Criticism of cultural show eerily echoes Beijing propaganda, but fails to deter audience
By John Nania and Jason Loftus
|Feb 14, 2008
NEW YORK—The theater was packed, the crowd gave a standing ovation, and audience members raved in interviews after the show. But according to a story in The New York Times last week, as many as "hundreds" were flocking to the exit doors by intermission.
Chinese New Year Splendor played 15 shows at New York's famed Radio City Music Hall, ending with a sold-out final performance on the evening of Feb. 9. The response to the show, confirmed by The Epoch Times reporters in over 700 interviews with audience members, was overwhelmingly positive.
One of those interviews was with John Wright, formerly with the Times own book review department. When asked what he thought of the show, Wright said, "It was very beautiful, very different."
But the Times published on Feb. 6 a peculiar review of Splendor (under the byline of Eric Konigsberg) that did anything but suggest the consensus response. Backed with quotes from all of three audience members who were critical, only one of whom gave his or her full name, the Times proclaimed in its headline, "A Glimpse of Chinese Culture That Some Find Hard to Watch."
What made the Times article even more unusual was that its criticisms mimic the line of China's communist regime, which has engaged in a behind-the-scenes campaign to have Splendor shut down.
Chinese New Year Splendor , as the hosts of the show explained, presents traditional Chinese culture as it cannot be seen elsewhere—especially inside China, where the Chinese communist regime has actively suppressed traditional culture during its rule.
Put on by Divine Performing Arts, Splendor presents traditional Chinese culture through dance and music. The show conveys cultural and moral stories of China's past, as well of recent times, such as those of Falun Gong practitioners' peaceful response to persecution in China today.
"Culture is meant to promote peace and harmony with our neighbors. This harmony includes truth, compassion, and tolerance," said Daniel Lee, a real estate investor with Speed Investment Group in New York City, in summing up his response to the show. He refers to the three principles of Falun Gong, which appear in the show.
But, no doubt, the resurgence of traditional Chinese culture, particularly in the context of human rights issues today, has angered Chinese communist officials, who've long held a monopoly on Chinese cultural representation. Beijing's brass have attempted to discredit the show, calling it "political propaganda."
The audience members quoted by the Times largely repeated Beijing's view.
The Times story also quoted University of Nevada political science professor Maria Hsia Chang. When contacted by The Epoch Times , Chang indicated that she hadn't seen the show.
"I was interviewed on phone by the Times reporter. I haven't even read his article, so I don't know if he misquoted me or quoted me out of context," she said in an emailed response, adding that she was sympathetic to the Falun Gong's plight.
Immediately following the publication of Konigsberg's story, the engines of the Party's propaganda machinery kicked into high gear.
Though Western news outlets like the Times are normally censored in China, this story was immediately republished by Xinhua, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and propagated widely.
Chinese-language press outside China close to the Chinese regime, such as China Press and ChinaNews.com, similarly gave prominent coverage to the Times story.
But while the criticisms of Splendor gained airtime in the pro-CCP press, they were not echoed by a growing number who came to see the show.
Audience Paints a Different Picture
In fact, many were aware of, and critical of, the Times piece.
"It certainly did not dissuade us from coming," said Ron Sablosky, a banker and executive vice president of Outsourcing Solutions. "I don't think it should dissuade anyone, because it really is highly unfair. And it might even be construed as unethical."
Charles Liu, who works at the New York Freedom Times , called the story "terribly one-sided."
But attendance at the shows after the article ran was not diminished by the critical article. If anything, it was boosted, according to NTDTV, the show's producers.
Penny Cohn, an account executive and building manager, had read The New York Times article and noted, "In fact, it piqued my curiosity."
"And not only that, it had a lot of space, too. I was quite intrigued with the amount of space it was given, I have to confess that."
The two pieces that depict the persecution of Falun Gong in Splendor , "The Risen Lotus Flower" and "The Power of Awareness," were also mentioned by many audience members as their favorites.
