After 30 years of vilifying everything American, Beijing re-established diplomatic relations with Washington, D.C., Jan. 1, 1979, the same year Jackson released "Off the Wall." At the time, most of China was still clad in drab blue Mao suits, state-controlled radio was almost devoid of Western pop music and record companies had little distribution. But Jackson's music soon took root--with a vengeance.
Beijing-based musician Kaiser Kuo says that the only time he felt physically threatened during the volatile spring of 1989 was because of Jackson's popularity.
On June 3, 1989 -- just as pro-democracy students reached what would prove a fatal deadlock with the government in Tiananmen Square -- Kuo's heavy rock band Tang Dynasty was playing a show in Jilin Province, unaware it had been billed as "Michael Jackson's backup band." Realizing they'd been scammed, the audience "went nuts and burned down the ticket booth," Kuo says. "Jackson was just that popular."
For many in China, reflecting on Jackson means dredging up memories of that era of dashed hopes. Blogger Hong Huang lived much of her childhood in the '70s and '80s in the United States, where her father was a Chinese diplomat. "Back then, I thought nobody in China could be listening to Michael Jackson," she says. Yet Hong hosted three evenings of her late-night TV talk show "Straight Talk" about Jackson's death while the Chinese Internet lit up with discussion of his life and music. The top video-sharing Web site Youku.com has dozens of posts of Chinese youths moonwalking to his songs in black loafers, white socks and high-water pants.
Jackson's sales in Asia have been strong despite rampant piracy, according to Adam Tsuei, president of Sony Music Entertainment Greater China. Sony says that since 1994 it has sold about 1.2 million Jackson albums in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Jackson never visited mainland China, but Sony says it has sold about 300,000 albums there since 2002, although censorship has prevented the release of his entire catalog.
There had been unconfirmed reports that AEG Live planned to bring Jackson to China after his sold-out London dates. Instead, Shanghai warehouse manager Jin Hailiang says the 150 regular members of the local Jackson fan club he helps manage will host a party Aug. 29, Jackson's birthday.
"His music is so important because it's about love," he says, "and it makes us feel free to dance." --Jonathan Landreth