The popular saxophonist's impromptu visit to a protest site elicits mixed reactions in Chinese social media.
This article has been updated.
As pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong extend into their fourth week with no resolution in sight, pro-Beijing voices have increasingly accused "foreign forces" of wielding influence over Hong Kong protests and intervening in Chinese internal affairs. While such accusations have seldom named explicit targets, one such alleged foreign force has just taken a specific, and surprising, form — smooth jazz sax.
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On Oct. 22, California-based jazz artist Kenny G posted to his verified Twitter account a selfie in front of a protest-related poster, with the comment, "In Hong Kong at the sight of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation." He later clarified via Twitter that it was an "impromptu" visit "as a tourist," and that he was "not showing support for the demonstrators," and doesn’t "really know anything about the situation."
Kenny G also hastened to add via Twitter that he "love[s] China and love[s] coming to perform here for over 25 years." Indeed, the artist is quite popular there, where his late-’80s hit, "Going Home," is frequently played in public places such as shopping centers as a gentle sign that it’s time for patrons to depart. News of the star’s presence at the controversial protests quickly spread to Beijing. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked during a daily news briefing about the saxophonist’s presence in Hong Kong, stated that "Kenny G’s musical works are widely popular in China, but China’s position on the illegal Occupy Central activities in Hong Kong is very clear." Hua continued, "We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form." (Occupy Central is one of the organizers of recent protests and its name has been used synonymously with the demonstrations.)
Mainstream Chinese media outlets have not reported the saxophonist’s stroll through the Hong Kong protests, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese netizens from taking to China’s social media spaces to express their mixed views of Kenny G’s visit, ranging from admiration and ridicule at the ominous-sounding "foreign force" label to indignation that an outsider would support demonstrations that many mainland Chinese see as illegal, disruptive, and a strictly internal matter. One user juxtaposed pictures of the musician at the protest site with Hua’s warning, and asserted that "from now on, any supermarket that plays ‘Going Home’ should be dealt with as if they were a foreign force." Another user wondered cynically, "I wonder how much they paid him to come."
Unsurprisingly, Weibo users who identified themselves as being from Hong Kong were more likely to express support for Kenny G’s visit to the protests. One Hong Kong user, noting China’s foreign ministry’s response, wrote, "This is hilarious. Kenny G isn’t Chinese; on what grounds can they control his words and actions?" "I honestly don’t like listening to Kenny G," commented another Hong Kong user, "but I’m very moved that he visited the students." Another user posted a screenshot of the star’s tweet and asked, simply, "Will Kenny G be banned?"
The question is a fair one, although Kenny G’s rush to clarify his (non-) position may save him from the censors. On Oct. 11, rumors began circulating on the Chinese Internet that certain books written by Taiwanese and Hong Kong authors who had expressed support for the Hong Kong protest movement would soon be banned on the mainland. Though authorities have not confirmed the rumors, several bookstores have removed the books of at least one pro-protest author from their bookshelves.
Despite Kenny G’s huge popularity in China — he gave four concerts there just last month — China’s notoriously lax enforcement of intellectual property rights means his music’s ubiquity likely doesn’t translate into handsome royalties. With more than 75 million albums sold worldwide over the course of his long career, the artist could surely weather a ban from the mainland. But Kenny G, who added on Twitter that he "feel[s] close to and care[s] about China very much," doesn’t seem ready to go home just yet.