Aside from having an agent who didn’t bother to Google Turkmenistan before booking her for a gig there, Jennifer Lopez then had to suffer the further indignity of singing Happy Birthday to Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
For that is the name of Turkmenistan’s president, a man widely acknowledged to preside over one of the more oppressive regimes currently in government.
In the words of Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan has a “terrible record of torture” and runs a state “with no independent media or political parties, no freedom of speech or freedom of assembly, and virtually no access for monitors from outside the country.”
Presumably the presence of a former American Idol judge doesn’t count towards meeting the monitoring criteria. So just how did JLo, a self-described philanthropist, come to be singing Happy Birthday to this dentist-turned-dictator?
The answer lies with China National Petroleum Company (CNPC, the parent of PetroChina) which paid for her concert. According to Lopez’s agent, it then requested at the last minute that she help mark the president’s birthday personally with a song.
Why would CNPC be paying? Turkmenistan sits on the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves. China already gets much of its natural gas from the former Soviet state but it is keen to receive more.
“The Turkmenistan event underscores the lengths to which China’s oil-and-gas companies will go to curry favour in resource-rich locales,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, questioning whether the rumoured $1.5 million cost of hiring the singer ran counter to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-extravagance drive (see WiC182). Interestingly the Chinese media did not mention CNPC’s involvement in the concert and the company has refused to answer questions about it. But netizens who read about it on foreign websites were soon commenting on the unsavoury nature of the event. “This is just bribery with Chinese characteristics,” complained one weibo user. Another wrote: “Pandering to dictators who like curvaceous women should not be the way we do business.”
But the Wall Street Journal also suggested that paying for performances by big name artists, whatever the cost, would continue to be tolerated by Xi’s government as long as it furthered Chinese interests. “If they get a deal and this played a part in it, then it would be 100% entirely justified,” Scott Kennedy, director of Indiana University’s Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business, told the newspaper.
As for Lopez, she might be more cautious the next time that CNPC calls.
Her publicist has said she would not have performed had she been aware of human rights issues in Turkmenistan.
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