one wants to make a mistake."
Platt said the orchestra was looking to play in China next year.
Cheng said while the authorities had not cancelled performances of the play outright, he had decided not to press for the issuing of a permit.
"We get it they're in a hard place," said Cheng.
He hopes the players will be able to return and perform in the next few years to spread the message of empathy and tolerance.
"The genius of Harper Lee is that she used children's eyes to examine adult behaviour. Children are totally honest.
"Adults dissemble, adults go along to get along, but children are brutally honest. And that's why this is such an effective play." said Landegger. "The message of this play is universal. One, I think, that will be welcomed by all parts of China. Even the government."