Wham! in Peking 1985

I didn’t take any photos of the concert myself, but Wham!’s concert in Beijing in 1985 was one of the controversial and confusing highpoints of the cautious mid-1980s liberalisation and opening up of China under the reforming leadership of Party Secretary Hu Yaobang and Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang.

Four years later in the spring of 1989, Hu’s death was followed by the extraordinary protests of Tiananmen Square, and the political downfall of Zhao who had succeeded him as Party Leader two years earlier as hardliners in the party began to reassert their grip on policy.

The April 1985 Wham! concert was fun, but immediately complicated.

As a Brit, I recall being quite excited by the concert as it approached, reporting it as a sign of how Party policy towards Western influences was loosening up.

There was a hilarious welcoming banquet the night before, where George Michael gave an anodyne speech and Chinese Party officials spoke loftily of how this concert was a major step in friendly bilateral relations.

Those officials who promoted it, however, must have been extremely nervous about how it would go down with the Party leadership – and already at the concert in Peking’s (as we called it then) Workers’ Stadium, they will have begun to realise how dangerously out on a limb they were when, as the 10,000 Chinese fans cheered and cautiously stamped their feet, municipal Party bosses demonstratively and glumly stayed in their seats.

My next day’s feature for Radio Four’s Today Programme was, like so much of my reporting in those heady mid-80s reforming years, naively enthusiastic. Wham!’s Beijing concert was the last of its kind for many years, as China headed for the trauma of Tiananmen Square and its long aftermath.

And now, nearly three decades on? Well, in the long run I was of course completely correct.

Wham!’s Peking concert was an important moment in China’s opening up to the outside world. Today, the country is awash with pop and rock, Western and homegrown, and much of it vastly more radical than the sweet boyband sounds of Wham!

Enjoy the feature.

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