Empty noise – thoughts on Live Earth Shanghai

Shanghai’s Live Earth concert was a wash out. Li Siqi and  Liu Liyuan explain why they remain cheerful.

The curtain has finally fallen on the Live Earth concerts. The series of eight events around the world were unprecedented – but no matter how you try to gloss it up, the Shanghai concert was the least successful. Over-priced tickets, a cramped venue, poor organization and a disappointing line-up have all come in for criticism.

The 2,000 capacity venue wasn’t even full, and half of those who did attend scattered when a rainstorm struck. When Sarah Brightman – the only performer who could be accurately described as a superstar – arrived on stage technical problems forced her to retreat and return later. By any standards this was not a success – and much less so when you evaluate it against the scale and vision of Live Earth.

London’s concert attracted more than 90,000, Sydney more than110,000 and in the US more than 70,000 attended. In Rio de Janeiro the event was at risk of cancellation due to crowd control concerns. And yet China, with 1.3 billion people — 20 million of them in Shanghai, mustered an embarrassingly small audience of 2,000.

Many of the organizers’ good intentions also failed to be implemented. Despite calls for spectators to use public transport to reach the venue, roads outside were still lined with private cars. I asked one member of the audience how he’d made the journey and he reluctantly admitted he’d driven. 150 volunteers were present to help the audience sort their litter into the correct bins, yet the ground was still scattered with trash once they’d left. And although the aim of the concert was to use star performers to raise environmental awareness, we have to wonder how many of those present actually noticed anything beyond the big names.

The series of coordinated concerts symbolized the fact that the environmental issue is one that nobody living on the planet can avoid, and Shanghai’s participation makes it clear that China is no different. But it was also the least successful of any of the concerts, with the least impressive line-up and poorest organization. It had been described in the media as a ‘window on China’ – but all you could have seen through this window was a population uninterested in the environment.

But we should not be too harsh on the organizers. In the West the practice of holding large-scale concerts for good causes is more established – Live Aid in 1985, for those affected by the September 11th attacks in 2001, and the Live8 concerts for global poverty in 2005. In the west the music industry and music consumers are familiar with this type of event. But while they are not unknown in China, they are extremely rare. Indeed even being able to hold the concert was a step forward and it allowed us to see the difference between those events and their more common commercial counterparts – an adherence to principals and commitment to goals, even if they are distant. And so we can be forgiving of some of its failings. The lacklustre line-up may have been due to local government’s long and complicated procedures for approval. In May, when preparations for the other concerts were virtually complete, Live Earth Shanghai did not even have a license to go ahead – making it impossible to sign up popular performers and leaving inadequate time for preparation and publicity.

And anyway, the event was held for the public good and the results will be at least better than nothing. We cannot just write it off for not being as successful as we hoped, and there are still things to praise. The tickets may have been expensive, but at least one half were given away free. The performers all gave voice to the environmental theme of the night, with some of them even choosing songs accordingly and mentioning green ideals in their introductions. Power saving tips such as using energy-saving bulbs, taking public transport and adjusting air-conditioning settings were broadcast, along with inventive short films on issues such as saving water. Bins set up to collect disposable plastic raincoats – always essential in Shanghai’s rainy season – were provided and used. The discarded light sticks normally seen after a concert were also absent, with most spectators adding to the atmosphere with waves and cheers.

Most noteworthy is that most attendees were university students or white collar workers in their twenties and thirties. That, at least, is a positive sign – the younger generation is becoming environmentally aware. These are the people who are becoming China’s driving force, and their participation gives us hope for China’s environmental movement.

So there is cause to be optimistic about the future. I once joked with a friend that only optimists can be environmentalists, as they have to believe the current situation can be improved and be willing to work towards that. And if we take an optimist’s view, the unimpressive concert in Shanghai is no bad thing – it tells us that there is still much to be done to make the people of this country aware of their environment, and that this is the time to start doing so.

Li Siqi, China Dialogue Editorial Assistant

Liu Liyuan, Wenhui Bao trainee reporter