Five different companies continuously bring classical Chinese dance and music to 155 cities around the world. Shen Yun has been founded and is managed by Falun Gong practitioners, and the CCP has repeatedly tried to prevent theaters in the West from hosting it.
The billboards are difficult to miss. While driving on the highways of several Western countries, huge advertising boards for Shen Yun repeatedly greet the car drivers. And the publicity is effective: more than one million people in 155 different cities have seen one of the five troupes of Shen Yun perform their show of traditional Chinese dances and music. The troupes have performed at the best addresses in the trade, including the Lincoln Center in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London, and the Palais des Congrès in Paris. Most Shen Yun musicians and dancers train in Cuddebackville, New York, before reaching out to audiences in the five continents.
Yet, each new show causes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to run amok. Chinese consulate and embassies write to the theaters, urging them to cancel Shen Yun performances, warning that if the “suggestion” is not followed the relations between China and their countries will suffer.
Shen Yun was inaugurated in 2006, and as early as 2007, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco tried to stop its performances in Orange County. The Chicago consulate followed suit in 2008 and its counterpart in Houston in 2010, with the consulate in San Francisco resurfacing again in 2012 trying to prevent a Shen Yun performance in Seattle.
The reason for these moves is that Shen Yun was created by practitioners of Falun Gong, a movement banned as xie jiao (“heterodox teachings”) and severely persecuted in China. While Shen Yun’s stated aim is to preserve a cultural heritage that may disappear forever in China, and most of the shows consist of classical Chinese music and dances, a couple of ballets are about Falun Gong, and one depicts the persecution of Falun Gong believers in China.
In the US, attempts to threaten the theaters backfired. Cities and theaters have reacted strongly to the Chinese attempt to interfere with their cultural programming. In 2007, the then-chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors wrote a public letter where he denounced Beijing’s efforts at pressuring officials. “Your letter is a formal request that the Orange County Board of Supervisors cooperates with your government’s suppression of Falun Gong,” Chris Norby wrote. “I am personally insulted by your request and will certainly not honor it.” Similar reactions followed in other cities.
Attempts to prevent Shen Yun shows then moved to Europe. Again, Chinese consulates and embassies intervened. However, Spain, The Netherlands, and Germany refused their attempt to interfere with the artistic and religious liberty of the respective countries. In Denmark, a scandal erupted in this year 2018. The Royal Danish Theater refused Shen Yun’s request to perform in their premises, citing artistic reasons for the decision. However, local media discovered that representatives of the Theater had met with Chinese diplomats, who had urged them not to deal with Shen Yun.
When intimidation fails, the CCP tries to scare the theaters by sending e-mails signed by individuals who claim to be members of Falun Gong and make extravagant requests or threatens violence against Chinese interests.
In general, the anti-Shen-Yun campaign instigated by the CCP has been remarkably unsuccessful. It may even have attracted more people to the show, including Chinese tourists to the US and other countries. The CCP, however, continues to approach theaters and authorities in the West, urging them to cancel the Shen Yun shows. When foreign governments and NGOs denounce the violations of human rights and the religious persecution in China, the CCP usually reacts by decrying foreign interference in Chinese internal affairs. Yet, the Shen Yun case demonstrates that, when it comes to groups who criticize the CCP, Chinese attempts at interfering and limiting the freedom of expression in other countries are becoming routine.