Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour is the pop show of 2015. It has topped this year’s Billboard Hot Tours chart, and so far it has grossed $86.2 million—counting only her 20 U.S. performances. The tour will take Swift around the world, and includes one of the most controversial performances for the young artist yet—in Shanghai. In anticipation of her sold out China show, Taylor launched a clothing line that has turned her into an accidental human rights activist in the communist country.
Swift’s fans in China are ecstatic that they will be able to buy t-shirts and sweatshirts that read “T.S. 1989.” But this merchandise has not had quite the same effect on the Chinese Communist Party. The clothes display a politically subversive message—the young artist’s initials and birthdate just happen to coincide with China’s most censored event, the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. For years now, the Chinese Communist Party has hidden how hundreds of students were killed during a pro-democracy protest in one of China’s main squares.
The protests began as students and workers throughout China became frustrated with the ongoing corruption and injustice plaguing the Chinese government. Seeing the protests as “counter-revolutionary,” the Communist Party eventually sent in the People’s Liberation Army with tanks and soldiers to “achieve social stability.” Ultimately, the army opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians. During the protests more than 10,000 people were arrested and an estimated 3,700 were killed. However, the Party has not published an official death toll.
From 1989 to this day, the CCP has censored all information regarding the event. Search terms including “Tiananmen Square,” “Tank Man,” or simply the date of the massacre, raise red flags for China’s online censors and can result in years of imprisonment. For the massacre’s 25th anniversary, China even blocked all access to Google and imprisoned people for commemorating the event.
Given that Swift’s initials and birthdate match those of Tiananmen Square, the CCP has started moving to censor the clothing line. Censors have already edited the pictures of the merchandise on Taylor’s website, erasing the reference to 1989 from some shirts. These early steps could result in the cancelation of the tour in China. This would not be an unprecedented step for the CCP.
Not only do all musicians and performers need special permission to perform in China, but they are also subjected to various forms of censorship from the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Songs from artists like Lady Gaga and the Backstreet Boys have been banned because they “harmed the security of state culture.” The Communist Party has an extensive list of songs that are banned because they have deemed them politically sensitive and offensive.
Taylor Swift wouldn’t be the first one bullied by the CCP. Elton John was interrogated and banned from performing in China ever again after he dedicated his show to Chinese artist and activists Ai WeiWei. Bjork was also banned for shouting “Tibet! Tibet!” after she performed her song Declare Independence in 2008. Other artists, such as Kanye West, Oasis, and The Rolling Stones, have not been granted permission to perform at all.
Given the close connection to one of the Party’s darkest secrets, it’s unclear whether the same fate will befall Taylor Swift. In a China ruled by the censor-happy and paranoid CCP, even Taylor’s clothesline is viewed as a national security threat.