Report: Beijing Targets Shen Yun in Global Campaign to Silence and Malign

Shen Yun performers and the local presenter holding a press conference on the steps of the Korean Broadcasting Corporation theater after shows were canceled at the last minute in 2016 due to pressure from the Chinese embassy in Seoul. (Credit: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

Shen Yun performers and the local presenter holding a press conference on the steps of the Korean Broadcasting Corporation theater after shows were canceled at the last minute in 2016 due to pressure from the Chinese embassy in Seoul. (Credit: Shen Yun Performing Arts)

NEW YORK—The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is targeting Shen Yun Performing Arts, a U.S.-based non-profit, with the most aggressive global campaign of Beijing-driven artistic censorship documented to date, according to a policy brief published today by the Falun Dafa Information Center. The effort is central to the regime’s broader transnational repression aimed at Falun Gong practitioners, their peaceful activism, and their supporters around the world. 

The brief analyzes more than 130 documented incidents of harassment, sabotage, disinformation, and physical attacks by Chinese officials or their proxies targeting Shen Yun that have occurred in 38 countries—including the United States—since 2007. Internal party documents reveal central authorities issuing directives that deem suppressing Shen Yun to be “an important part of the … struggle against Falun Gong,” while lower security officials order a “targeted crackdown” on the group. 

Indeed, at the forefront of the campaign to sabotage Shen Yun are Chinese diplomatic personnel positioned at PRC embassies and consulates around the world, who use disinformation, economic coercion, and other threats to pressure local theaters and governments to disallow Shen Yun performances. The scale of this diplomatic effort alone—evident in 81 of 135 documented incidents of interference—demonstrates the centrally directed and large-scale nature of Beijing’s campaign. 

“The CCP has spent nearly 25 years trying to eradicate and demonize Falun Gong and even longer to destroy China’s traditional culture. All these efforts can be unraveled by a Shen Yun performance that showcases authentic Chinese culture, world-class artistry by talented Falun Gong practitioners, and storylines about the CCP’s deadly religious persecution,” says Levi Browde, executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center and one of the report authors. 

“The CCP cannot abide having its crimes exposed or its lies about Falun Gong undermined, so it is responding with an unprecedented campaign of economic coercion, fake emails, online disinformation, and even physical violence,” says Browde. “In the process, the regime’s crusade to stop Shen Yun is also establishing a test case for how well the United States and its democratic allies are able to protect free expression from the CCP’s authoritarian manipulation.”

The 17-page brief, titled “Diplomatic Disruptions and Disinformation: Beijing’s Global Drive to Stop Shen Yun” draws on existing documentation, first-hand accounts by Shen Yun performers, Chinese government documents, news reports, and U.S. government reports. It offers the first analysis of its kind of the scope, scale, and tactics of this global CCP campaign of artistic censorship. It also examines its impact, assesses democratic countries’ responses, and outlines recommendations for further action by the U.S. government.

The brief outlines the full spectrum of tactics deployed by the CCP regime and its proxies in dozens of countries to try to cripple Shen Yun. These include: threatening theaters and government officials with economic reprisals, sabotaging vehicles carrying Shen Yun performers, threatening or imprisoning relatives of performers in China, and organizing protests by pro-Beijing diaspora groups outside performance venues.

Spreading disinformation and demonizing propaganda about Shen Yun and Falun Gong has also been central to Chinese official efforts to restrict performance opportunities for Shen Yun and to undermine support among theater managers, local officials, and prospective audience members. In addition to Chinese diplomats delivering lies directly to theaters and government leaders or indirectly via Western media companies, coordinated social media and phone-call campaigns have spread false alerts of Shen Yun being from China and carrying COVID-19.

Key focus on the United States

Given that Shen Yun is based in the United States and performs in dozens of U.S. cities each year, the country has been a prime target of the regime’s efforts. Thus, 36 out of the 135 documented incidents targeting Shen Yun have occurred in the United States—more than any other country. In addition to Chinese diplomats applying pressure on theaters, Shen Yun performers in the United States have been subject to cyberattacks, vehicle tampering, and burglary. Shen Yun’s training center in New York has faced vandalism, surveillance, frivolous lawsuits, and localized social media campaigns spreading falsehoods.

In one of the CCP’s most brazen schemes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested two Chinese men in May 2023 who were caught trying to bribe a U.S. federal official in an attempt to “topple” Shen Yun.

Beijing’s impact versus democratic pushback

In at least 25 known cases, Chinese diplomatic pressures or other Beijing-driven incentives have indeed succeeded in preventing a Shen Yun performance—including by provoking last minute cancelations—in countries as diverse as Greece, Moldova, Ecuador, and Malaysia.

South Korea has long been a key focus for the CCP’s interference efforts with Shen Yun performances, as evidenced from it being the site of 19 out of 135 documented incidents.  Over time, the regime’s pressures appear to be gaining more traction, with theaters increasingly refusing to sign contracts allowing Shen Yun to perform despite sold-out shows in previous years.

Even in the face of such aggressive tactics being deployed against it, Shen Yun has expanded dramatically since 2007 and achieved remarkable success. During the 2023 season, Shen Yun performed in more than 150 cities across five continents, receiving rave reviews from fellow musicians, artists, lawmakers, government officials, and members of the Chinese diaspora.

This success was thanks in part to the many theater managers, owners, and government officials who have rebuffed Chinese diplomats’ threats, asserting the rights to free expression in a democratic society. There have been 43 incidents of such principled pushback, documented in 19 countries, including the United States, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Mexico, and the Netherlands.

“No matter who gives us pressure or threats, we will do what we think is the right thing. I am proud to have Shen Yun perform here,” said one representative from a theater in Arkansas who received a 13-page letter from the Chinese consulate.

Despite such encouraging responses, a more comprehensive and proactive response is needed, not only for Shen Yun’s sake but also to set a precedent that the CCP’s censorship of an artistic initiative of the Chinese diaspora will not be tolerated. The brief offers detailed recommendations to the U.S. government on how to achieve that goal.