The abrupt cancellation of a series of concerts in Australia commemorating the life of Mao Zedong has not only left in its trail a divided community but also exposed the limitations of Beijing’s soft power push.

When the concerts were called off at the last minute in Sydney and Melbourne last week, the decision left more fissures in the community than the original announcement of the controversial programmes had.

While ethnic Chinese who have migrated to Australia or were born overseas heaved a sigh of relief at the canning of what they see as the dangerous promotion of a worrying ideology, white middle-class Australians were aghast at the suppression of an artistic idea in a democratic society.

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“Artists have a right to express themselves,” said university student Kristian Bjarnason, “especially in regard to an issue concerning the contemporary world. I think many people would not only enjoy but benefit much from seeing such a programme.”

The sentiment was echoed by a Twitter user, Patricia Thornton, who said the cancellation of the shows “in fact narrows political expression in the public sphere. How “dangerous” is a Mao commemorative songfest to citizens of Sydney?”

The shows were to consist of a mix of song and dance performances by members of Chinese communities, particularly the International Cultural Exchange Association’s (Australia) Art group. Tickets sold reasonably well and the whole thing attracted little notice until the Sydney Morning Herald ran a series of articles about Australian Chinese migrants’ concerns over the show’s offensive content and petitions for it to be pulled.

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The Embrace Australian Values Alliance (Australia), a loose organisation of Chinese migrants, had set up an online petition to cancel the concert, which garnered over 1,000 supporters, before the event was withdrawn. According to the alliance, “the worship of Maoism through this concert not only is dividing Australian communities but also creating a dangerous breeding ground for terrorism and violence”.

A few weeks later, the backers, the International Cultural Exchange Association (Australia) pulled the plug, following police concerns regarding public safety and the potential for civil disturbance. The presence of a large population of overseas Chinese, including groups of Free Tibet and Falun Gong members, could be one of the reasons for the authorities’ fear of unrest.

With the events canned, now Australians are debating whether the cancellation indicates a chasm in the value of freedom of speech for citizens.

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“I think it gets hugely problematic when you start suppressing free speech on the ground of ‘offending someone’,” said university student Michael Lim. “Offence is a subjective and fickle term that should not be the basis of shutting down free speech, let alone artistic expression.”

But glorifying Mao is still unsettling for many ethnic Chinese – many of whom fled abroad precisely to escape the ideologies Beijing is trying to promote. But although young Chinese-Australians also share their parents’ sentiment, they have been significantly less active in petitioning for the concerts’ cancellation.

David Gao, a university student, said that allowing the shows to go on would have been “regressive, because we’ve come to discover so many bad things about what Mao did during the Cultural Revolution and throughout his years of leadership”.

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The concerts were planned as part of the “grand propaganda strategy” put into operation by the Chinese government in 2009 to promote Mao’s thoughts and philosophy through “cultural events” in Australia. The controversy surrounding it underlines the difficulty Beijing faces in exporting its soft power, in part because much of what is exported is state-approved.

“The issue about Chinese soft power is that Beijing is not focusing on developing China in positive ways that will be transformed into soft power but is dedicated to projecting soft power,” said Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

“Its approach is backfiring as it is seen by others as propaganda dressed up as soft power.”

If China is seeking to become a cultural heavyweight, but tries to force its soft power upon others, it risks alienating a key potential audience.