Veteran British singer-songwriter Elton John shocked an audience in Beijing Sunday night by dedicating his sole show in the Chinese capital to dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
Just minutes into his concert at Wukesong Stadium, the 65-year-old John told the audience his performance honoured "the spirit and talent of Ai Weiwei."
The statement was met with a murmur of shock that rippled through the crowd, according to reports.
The internationally renowned Ai remains a sensitive topic in China. The installation artist, vocal government critic, activist and provocateur was detained by the Chinese government for nearly three months in 2011. He remains under strict surveillance by the state and is prohibited from leaving China, though he continues to be active online and is considered by ArtReview to be one of the most powerful figures in the global art world.
John met Ai briefly on Sunday before the concert.
"I super like him," the artist quipped about the encounter via his Twitter account. He also called John "a lovely musician" and posted a photo of them together.
Chinese media, which are controlled by the state, reported on John's concert, but left out his statement supporting Ai.
Following John's two Chinese concerts this weekend (he also played Shanghai on Friday), he is set to continue his world tour with upcoming concerts in Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Manila.
Western artists seeking to perform in China face scrutiny by Chinese authorities, including a requirement to submit song lists before approval is granted.
When visiting musicians expressed support for issues considered sensitive by the Chinese government in the past, there have been repercussions.
There was a reduction in performances and increased scrutiny of Western artists following Icelandic artist Bjork's 2008 concert in Shanghai, during which she shouted "Tibet, Tibet" at the close of her song Declare Independence. The outburst drew attention to Beijing's rule over Tibet and sparked criticism from Chinese fans and officials.With files from The Associated Press