Chinese officials denounce Falun Gong-backed Lunar New Year show

San Francisco, USA - Chinese government officials want audiences to boycott a touring musical show celebrating the Lunar New Year, arguing the production is little more than propaganda for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement which they consider a dangerous cult.

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 (€130) 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 United States and Canada, however, say the show is little more than another venue for the Falun Gong movement, which is banned in China, to air its views.

"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."

Falon Gong followers say they have been persecuted and tortured in China for their belief system, which combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and the ideas of its founder, a former government grain clerk named Li Hongzhi, with meditation and simple exercises to improve health and well being.

Organizers of the show 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, adding, however, that "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 said she was not surprised by the Chinese government's reaction and believes that official Chinese pressure was behind a decision to cancel a scheduled performance in South Korea earlier this month. She also said that some performers have backed out because they fear reprisal from Beijing.

The movement, which initially drew millions of followers throughout the 1990s, 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 view as a threat to social stability. Government critics say Chinese officials fear the movement challenges their political power.

Patrick Hunt, an archaeologist 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 (€93) 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."

The protest over the musical production is another volley in the ongoing public relations war between China and Falun Gong — a battle which the group is arguably losing, at least in the eyes of many Chinese Americans who view it as a cult.

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 are not 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.