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Why Michael Jackson's Bigger in China

Besides the fact that it was my second to last night in China, today was an otherwise unexceptional Wednesday night in Guangzhou in the Baijia Supermarket on Tianhe Beilu where I was browsing with David. Yet as I walked down aisles of clothing and video games, I noticed a large video screen playing a footage of a Michael Jackson concert. I stopped in the aisle, losing myself in his outrageously gold outfit and over the top stage performance. As “Smooth Criminal” wound to a close and the dancers completed their logic-defying anti-gravity lean, I suddenly heard a subtle gasp from behind me. I turned around to see that I was now surrounded by a crowd of Chinese patrons that had gathered to watch the concert, blocking the aisle, if not with their bodies then with their idled shopping carts. The growing crowd spanned middle-aged parents and elementary school children. As I stood watching, I expected the crowd to disperse after the first song ended, but the crowd persisted through another song and then another.

During his lifetime, Michael Jackson made a single, brief trip to China (to visit the children: “我难以抗拒他们对我的吸引” ), and played a total of zero concerts here. But his music set hold in a nation at just the very moment when radio and television made foreign music available—and at a time when listening to such pop music was finally no longer considered a bourgeoise conceit liable to bring denouncement.

His impact on China is large and surely larger than inspiring a generation of security guards to wear black dress shoes with white socks, as one blog suggests. His tabloid-tainted decline was largely overlooked, while his songs like “Heal the World” and his humanitarian work touched a generation. Jackson and his cassette tapes came at the time to remind a billion people that art and music could serve interests other than state propaganda—that music and dancing could be delectably indulgent and apolitical.

Upon his death, newspaper stands here were covered overnight with special issues and magazines devoted to Jackson, while the bootleg DVD vendors on the street—who had always tended to have a Michael Jackson DVD or two on hand—upped their supply in number and range. Newspapers and blogs exploded with editorials explaining that Jackson represented a Chinese era.

I had first learned of Maike Jiekexun’s death when I awoke to a text message a Chinese friend had sent me in the middle of the night. Over a month later and 2,000 kilometers further south, the crowd gathering around the video screen at the grocery store echoed exactly how much the King of Pop meant to the Middle Kingdom.