SAN FRANCISCO – Chinese government officials say the Falun Gong spiritual movement has hijacked the traditional Lunar New Year celebration with a touring musical show they deride as little more than propaganda for the religious sect that is banned in China.
Performances of the popular “Chinese New Year Spectacular” are being held at high-profile venues in 28 cities worldwide, including Radio City Music Hall in New York City and San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, where audience members paid up to $168 per ticket earlier this month.
The variety show, now in its fourth year and themed “Myths and Legends,” features singers, musicians and dancers in elaborate costumes and celestial settings. Several segments reference Falun Gong’s spiritual beliefs and persecution in China. One dance depicts a practitioner who is jailed, beaten and killed by Chinese policemen who are later punished by supernatural beings.
Chinese officials in the U.S. and Canada are condemning the show and asking the public to stay away.
“We strongly oppose the show because Falun Gong is an evil cult,” said Jian Huali, acting spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “This is not a real Chinese culture show. It’s a very politicized show … so people should not go to show their support.”
On its Web site, the embassy calls the gala a “political tool used by Falun Gong organization to expand its influence and spread cult and anti-China propaganda.”
But the show’s organizers say the musical extravaganza is a celebration of traditional Chinese culture and values, much of which was destroyed after the Communists came to power in 1949.
“It’s not about politics,” said Ying Chen, a China-born practitioner who lives in New Jersey and serves as the show’s stage manager. But, she added, “We feel the persecution of Falun Gong is a major story that’s unfolding today. We think it does deserve the attention of the world.”
Chen wasn’t surprised by the Chinese government’s reaction. She said some performers have backed out because they fear reprisal from Beijing, and believes official Chinese pressure was behind a decision to cancel a scheduled performance in South Korea earlier this month.
Patrick Hunt, an archaeologist from San Bruno who saw the San Francisco show this month, said he and his wife enjoyed the music and dancing, but was surprised by the Falun Gong elements and “would be happier if that stuff was taken out.”
“It was very clear within a few minutes that this was not just about culture and art,” said Hunt, an admirer of Chinese culture who paid about $120 for two tickets. “I suspect that others might have felt a little disgruntled. I was curious more than anything else since I don’t know anything about Falun Gong.”
Falun Gong combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and the ideas of its founder, a former government grain clerk named Li Hongzhi, with meditation and simple exercises that followers say lead to improved health and well-being.
After attracting millions of followers throughout the 1990s, Falun Gong was outlawed in 1999 after adherents staged a massive demonstration outside the main government compound in Beijing. Thousands were jailed or sent to labor camps as the government launched a campaign to discredit and eradicate the sect, which officials see as a threat to social stability as well as their own political power.
Falun Gong has gained a following outside China, but remains controversial among many Chinese-Americans who view the group as a cult and question its political agenda.
In San Francisco, Falun Gong practitioners have sued the city after organizers of the annual Chinese New Year Parade barred the group from participating. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which directs the event, says the group is too political, while Falun Gong followers say the chamber is discriminating against them to appease Beijing.
A hearing is scheduled for later this month, and adherents hope they can join this year’s parade, celebrating the Year of the Pig, in early March.
Observers say Falun Gong has become increasingly sophisticated in spreading its message through the widely circulated Epoch Times newspaper and New Tang Dynasty Television. Both were founded by Falun Gong supporters and feature anti-communist news and commentary.
“They’re clearly out there to reach the general public,” said Ling-chi Wang, an Asian American Studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “You have to be impressed by their ability to put these things out there, whether it’s through a newspaper, television or cultural performance.”
The Chinese New Year Spectacular, presented by New Tang Dynasty Television, appears to be another attempt to reach a mainstream audience, but the group risks alienating audience members who aren’t aware of the show’s Falun Gong themes, said David Lee, who teaches politics at San Francisco State University.
“They risk turning off people who would otherwise be receptive to their message,” Lee said. “Americans don’t want to pay for their propaganda.”
All three shows at San Francisco’s opera house, which seats about 3,300 people, were nearly sold out. Booking director Jennifer Norris there said there were no complaints from audience members.
The show’s program features letters of support from a long list of American officials, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Aides for Schwarzenegger and Boxer said they had simply responded to requests for Chinese New Year greetings, and hadn’t seen the show and weren’t aware of its Falun Gong connections.