Efforts Made to Block Shen Yun in South Korea’s Capital

Chinese regime suspected of putting pressure on Korean government
February 25, 2016 Updated: February 29, 2016

Shen Yun Performing Arts, a large classical Chinese dance company based in New York, has toured the world to soldout audiences in nearly all major countries. But it is banned from China because its message and affiliations are opposed by the Chinese regime, whose diplomatic agents have harassed it around the world.

And now, efforts to frustrate Shen Yun have most recently popped up again in South Korea, said the promoters of the show there.

For the last decade, in fact, Shen Yun has been unable to secure a top-flight venue in Seoul, the capital. It has been able to perform in cities around the country for years, but in Seoul, the country’s center for arts, culture, and politics, composed of a quarter of the population, it has been restricted to private venues or universities.

The major theaters, including the Sejong Art center, the National Theater, or KBS Hall, have been off-limits.

Because these largest and most prestigious auditoriums in Korea are affiliated with the government, they’re prone to diplomatic interference, whether open or covert, from the Chinese diplomatic outpost in Korea, according to promoters of the show.

Six days after the box office opened, KBS… decided that Shen Yun is not a proper show for KBS Hall. In this short period of time, it is impossible to act this fast unless there is a huge external pressure.
— Changsik Lee, Shen Yun promoter, Korea

The first instance of such trouble dates back to 2006, when a performing arts gala organized by New Tang Dynasty Television, an independent Chinese-language broadcaster (and part of the same corporate parent as Epoch Times) that is targeted by the Chinese regime, had its rental of KBS Hall canceled after the contract was signed, due to overt pressure by the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. Epoch Times obtained a copy of the original letter and a translation, which states “The Chinese embassy has already requested the Korean government to, fully taking account Chinese interests, take actions so that no Falun Gong activity is allowed in Korea.” It is signed “People’s Republic of China Embassy in Korea.”

Later in 2006, the gala would fold, and in December, 2006 Shen Yun would first perform in New York and New Jersey. The New Tang Dynasty gala, like Shen Yun, was seen by the Chinese regime as a performing arts company connected to the Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) spiritual practice. According to Shen Yun’s website, the company’s inspiration “is the spiritual discipline known as Falun Dafa.” Falun Gong is a traditional practice of meditation that is persecuted in China—and which the Chinese Communist Party targets for harassment around the world.

The Chinese regime’s opposition goes beyond just connections to Falun Gong, though. Shen Yun’s presentation of China’s 5,000 years culture, for instance, sees Chinese history replete with spiritual and religious understandings—a reading that is anathema to the historical materialism and Marxism that the Party advocates.

This year, it seemed the problem had gone away, after KBS Hall signed a contract in January with New Cosmos Media, a promotion company, to book Shen Yun for a series of performances in May.

It wasn’t long before the trouble started, said Changsik Lee, the president of New Cosmos Media, which is also booking Shen Yun in Jeonju, Suwon, and the southeastern city of Ulsan.

After ticket sales for the venue in Ulsan began on Jan. 16, the local promoters received a telephone call from the venue, with staff telling them that they had been pressured by the Chinese Embassy to rescind its contract, which had been made last year. The managers in Ulsan held their ground, saying they had no reason to cancel the performance.

But only another three days passed and Lee was informed that KBS Hall in Seoul had hurriedly reconvened the examination panel it organized to approve the show, and reversed its decision. Shen Yun would not be given a venue this year in Seoul.

“Six days after the box office opened, KBS reopened the exam committee, and decided that Shen Yun is not a proper show for KBS Hall. In this short period of time, it is impossible to act this fast unless there is huge external pressure,” Lee said in an email.

It seemed to echo a similar cancellation of a Shen Yun contract with KBS Hall in the city of Busan in 2008, similarly made with little explanation. When the show promoters in Korea took the case to court, the judge ruled against them, though he made clear that the reason for the cancellation was “only based on the fact that the Chinese government labeled Falun Gong an illegal organization and is suppressing it.”

Sometimes, Chinese efforts can also backfire. Leeshai Lemish, an emcee with Shen Yun, documents on his website one turnaround in Busan in 2011. After the consulate put enormous pressure on the theater and advertisers, Shen Yun artists were locked out of the theater. But in the early afternoon of the performance, a court ruled in favor of Shen Yun, the company was allowed into the theater, and after setting up in less than half the usual time, they played to a soldout crowd. “The P.R.C. diplomats ended up advertising for Shen Yun, as the incident led to Korean media coverage of the affair and tickets for Shen Yun’s other Korea performances also sold quickly,” Lemish writes.

Shen Yun shows often include, out of about 20 pieces, a couple of performances depicting the persecution of the spiritual practice of Falun Gong in China—another likely reason it is opposed by Chinese diplomats. In this case, however, it is unclear whether the resistance is coming from Beijing, or merely a local embassy official following standard operating procedure. The persecution of Falun Gong, and the targeting of it overseas, do not appear to be priorities of the Xi Jinping regime.

Shen Yun is the world’s largest classical Chinese dance company, traveling with a full orchestra and filling theaters to capacity in venues like the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

KBS Hall is a subsidiary of the Korean national broadcaster, KBS, which itself has extensive ties with China’s national broadcaster, China Central Television.

Given that the best performing arts venues in Korea have some sort of state affiliation, the processes for renting them can sometimes be extensive.

After the venue rental is agreed upon and contracts are drawn up, the Korean Media Rating Board begins its own process. This year, as in previous years, it made an examination of whether Shen Yun is suitable to perform in Korea. In the category asking “Whether harmful” the board has always ruled that Shen Yun is “harmless.” Performing arts companies require this approval before they can apply for visas. 

KBS Hall, the theater venue run by Korean state broadcaster KBS in Seoul, the capital. (Gwanhae Seong)
KBS Hall, the theater venue run by Korean state broadcaster KBS in Seoul, the capital. (Gwanhae Seong)

“The fact that KBS reconvened the rental committee even after Shen Yun had been approved by the Media Rating Board further shows that the reasons for cancellation are dubious,” said Changsik Lee.

The initial decision to cancel the contract didn’t explain why. A later follow-up explained,  “The show that your company is planning and hosting is the Falun Gong-affiliated Shen Yun Performing Arts’ show.” It adds: “Because there is concern that it may damage our public corporation’s image … a public corporation should hold religious and politically neutral activities.”

Behind this, Lee said, is the hand of the Chinese Communist Party, or at least elements of it in the diplomatic mission in Korea. Or else why was the theater rented in the first place?

Organizers said that the discrimination violates the free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States, and that they are contacting the United States Trade Representative, as well as the State Department, in an attempt to gain redress.

“We are not accepting KBS’s cancellation,” Lee said. “As in past cases of pressure and cancellations, this bears all the hallmarks of a decision made as a result of pressure from the Chinese Communist Party. … The venue rental contract was made through the all proper legal processes.”

There is no direct evidence in this instance linking the odd cancellation with Communist Party officials—though there is the strong precedent from 2006. And there is a pattern around the world of Chinese diplomatic officials, in letters, phone calls, and meetings, seeking to block Shen Yun from renting venues.

At least, Changsik Lee said that a number of frontline staff have been supportive. “One of the KBS staff confessed that they are experiencing a very tough situation because of this issue,” he said.