This essay was first published in The Asia Dialogue on 14 May 2019.
Freddie Mercury never went to China.
He missed an opportunity to hold a concert in Beijing in 1985. In the mid-1980s, when China had just opened itself up to the West near the end of the Cold War, the Chinese government accepted a proposal to invite an international band to play in China to showcase China’s openness and as a form of cultural diplomacy. At that time, British rock band Queen was planning the ‘Magic Tour’, a final global tour with the lead singer Freddie Mercury and the bass guitarist John Deacon. Its competitor was the pop band Wham!. Simon Napier-Bell, Wham!’s manager, made two brochures and presented them to Chinese government officials: one portraying Wham! fans as pleasant middle-class youngsters, and the other showing Freddie Mercury in typically flamboyant poses. Unsurprisingly the Chinese authorities opted for Wham!, who subsequently held a concert in Beijing in 1985 and became the first Western pop band to play in post-Mao China.
Without Napier-Bell’s sabotage, Freddie Mercury probably still would not have been allowed to perform in China at the time. The singer was known, or at least widely suspected, to be gay then and he died of AIDS in 1991, and homosexuality was not decriminalised in the PRC until 1997. Interestingly, the Wham! singer George Michael came out as gay in 1998, a few years after the 1985 concert in Beijing.
Queen’s guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor performed with American Idol star Adam Lambert in Shanghai in 2016, when Freddie Mercury had long passed away. Even before the concert, famous Queen hits including We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You had become known to many Chinese music fans, primarily through pirated cassettes and CDs, online music streaming, as well as thriving concerts, parties and disco cultures in urban China.
In March 2019, the award-winning biopic film featuring Freddie Mercury’s life, Bohemian Rhapsody, was officially shown in Chinese cinemas. The film achieved a box office success for China’s Arthouse Films Screening Alliance. According to China Daily, the film held 600 test screenings in 128 cities around China on 16 and 17 March, making it the largest release of an arthouse film distributed by the alliance. On March 22, the film’s official release was increased to 3,100 member cinemas. The film’s publicity blurb reads: ‘forever young; forever tearful’. During some screenings, the audience stood up, clapped hands and stamped their feet to the rhythm of the songs and sang along during the twenty minutes of the Live Aid concert. Many members of the audience were moved to tears on the spot.
From the film industry’s perspective, there are good reasons that the film should be shown in China. China’s film market is one of the largest and most profitable film markets in the world. Despite the rigid import quota for foreign films, major film studios including the Twentieth Century Fox spare no effort to enter the Chinese market, even at the cost of having to cut their films to meet Chinese censors’ requirements. China’s film distributors, including the Arthouse Films Screening Alliance, also saw the huge business potential of the film to attract film fans, music fans, different generations of audiences, and probably even sexual minorities. Although homosexuality is strictly censored in Chinese cinemas, this does not prevent Chinese film distributors from trying various tricks (including cutting sensitive scenes from films) to circumvent censorship and engage in ‘queer baiting’ to take a share in the burgeoning ‘pink economy’ in urban China. In choosing foreign films to import, China’s film distributors are simply following the market logic by responding to popular audience demands. In today’s China, the purchasing power of a primarily young, urban and middle-class audience cannot be overlooked. Their cultural taste is not much different from their counterparts in the West. With an increasing economic power, they feel that they have every right to consume trending cultural products from across the world. Their demands to see award-wining Western films such as Bohemian Rhapsody is timely addressed by the film industry and the government.
By allowing Bohemian Rhapsody to enter Chinese cinemas, the Chinese government has also presented a liberal image to the world. As queer filmmaker Fan Popo, whose film Mama Rainbow was censored by Chinese government, pointed out, ‘I just think that China has recently been trying to present itself to the world as open-minded’. This can also be seen as Chinese government’s response to its recent acceptance of the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendations on LGBTQ rights. The permission to screen Bohemian Rhapsody seems to suggest that China is willing to accept UN recommendations, but only at its own pace and under its own conditions. In the Chinese version of the film, three minutes of footage is cut. They include Freddie Mercury’s ‘coming out’, him kissing his boyfriend, and the music video of the 1984 single I Want To Break Free, where the band members performed in drag. In other words, Freddie Mercury can only be known as a rock star but not a queer individual. His sexuality, together with the gender and sexual diversity of the band, as well as history and memory of the sexual revolution and transnational LGBTQ movement, is erased in the censored version of the film.