Amerigo Fabbri, dean of Pierson College and professor of modernist literature at Yale University, talked about "The Risen Lotus Flower."
"You have the three women in prison and how one of them gives her life for the other two, these are great, great elements of the culture that are certainly conveyed by the show," he said.
On his overall impression, Fabbri said, "The show is spectacular, I mean amazing. They're doing a great job bringing together the history of Chinese culture. The sound effects, the visual effects, the special effects, the singing, and the dancing is just amazing."
Photos and interviews with hundreds more audience members, in English and Chinese, can be found on The Epoch Times Web site: www.TheEpochTimes.com .
According to surveys done of the audience, 95 percent gave a positive response, and the shows of Splendor at Radio City Music Hall frequently earned standing ovations.
Apparently, the New York public did not believe the article's portrayal that the show was rejected by its audience. The final performance of Splendor on Feb. 9 was sold out, and Splendor closed New York to another standing ovation.
But efforts by the show's producers to have these facts relayed to The New York Times readers seem to have gone unanswered.
NTDTV president Mr. Zhong Lee wrote a letter, which reads in part: "Human rights abuses are indeed a part of the culture modern Chinese have inherited, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the medium through which it was expressed. Whether we like it or not, these abuses are part of today's reality in China.
"One of the basic freedoms central to the United States is freedom of expression. Mr. Konigsberg should not find it so shocking that a Chinese culture show produced in the U.S. includes some reference to China's human rights issues."
At press time, the Times had not published or responded to Mr. Lee's letter.
The Epoch Times also attempted to reach the paper for comment on this story, but representatives from the Times did not return the call by press time.
Splendor is performed by Divine Performing Arts, and is part of a worldwide tour. But at each stop, the show faces pressure from Chinese embassy and consulate staff who work to persuade advertisers and theaters not to accept the show, and audience members to stay away.
Last year, The Epoch Times obtained a document originating from China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Marked "highly confidential," the document outlined the regime's efforts to derail the NTDTV shows.
"The leadership of the central government has ordered that they [the NTDTV shows] be destroyed by any and all means," said the document, which was dated Dec. 16, 2003, when NTDTV was preparing its first Chinese New Year show.
If that was not possible, orders were to "minimize their impact," the document said.
In the United States politicians have received letters from the Chinese consulate pressuring them not to attend shows performed by Divine Performing Arts.
New York State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle and San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye are among politicians that say they received letters asking them not to attend the shows.
"The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] insists to the world that there is only one China. They seek to drown out alternative voices. They fear that the world will learn the truth of their 'Animal Farm' regime," said Assemblyman Benjamin in an e-mail to The Epoch Times in December.
In South Korea and other countries, the consulates have attempted or succeeded in having venues back out of agreements to host the performance.
Last year in Seoul the Chinese Embassy pressured two venues to terminate their contracts to have the Chinese cultural show presented in theaters. The same thing happened this year and the matter is now before a South Korean court. A similar incident has taken place in Denmark this year as well.
The Chinese Embassy in Sweden made a similar effort but Swedish officials staunchly refused to cater to the communist regime. A municipal chairman described the embassy's request that the show be stopped as "astonishing."
Last year, when Divine Performing Arts held a Chinese New Year show in Ottawa, Glenn McGregor, a reporter with the local Ottawa Citizen newspaper, wrote following a very similar formula as The New York Times piece. Although he hadn't attended the show, he quoted three people who said they attended and were upset with the Falun Gong content. McGregor also gave prominence in the story to the Chinese embassy's criticisms of the show.
Clearly earning the trust of the Chinese Embassy, McGregor was invited by the Embassy on an expenses-paid trip to China to probe allegations of serious human rights abuses against Falun Gong adherents and ended up writing in defense of the regime.
The Epoch Times is a proud sponsor of the Divine Performing Arts tour. For our complete coverage please visit: http://en.epochtimes.com/features/dpa2008/