Shen Yun is not your ordinary performing arts company.
Every year, it not only has to deal with the challenges associated with executing a high-end stage production and bringing it to hundreds of cities around the world, the company also has to contend with an unrelenting campaign by the Chinese Communist regime to thwart its performances wherever it goes.
This interference has plagued the company since its founding more than a decade ago, Leeshai Lemish, an emcee with the company, told The Epoch Times in an interview.
Shen Yun Performing Arts is a classical Chinese dance and music company, founded in New York in 2006. Its mission, according to its website, is to revive 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture through the arts.
Its depictions on stage of the Chinese regime’s two-decades-long persecution of the spiritual practice Falun Gong has drawn the regime’s ire. Adherents of the practice in China have been arbitrarily detained, subject to forced labor, tortured, and killed for their organs. Outside of China, the regime has sought to demonize the practice, while suppressing information exposing the persecution—such as by influencing overseas Chinese media and infiltrating overseas Chinese community groups.
“I started noticing that as we were going and performing around the world, there are all types of phenomena that were following us that you normally would not expect with a performing arts company,” said Lemish, who has been an emcee with the company since its inception.
For instance, theaters where the company was due to perform would receive letters from the Chinese consulate or embassy demanding they pull the performance; Chinese individuals would loiter around hotels and buses, appearing to be monitoring the company; and audience members would attempt to disrupt the performance using electronic devices, such as a universal remote control to interfere with the screen projector, he said of interference he witnessed in the company’s early years.
“We knew that … there were forces behind the scenes trying to stop our performances,” he said.
So the emcee began collecting letters and documentation cataloguing these incidents, and now has a list of 74 sabotage attempts since early 2007—and the number is still growing.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of what is actually out there,” Lemish said, adding that as he tours, people with inside information on the theaters’ dealings are constantly telling him in private of attempts by Chinese authorities to shut down the performances.
While attempts by the Chinese regime to thwart Shen Yun’s performances have largely failed—the company has expanded to seven continents and is due to embark on its biggest touring season yet in 2020—there have been some instances of success.
Most recently, the Royal Theater in Madrid canceled the performance a few weeks before the production was due to perform for the first time at the venue in January, citing “technical difficulties.”
However, an undercover phone call to the Chinese embassy in Madrid conducted by the U.S.-based nonprofit World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG) revealed that this reason was manufactured after the embassy managed to pressure the theater into dropping the performance. The caller, posing as a high-level official of the Chinese regime, talked to a man who identified himself as Lu Fan, the Chinese ambassador to Spain, according to a WOIPFG press release at the time.
In an audio recording of the phone conversation, Lu explained how he convinced the Royal Theater’s general manager to cancel Shen Yun by warning him that the theater “can’t afford to lose the Chinese market because of this.”
In Denmark, a 2018 investigative report by local media Radio24syv uncovered evidence that the Chinese embassy had placed pressure on the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen to not lease its venue to Shen Yun.
The New York-based company had sought to perform at the Royal Danish Theater for 10 years but had been repeatedly rejected on the grounds that the company’s artistic level did not meet the venue’s demands.
According to emails obtained by the outlet, one of the theater’s employees told another staff member that they had met with the Chinese embassy in August 2017.
“They [embassy] ended the meeting by asking if we had a dialogue with Shen Yun, and requested that we shouldn’t allow them to rent our facilities,” the email stated.
Thomas Foght, the journalist who investigated the story, said during a speech at the Danish Parliament in April this year that this case “puts light on why it was so difficult for Shen Yun to have access to the Royal Theater over ten years.”
Following Fought’s report, then theater director Morten Hesseldahl and Denmark’s then Culture Minister Mette Bock denied accusations of Chinese influence, saying that they were not aware of any pressure from the embassy.
Meanwhile, in Asia, Bangkok’s Aksra Theatre in December 2016 abruptly canceled the performance just days before opening night. In a letter sent by the Chinese Embassy in Thailand to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs obtained by The Epoch Times, the Chinese regime pressed the Thai government to ban Shen Yun “in order to avoid affecting the well-developed relationship between China and Thailand.”
Months earlier, KBS Hall in Seoul, South Korea pulled the plug on Shen Yun, prompting the local organizer to launch legal action against KBS seeking a court order that it be allowed to perform. An appeal court eventually denied the request.
KBS Hall, a government-owned venue attached to the largest national broadcaster, Korean Broadcasting Service, had a working relationship with China’s state broadcaster, China Central Television. Ahead of the performance, the theater received multiple letters from the Chinese embassy, obtained by The Epoch Times, demanding that it not host Shen Yun.
“China places a high level of importance on cooperation with KBS and hopes that KBS will consider China–Korea relations when making decisions. Do not provide a venue for Shen Yun to perform,” a letter dated Jan. 22, 2016, stated.
Piling pressure on theaters is only one of the ways in which the Chinese regime has tried to interfere with Shen Yun.
It has also employed a range of tactics directed against advertisers, prospective audience members, and the company itself, Lemish said. These tactics have evolved over time.
In the early years, mainland Chinese state-sponsored performance troupes would perform directly across the road from where Shen Yun was performing and on the exact same dates, in an effort to compete with the company, according to its website.
Then, when this failed, several attempts were made to sabotage Shen Yun’s touring buses. In one instance in 2010, a bus driver noticed a cut in one of the front tires after traveling from Ottawa to Montreal. Mechanics later told them that the tire was cut in such a way that it wouldn’t deflate immediately, but would burst as it heated up and expanded while driving. A burst to the front tire could cause the driver to lose control of the bus, which has the capacity to seat 50 performers.
Lemish said the company reported this and other sabotage attempts to local police and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), but have not heard of any developments in these investigations.
Theaters have also received emails from people posing as fans of the show or as the local hosting organization. The emails, which the theaters subsequently shared with Shen Yun, contained content that made them “come across as zealous and crazy,” Lemish said.
The purpose was to “scare the theater from having anything to do with us,” he added.
Shen Yun’s website and servers also have repeatedly come under attack, Lemish said, adding that assaults on its ticketing platforms tend to be concentrated during the lead-up to the company’s performances in New York City—where it typically has an extended run at the prestigious Lincoln Center.
Recently, the interference has increasingly moved online.
“There’s a very strategic and concerted effort to defame us in any possible way, especially in the media and online,” Lemish said.
He said that Chinese internet trolls have been working to get negative publicity about Shen Yun ranked higher than the company’s website and media articles with favorable reviews of the performance. Known as the “50 cent army,” these internet trolls are paid by the Chinese regime to spout propaganda and silence dissenting views online, both inside and outside of China.
“There is an attempt now by these 50 cent people to basically bolster the ranking [of negative publicity] by commenting on … [those articles], leaving nasty remarks and perhaps linking to them,” Lemish said. “They’ll do all these different things that can improve SEO ranking for these articles.”
The emcee said this move fits within the Chinese regime’s broader campaign to shift public opinion online internationally.
“It’s making us work a lot harder because just the normal way that people discover things these days [is] by Googling them and by hearing about them … on social media,” he said.
“They’re really making a strong effort to not allow us to use those channels and then create negative impressions on people to make it harder for us to sell tickets.”
However, the company is undeterred.
“We’re not going to be intimidated by it,” Lemish said. “We’ve faced this all along from the very beginning. It’s never slowed us down.”
Janita Kan contributed to this report.