What does Kenny G fear more than chapped lips from his saxophone reed? The answer: Chinese President Xi Jinping, who, unfortunately for the soft jazz superstar, happens to be in the middle of a crackdown on artists who don’t meet the Communist Party’s exacting ideological and aesthetic standards.
By his own estimation, Kenny G is "super popular" in China. His songs are played as musical wallpaper in hundreds of shopping malls across the mainland, and his sold-out tours attract curiously devoted fans. (I personally witnessed a woman hyperventilate outside one early 2000s appearance in Shanghai.)
The musician, however, ran afoul of mainland authorities on Wednesday when he tweeted images of himself visiting protesters in Hong Kong, who have shut down busy portions of the city for almost a month now. (In one now-deleted image - preserved all over the Internet - a grinning Mr G holds up two fingers in a peace sign in front of a pro-democracy poster.)
Beijing views the protests as a threat to Communist Party rule and Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, and the tweets touched a nerve. When asked about them, a government spokesperson suggested in not so many words that the US musician stick to blowing his actual horn.
China has never looked kindly on Western stars opining on what its leaders consider to be internal issues. In 2008, after a Beijing concert in which Bjork yelled "Tibet, Tibet!" at the end of her song Declare Independence, the Ministry of Culture announced a ban on any foreign artists "who have ever engaged in activities which threaten our national sovereignty."
Xi has ramped up the pressure to new levels, launching a campaign against art and artists whom he judges as having "negative social impact". Initially, officials targeted artists who had been arrested for drug use or engaging prostitutes, erasing their works from film, television, and online-streaming services.
Then last week, at a Xi-hosted "Forum on Literature and Art" in Beijing, the campaign shaded over from the moralistic into the ideological. In a lengthy speech, Xi warned that artists should be driven by love for country rather than money; as an example, he touted the works of Zhou Xiaoping, a notoriously xenophobic, fact-challenged, anti-US blogger who only the most committed Communist ideologue would consider an "artist".
Xi’s advice to the gathered officials, singers, actors and writers: "We must make patriotism into the main melody of literature and art creation."
It’s becoming more and more clear that Xi sees China as engaged in an ideological war with the West, with pop culture being one of the main battlegrounds. Last year, the official People’s Liberation Army Daily ran an op-ed labeling Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi action flick, Pacific Rim as propaganda "designed to implant Western values in young Chinese minds."
Just last week, the Communist Party-owned Global Times published an op-ed claiming that Canadian pop rock band Nickelback’s latest single was intended to inspire more Hong Kong-style protests, teaching "our children to bring about change through violent agitation".
Many young Chinese find this sort of propaganda laughable, at least judging by the reaction to Xi’s speech on Weibo and other Chinese social media. (For most, it came as a revelation that online demagogues had suddenly become artists.) For actual artists, though, who depend on access to the mainland’s huge market, official disfavour can be incredibly damaging.
This week, several Hong Kong papers began reporting that Beijing had circulated a blacklist of mainland and Hong Kong entertainers who were to be kept out of the press because of their public support for the Hong Kong protests.
Somebody in Kenny G’s entourage likely pointed out the sensitivities to the curly-haired jazzman, who promptly issued a series of panicked, late-night tweets seeking to deny any political motivations.
"I really didn’t know anything about the situation," he wrote. "And my impromptu visit to the site was just part of an innocent walk around Hong Kong."
He also reassured his fans - and presumably, the central government - that this was one American artist who didn’t intend to "defy government orders," because, in the end, "I love China."
The American’s slightly pathetic contriteness will probably get him off the hook with mainland authorities, given how rare such apologies are coming from foreigners. For Hong Kong and mainland artists, though, the chill now sweeping across the land is only likely to get colder.