On March 28 this year Kou Zhengyu sat down on stage at Beijing's 330 Metal Fest, the annual heavy metal event he'd organized since 2002, and began to cry. Two hours earlier, during the second band performance of the day, police had stormed the Tango nightclub where the event was taking place. They said the one-day festival was too crowded, and despite Kou's desperate negotiation attempts, an order to cancel was given.
There had been no reports of crowd trouble or violence at the festival. And while in the US or UK such a police order might result in a riot, many members of the 1, 300-strong crowd just embraced each other and shouted to Kou about how they wouldn't be seeking refunds. They quietly accepted that Beijing's boot had crushed yet another music festival and went home. "I started shedding tears thinking about how I would face the audience, " Kou told VICE News. "But they showed so much understanding and cooperation, hugging each other and crying. That made me cry again."
Kou Zhengyu was devastated when officials cut off his 330 Metal Fest midway through. Photo by DM Simon.
2015 has been a washout for music festivals in the Chinese capital. Many blame a perfect storm of increasingly hardball local and central governments, a spike in officials' paranoia about potential crowd disasters, and good old-fashioned disorganization among promoters. What is arguably Beijing's biggest outdoor music event, the Strawberry Festival, was refused a permit for the first time since its 2009 inception. The same thing happened to MIDI, Strawberry's main rival which was founded in 1997, forcing organizers to relocate the event 740 miles south to the city of Suzhou. And the electronic music bash INTRO was moved from the centrally located Chaoyang Park to a site 40 minutes drive away from the city.
Promoters of events such as these have to jump through a huge amount of administrative hoops to get festivals approved — everything from submitting band lyrics to the Ministry of Culture to proving safety reports on different locations. And since last New Year's Eve, when 36 Shanghai revelers died in a stampede, a tragedy blamed on Shanghai government officials' incompetence, these hoops have got smaller.
Festival goers at rock festival MIDI, now held hundreds of miles away from Beijing. Photo by Yan Min.
"Even if you find a perfect venue police sometimes won't give permits due to safety concerns — it's so, so hard to get permits, " DJ Weng Weng, organizer of the INTRO festival, told VICE News. "The police are under huge pressure in the sense that their careers may be impacted or ruined if an accident happens. Safety is always given as the reason, but whose safety is it? The audience's or the officials'? People just don't want to assume responsibility."
The Shanghai incident caused big ripples in China, with President Xi Jinping personally ordering an investigation to determine culpability. It's logical the tragedy would lead to a greater focus on the safety of public events — but the festival crackdown has taken place exclusively in Beijing, on the doorstep of the central government's top brass, suggesting that reputations are actually the real priority.
"The Beijing municipality is where all the 'emperor' figures are, " said Dr. Willy Lam, professor of China studies at Akita International University in Japan and the adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Officials are paranoid about running foul of President Xi and other powerful figures so they don't take any chances there."
"Had the events of New Year's Eve not happened our festival in Beijing would have been fine, " Michael LoJudice, director of international booking affairs for Strawberry Festival, told VICE News. "But you can see where these guys [the public security bureau] are coming from — why would they even think of risking [being blamed for any accidents]?"