Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have canceled three scheduled performances of a 19th century play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen that depicts a middle-class hero battling vested corporate interests and local government corruption.
The touring production of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" by Berlin's Schaubühne theater was staged from Sept. 6-8 at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
But the company announced on its website that a subsequent performance scheduled in Jiangsu's provincial capital Nanjing for Thursday and Friday had been canceled.
An employee taking calls on the ticket hotline for the Jiangsu Theater in Nanjing on Thursday confirmed that the performances had been canceled, but denied that it was for political reasons.
"This is due to a malfunction with the stage," the employee said. "There is no way for the performance to go ahead. That's why it was canceled."
However, the play touches on a number of themes that could be considered politically sensitive by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, including a bid by a corrupt local government to cover up pollution of the city's water supply.
According to an English program note, the protagonist "Stockmann insists on transparency and intends to go public on the matter" when he discovers that the city's water supply has been contaminated by bacteria.
After the local mayor tries to muzzle Stockmann and prevent him going to the press with his concerns, his father-in-law weighs in on behalf of the local moneyed classes.
"For him, the affair has long since ceased to be about the polluted health spa, his target is society as a whole," the program note says.
The local newspaper sides with town officials, but Stockmann insists on continuing to speak out. By the end of the play, he and his family have been forcibly evicted, and his wife has lost her job, echoing the treatment of some outspoken Chinese activists and petitioners at the hands of the authorities.
Nanjing resident and long-time petitioner of the government Yang Shuxiu said government censors have become very nervous under the administration of President Xi Jinping.
"Of course they won't say [the real reason for the cancellation]," Yang said. "So many things have become sensitive now; the authorities can't tolerate even the slightest wind shaking the grasses. They are getting nervous even before people have done anything."
Beijing-based artist Wang Peng agreed, saying that controls on cultural expression are getting tighter and tighter under Xi.
"Of course they are targeting artists, because artists are supposed to reflect reality around them and their impressions of it, or even attack it," Wang said. "Now it seems as if they want us to do a U-turn, so that only works that fit in with the national ideology are allowed to be seen."
Beijing political commentator and veteran democracy activist Zha Jianguo said he wasn't surprised by the move either.
"If artistic works in mainland China ... touch on anything remotely political, or shine a light on certain [unwelcome] truths ... then they are less and less likely to be performed," Zha said.
"Controls on public expression and ideology are extremely strict in mainland China right now."
Online activist Wang Fazhan said he thought it ridiculous that a 19th century play could be shut down.
"It's totally ridiculous, that a play that is so canonical could be denied permission to be performed by censors," Wang told RFA. "It just shows how censorship is getting worse and worse."
"They only want people to see things they want them to see. Any instructive ideas will be banned during the censorship process."
The play's themes of press manipulation, official corruption and pollution may have touched a raw nerve in China, where more than three decades of breakneck economic growth have left people living in a seriously degraded environment, amid growing public protests among the country's middle classes and farming communities alike.
Activists say China has an exemplary set of environmental protection laws, but that environmental officials lack the power to impose it on powerful vested interests at the local level.
The forcible eviction and job losses of the family in the play, which comes after Stockmann stands up to the local ruling elite, may also have struck a chord.
Earlier this month, authorities in the southern province of Guangdong evicted the sister of prominent democracy activist Li Biyun and beat her siblings after they tried to prevent her home from being demolished, in the latest in a wave of forced evictions targeting peaceful critics of the government and their families in recent years.
Family members of dissidents have also repeatedly complained in interviews with RFA of police harassment of their landlords and employers, often leaving them with no income and no secure place to live.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.