Pop-rock balladeer Elton John dedicated his Beijing show to Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei -- a controversial move the artist said Monday was unlikely to make the nation's cultural minders happy.

After the Icelandic singer Bjork chanted "Tibet, Tibet" at a 2008 concert in Shanghai, authorities refused numerous Western acts permits to perform in China for years.

Concert-goers said John told his audience of more than 12,000 people on Sunday at the Wukesong arena, built to host the basketball tournament at the Beijing Olympics, that the show was dedicated to Ai.

"I met him before the show, he didn't say anything about it," Ai told AFP.

"When he did it, it was a big surprise."

The Ministry of Culture, he added, "are probably not too happy about this, but there is not much that they can do about it. He is a very popular singer who has a lot of influence".

Ai, 55, is a world-renowned conceptual artist and outspoken critic of China's communist government.

He disappeared into police custody for 81 days last year, drawing worldwide headlines and casting a spotlight on the government's growing concern over social unrest, especially as "Arab spring" street protests rocked the Middle East.

After being released he was convicted of tax evasion, fined $2.4 million by the Beijing tax bureau and barred from leaving the country for one year.

He has described such treatment as the government's way of quelling his social activism and efforts to protest a wide range of alleged official abuse.

It was unclear whether John's public support for Ai would have consequences for other Western acts hoping to perform in China.

At a 2008 concert in Shanghai, Bjork chanted "Tibet, Tibet" at the end of her song "Declare Independence", in a public protest against China's rule of the Himalayan region and open support for the Tibet independence movement.

A number of Western acts were subsequently refused permits to perform in the country by China's cultural minders.

In Sunday's show, John's surprise dedication drew only a muted response from the crowd, said one audience member surnamed Wu, adding: "As far as the show, the crowd loved every minute of it."

John is scheduled to return to China next week to play a concert in Guangzhou following shows in South Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]