In China, there is something called "The Three Ts." Despite what it sounds like, the phrase doesn't refer to the 3-pack of Hanes cotton undershirts churned out in a Chinese factory. Nor does it refer to Tianjin, Taiyuan and Taizhou, mainland China's three cities with populations over 3 million and names that begin with T. Rather, "The Three Ts" is a catchy phrase tossed around by foreigners that describes the most politically volatile subjects in modern China -- Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square -- subjects so vile and subversive that they mustn't be broached within a stone's throw of a Chinese ear. Much less written about in a newspaper. Much less screamed by a kooky Icelandic singer/performance artist in front of 3,000 rowdy concertgoers.
Talk about China's worst nightmare.
On Sunday, as part of China's ongoing effort to open itself up to the rest of the world, Björk, the 13-time Grammy nominated singer, performed at the Shanghai International Gymnastic Centre, her first live concert in mainland China. At the end of "Declare Independence," a song she originally wrote about Greenland, Björk repeatedly screamed "Tibet" and then sang of the Beijing-controlled region, "Don't let them do that to you. Raise your flag!" Some Chinese fans in the audience booed. Some foreign fans cheered. But no matter how you feel about Tibetan freedom, what is now being called "Björk's Shanghai Surprise" was as exhilarating as it was awkward. (And boy does this look awkward.)
Not just because it's fun to see the oppressive Chinese government get burned. But because in a month that saw Steven Spielberg renounce his role as Olympic adviser over Darfur, it is becoming clear that as China opens its doors to the world, it has also opened itself up to public humiliation on an unprecedented scale. And it will only get worse. As Variety writer Clifford Coonan pointed out in The Independent, "Her comments, low key as they were, illustrate the kind of problems the Chinese government is going to have keeping a lid on athletes and other visitors making political statements during August's Olympic Games in Beijing."
China is finding that loosening its controls on artistic expression, with the Beijing Olympics just five months away, might not be worth the trouble. Over the next few months, Chinese officials will be offering platforms, news pages and microphones to all types of people from all types of countries that potentially have never been to China, have no knowledge of China and have no respect for China. Thousands of athletes, writers and activists will descend on Beijing in the coming weeks, and surely some will seize the opportunity to publicly shame China. Tibetan freedom groups are salivating at the prospect of wreaking havoc during the Summer games. Björk is just the tip of the iceberg.
As any controversy involving one of "The Three Ts," the Chinese media declined to cover this story, in an effort, I can only assume, to not give anyone any ideas. But no matter how aggressively China disposes of its dissidents and muzzles its critics, Björk's protest for Tibetan freedom highlights China's gravest modern problem. Well, right after AIDS, corruption and extreme poverty. China must figure out a way to reconcile its genuine yearning to be part of the "rest of the world" with its total disregard for the way the rest of the world operates.
If you want the Rolling Stones, you can't strike songs from their setlist. If you want Spielberg, you can't expect him to run across a PR minefield to get to you. If you want the Olympics, then you can't spy on Olympic journalists. And if you want Björk, the eccentric pop artist, you can't expect her not to be eccentric.