An old man like Jiang Zemin can only shake his head at how everything has changed. When he was a kid, public singing could get you arrested, except for a few politically correct anthems like "Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China" and "The East Is Red" ("The east is red! The sun is rising! China has produced Mao Zedong!"). In the 1980s, eager music lovers listened raptly to tapes of syrupy Cantonese love songs, often smuggled in from Hong Kong, stuff like "This Pair of Eyes Is Looking at You" ("You know I can't, I can't, I can't take my eyes off you. I can't take my eyes off you, you, you, you, you, you... "). But now? The air is filled with a baffling jumble of formerly forbidden sounds, from disco to punk rock. Above it floats the Zen-like drone of techno, a sound so ku (cool) and new that the only place most Chinese can get it is on the Internet.
Music is the least of it. The really remarkable change is so deep in China's cultural fabric that a foreign visitor might never recognize it. The cacophony, the wild hair and the silly behavior are outward signs of an unprecedented transformation in Chinese attitudes. For roughly 2,000 years, from the Han Dynasty through the present rulers, Chinese have been trained to obey authority and to sacrifice personal desires for the communal good. "There has never been a concept--much less a lifestyle--of individualism in China," says Yan Jun, the dean of the country's music critics. "But it's being fostered by music and the Internet. The process will explode, and it's hard to predict the impact on Chinese society."
All anyone knows for sure is that it will be massive--and it's approaching at Internet velocity. "The Internet is like a space capsule," says Sun Lingsheng, 22, the techno-loving lead guitarist of Fruit Flavor Vitamin C. Suddenly millions of young Chinese are exploring new worlds--and coming home forever changed. "Rock music is creating a generation of kids... entirely different from their parents," says Zhu Feng, an MTV China executive. "They have the freedom to pursue their own interests rather than those of society or the state. This is the same thing that happened in the United States in the '60s and '70s--but it's happening at a greater speed here." The pioneer music channel is trying to develop China's potentially immense market with such customized touches as "Lili," an interactive virtual DJ who will answers fans' questions via fax, phone and the Web. "I like to say I won't sleep a full night until there's a major international star from China," says MTV Networks International president William Roedy. "It's only a matter of time."
The Web is already helping Roedy's breakthrough to come a little faster. Ambitious bands from the provinces used to go crazy trying to break into Beijing's cliquish music scene. Now the Web is helping talented kids earn national exposure fast. Entertainment sites like Weiku.com (as in "way cool") are scouting the backcountry for little-known musicians eager to put their work online. "We're looking for unknown, unsigned, underground bands," says interactive director Dave O'Dell, 26. The American got his start as a Chinese rock entrepreneur by putting up his own cash to organize concerts and publicize no-name Chinese punk rockers. Weiku pays its new recruits $600 for the right to post three songs for four months. After that, artists are free to take their songs and go--or stay and cut a CD if their samples have done well. The field is wide open.
Just like any other frontier, the online music scene has its share of outlaws. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says China has the dubious distinction of being the world's fastest-growing market for music and video piracy--an industry that has far outgrown its law-abiding competitors. Up to 90 percent of the CDs sold in China are illegal copies. The IFPI is especially worried about the growing threat of music bootlegging without borders, via the Internet.
Some people defend the pirates, saying they add to China's cultural ferment. "If the government wants to dictate what we should listen to, we have no choice but to rely on pirated stuff," says Yan Jun. "We need foreign music for our own development. Otherwise we'd be even more sealed off." As a measure of his faith in the Web's future, last year he helped launch an Internet firm. Without foreign partners he believes he's more likely to keep control of his investment. For all that, he has to admit he hates how easy the Web makes it for people to reproduce his work without permission.
Other influential voices are less ambivalent toward the pirates. Singer-songwriter Cui Jian became the Bob Dylan of the Tiananmen generation more than a decade ago, performing with a red blindfold tied over his eyes as a protest against Chinese censorship. He says he used to feel flattered by kids who copied his songs. But the problem is not just a few youngsters anymore--and the godfather of China's new music is feeling ripped off. He's negotiating with Web sites that are willing to pay for the right to offer his music. "Young people go for pirated stuff," he acknowledges. "It helps them know more about the Western world." Even so, the 39-year-old singer is convinced that piracy can do more harm than good for young listeners: "The negative result is they just copy Western music. They're too lazy to create their own."
You might think the Beijing government could crack down on the ripoff artists. Unfortunately the authorities appear too busy trying to protect the public from subversive songs. Even today, anyone who records a CD has to submit its lyrics on paper to state censors for their approval. Many singers mysteriously get mixed up in the studio, and somehow the words come out different from what the censors saw.
The official meddling doesn't stop there. The government has always kept tabs on controversial performers like Cui Jian to keep them from appearing in Beijing anywhere but in small clubs. Two years ago the singer played his first online concert--and ever since, the government has been helpless to limit the size of his audiences. "My eyes of freedom," Cui Jian calls the Internet. He has left his trademark red blindfold behind--and like millions of other Chinese Web users, he has no intention of putting it back on.