On 22 March 2019, Bohemian Rhapsody was premiered in cinemas in major Chinese cities, and the Chinese audience was eventually able to meet Freddie Mercury on screen, casted by Rami Malek. Many Chinese film audiences, music fans, and members of sexual minorities regretted not knowing Freddie Mercury earlier and missing his Live Aid Concert in 1985. The encounter with this enigmatic person arrives thirty-four years late, but is it too late, is it a worthwhile encounter?
It is not my intention to assess the artistic merit of the film; nor do I attempt to restore an ‘authentic’ version of the singer. My focus here is on how Chinese audiences respond to the film, or what the film can enable in contemporary China. Some members of the Chinese audience reported ‘incoherence’ or even ‘violent interruption’ in watching the cut version of the film, while others expressed great disappointment with and even indignation about the cuts. Many complained that the cut had compromised the integrity of the story, and even the person. Some even boycotted the film. Immediately after the film’s official release in China, discussions about the film and Freddie Mercury proliferated in Chinese cyberspace; and information about the cut scenes of the film and Freddie Mercury’s sexuality was soon made available on social media and discussion forums. Some shared photos and video clips of the cut scenes and explained how they fitted into the plot. Gay activist Peng Yanzi printed out a flyer listing the all the cut scenes and distributed the leaflets at the entrance of a cinema. A Queen fan, Chen Wei, even wrote to the China’s broadcast censor and asked for freedom of information regarding the legal basis for the film’s censorship.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the film was that it galvanised gay and straight people alike and brought them into conversation and joint action. Many people in China do not have a chance to meet or know queer people in real life; some consider LGBTQ rights to have nothing to do with the wider parts of society. Freddie Mercury as a beloved queer celebrity obviously helps bridge the gap between queer people and mainstream Chinese society. Moreover, the shared experience of censorship also brings people together into an alliance. As queer people in China accuse censorship of LGBTQ issues to be an infringement of their rights, film and music fans feel that the state has gone too far in compromising the value of music, film, or artwork, and that a celebrity’s sexuality should have been respected. In this way, this event effectively draws people together to support LGBTQ rights and form an alliance against government censorship of films and queer issues. This is a good opportunity to build queer-straight alliance, when identity politics gives way to issue-based politics. As queer activist Peng Yanzi pointed out, ‘I believe this is a process for dialogue. As long as there’s a chance for dialogue, there’s a chance for change.’ Indeed, this dialogue is part of the burgeoning queer public sphere in China: it facilitates conversation, mutual understanding, support and coalition building. It embodies potentials for social change.
Apart from these more explicit forms of activism online and offline, changes can also take place inside cinemas. Inside a dark cinema and in front of the big screen, audiences learn about the trials and tribulations of a remarkable individual, knowing that he was gay and had been fighting to be himself all his life, but had to be put into the ‘closet’ on screen. The story of Freddie Mercury fighting for acceptance parallels and speaks to the experiences of many people, especially queer people in China today. The cinema is an affective space where understanding and support can be felt, identities and communities are imagined, and historical and critical consciousness can be mobilised. The emotional energies of laughter and tears can be transformative. It reminds people of the rebellious spirit of a queer individual as well as the importance of not giving up hope. This affective politics of film viewing should not be dismissed as merely entertaining and therefore apolitical. It can become a generative and transformative force. Although its power cannot be seen directly, and its impact can take a long time to be felt, it is there. It enhances mutual understanding and support between queer and straight people, and between China and the West; it can be inspiring and even life-saving for queer individuals and collectives who struggle for acceptance; it can even be mobilised at critical historical junctures and trigger explicit social changes. If Freddie Mercury were alive, he would probably be relieved to see, and even be pleased with, what is happening and what can potentially happen in China.
 China Daily Hong Kong https://www.chinadailyhk.com/articles/0/66/74/1554101359638.html