There are some things that one would expect a Chinese official to keep quiet about: Like the embarrassing spectacle of empty theaters when state-run performing arts groups travel abroad.
But this is just what members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference discussed on March 10, with journalists in China present. The CPPCC, as it is usually rendered in English, is an advisory body for the ruling Communist Party, composed of members selected by the Communist Party.
Members of a special CPPCC panel discussion openly condemned what they said was the “chaotic phenomenon” of China’s art groups performing at famous concert halls around the world—to half-empty theaters.
Tan Lihua, a CPPCC member and the head of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra at the conference, was frank: “Other countries look at our performing groups as a joke.”
“It’s deceiving ourselves and deceiving others,” he said.
Tan continued: “So many of our art groups going abroad to perform are just entertaining themselves,” according to the state-run China Youth Daily.
Austrian ‘Karaoke Hall’
One of the prime targets for Chinese largesse is the Vienna Konzerthaus in Austria, an opulent concert hall that is home to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
When the Chinese arrive, the hallowed space becomes their “Karaoke Hall,” according to the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, in an article last September.
During the first eight months of 2013, more than 130 of China’s music groups performed at the Konzerthaus. But ticket sales were abysmal. Often more than half the seats were empty, according to the China Youth Daily.
Tan Lihua said that the Chinese troupes that perform there don’t typically trouble themselves with details like ticket sales.
What they’re after is more obscure: The record that they performed at the Vienna Konzerthaus.
This was what Tan said was the “chaotic phenomenon” of “building up cultural and political achievements,” which can be used to boost the reputation of performers back in China.
“While one group is performing, the other four groups clap hands, and then they shift,” Tan Lihua said. “The recording looks very successful, very exciting. At the end, the performers also get commemorative certificates signed by the mayor.”
“Is the certificate real?” he asked. No. It was downloaded from the Internet. “It’s all faked. Too much faking,” he lamented.
“Some of them have recommendation letters from the central government, some have letters from the military, and some have letters from different city and provincial government leaders,” Tan added.
“Performing overseas is to let others respect and appreciate the culture. But doing it like this will only lead to a dead end.”
A ‘Bad Start’
In a demonstration of how widespread this is, Song Zuying, one of the most famous singers in China—and widely recognized as the mistress of former Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin—told a newspaper of her regret for joining in the Konzerthaus shenanigans. Song is also a CPPCC member.
“A newspaper criticizing me for making a bad start, having a concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus. After thinking about it, I think I indeed made a bad start.”
Chinese arts companies should compete in the market rather than pay to perform, give out tickets, and even pay audience members to watch, she said. Renting the Konzerthaus in Vienna does not come cheap.
Behind the buffoonery there is a political dimension: an apparent attempt, however awkward, of competing with the major, established performing arts group Shen Yun.
Shen Yun Performing Arts, based in New York, has for years traveled the world with dozens of artists, most of them overseas Chinese, performing Chinese classical dance, along with a live orchestra and singers. Apart from a deep exploration of traditional Chinese culture, it includes vignettes about the persecution of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that has been suppressed in China since 1999. Shen Yun includes information about Falun Gong on its website.
The company has also documented an extensive and elaborate campaign of what it describes as the Communist Party’s attempted interference in its shows.
The Chinese performances that Tan Lihua describes as abject failures are likely what Shen Yun documents as the Party’s attempt to apply financial pressure to Shen Yun. This is done, for example, by a Chinese troupe putting on its own show in another theater on the same night as Shen Yun. The strategy appears to have failed, however.
A glimpse at how performances of this kind are sometimes received was provided by The New York Times on Monday. It reviewed the state-affiliated Chinese performance “The Red Dress,” which was at the Lincoln Center recently. The elaborate love story, complete with ballet and music, was said to be “highly limited in emotional expressiveness,” and “merely irritating.”