Who hasn't seen the ads for Shen Yun? The show promises "the rebirth of 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation". But what's really behind this multimillion-dollar spectacular?
Five angry bullies in green uniforms jump around a girl who is lying in a prison cell. On their backs they wear the hammer and sickle symbol of the Chinese Communist Party – upside down.
They beat the girl mercilessly, then work on her with a torture device made of wooden bars and strings. Suddenly a man carrying a white case with a red cross enters. The guards tie the girl to a table and the “doctor” takes a knife and removes the girl's eyes. Then he wraps her head in a cloth with bright red stains.
The 3,500 people in the large auditorium of the Palais des Congrès in Paris gasp. The scene is completely different from a long series of mellow, Disney-like dancing sequences that depict Chinese imperial palaces and loosely follow stories from China's mythology, with dancers jumping over the stage in complex gymnastic choreography.
But no one in the Paris auditorium seems to have had any clue what it was all about.
“It was magical, all these colours, it moved very fast,” says Natalie, a member of the audience. Asked about the prison scene she says it was “pretty violent. I found it a bit disturbing in a show like that. I understand they want to express themselves, but I'm not sure if it is the right place or the right moment.”
Some members of the audience are whisked away into film booths and questioned by people who wear badges identifying them as “accredited journalist, New Tang Dynasty TV.” Their invariably positive comments will be posted on the Shen Yun website. Nobody refers to the violent scenes, but shower lavish praise on the dance routines.
The two or three disturbing scenes that puncture the otherwise peaceful stories performed by the Shen Yun (which literally means “Divine Grace”) dancers refer to a narrative that has nothing to do with ancient Chinese mythology.
"Evil cult" or meditation group?
The Shen Yun theater group is based in upstate New York at the worldwide center of the Falun Dafa meditation movement, the Falun Gong (“Practice of the Dharma Wheel”) – seen as an “evil cult” by the People's Republic of China, where it is banned since 1999 after its membership was reported to have surpassed that of the Chinese Communist Party.
Its leader and 'guru,' the secretive Li Hongzhi, is China's most wanted man and lives in exile in the US. Today, publicly practicing Falun Gong in China, or even referring to it on social media, is regarded as a crime by the authorities in Beijing.
Outside China, the movement is tolerated, even if it faces different scales of criticism: Cult Education's director Rick Ross likens the group to Scientology and calls founder Li Hongzhi "a dictator". Marie Drilhon of the French family defence group Unafdi worries about Falun Gong's reported habit of "encouraging its practitioners to meditate rather than eat pills when ill". France's official cult monitoring site Miviludes does not list the group at all. The US Congress sponsored 48 bills and resolutions supporting the group.
David Ownby, history professor at the University of Montreal and author of Falun Gong and the Future of China agrees with Drilhon, but calls the group a “new religious movement” that grew out of the Qigong movement that sprang up in China in the 1980s. “Its basic orientation is towards improving practitioners' physical and mental health through physical and spiritual exercises - the spiritual exercises consist of reading and re-reading the works of Li Hongzhi.”
But because of Beijing's ban exactly twenty years ago, the Falun Gong had to re-invent itself - abroad. Li Hongzhi, who had already left China in the mid-Nineties, internationalised the Falun Gong after the 1999 crackdown and, later on, set out to create Shen Yun.
Dragon Springs Buddhists, Inc
In 2001, two years after the start of Beijing's crackdown, the movement acquired a 1.59 km² piece of land at 140-150 Galley Hill Road in Cuddebackville, part of Deerpark Township in Orange County, upstate New York, where it is registered as "Dragon Springs Buddhists, Inc.", a “501 (c)(3)” non-profit organization under US tax law.
Within a decade, an imposing temple complex with pagodas rose up in Deerpark, surrounded by a fence and guarded by security personnel. Local inhabitants initially welcomed the Falun Gong, hoping the organisation would boost the township's taxes which could be used for the improvement of local facilities.
“They built a group of really beautiful temples,” Frank Ketcham, who owns an estate overlooking the Dragon Springs Buddhists area, told me.
“With the hopes of being able to bring followers from China that were in prison, and give them a place to stay.” In the first years, inhabitants were invited to “open house” events and shown the premises.
At the same time, copying the loose structure it had in China, the Falun Dafa fanned out into a worldwide network of local “Dafa” associations.
Dragon Springs Buddhists, Inc. in the town of Cuddebackville functions as its informal headquarters. Falun Gong adherents stress that they are not paid employees but work as volunteers.
Falun Gong spokesperson Zhang Erping (who points out that he's a volunteer as well) denies that there's any formal organization. “We don't have an office,” he says, “we don't have a hierarchy thing. We don't even have a church to go to,” stressing that “there is no organisation to join. I've never paid membership for anything.”
But facts speak differently.
The Internal Revenue Service lists 46 local "Dafa" chapters in the US alone, and many of their documents are available to the public via the website Foundation Center. They are all headed, with one or two exceptions, by Chinese-American Falun Gong adherents.
Most associations have the name of a city, followed by “Falun Dafa Association, Inc.” Abroad, the name doesn't always have an obvious reference to the Falun Gong, for instance in the case of the Paris-based “Association Lotus Sacré” or the "Asociación Puro Arte Humano" in Madrid. There are Falun Dafa associations in most big cities around the world – except in China.
They are in charge of organising local activities, including language courses and meditation groups.
And they sell tickets for the worldwide Shen Yun shows.
“Denouncing what is happening in China today”
"Some version of Shen Yun has been in the works for a long time," says David Ownby, author of Falun Gong and the Future of China. "It was something to keep their name in the limelight." To achieve, that, Li Hongzhi uses China's ancient traditions.
"One of the things they came to believe, quite strongly, was that they are the only group that really understands traditional China, that all of traditional China has been wiped out by the Communists.
"So when they do their Shen Yun dances, the idea is that they are putting on an exhibition of what traditional China is," he says. By doing so, Li Hongzhi turned the dance company into a double-edged sword: reviving China's past and, piecemeal, criticising its present regime by showing its perceived brutality against the Falun Gong.
The dance group is designed to “denounce what is happening in China today,” admits Alain Tong, president of the Falun Dafa Association France – the “disturbing” prison scene is a reference to China's reported “harvesting” of Falun Gong prisoners' organs – covered with a coating of a colorful blend of classical Chinese and western dance and music.
A "downright anti-China group"
Chinese embassies are reported to have put pressure on venue owners to prevent the performances. This year, performances in Madrid were cancelled, allegedly because China put pressure on the Royal Theater. Anti-Shen Yun protesters, who according to a report in the pro-Falun Gong newspaper Epoch Times, were organized by the Beijing-controlled Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance greeted theatre goers at the Lincoln Center in New York when the group performed there in January.
The Chinese embassy in Paris was not reachable for any comment on the Falun Gong and their Shen Yun performances, but Beijing's Washington embassy adds to other harsh Shen Yun criticism with its own page entitled “Facts about the so-called 'Shen Yun' Performance of the 'Falun Gong',” dating back to 2012, saying that the show is “an attempt to round up audiences” and “convince the public to endorse the event by way of sending letters of congratulations or sponsorship.”
According to Beijing, the group aims at “undermining China-US relations" and became a “downright anti-China group” that is designed to “increase its own influence and raise funds.”
Multi-million dollar dance extravaganza
To facilitate what today is a multi-million dollar dance extravaganza, Li Hongzhi set up the “Fei Tian ('Flying Sky') Academy of the Arts” in the Dragon Springs center in 2006 to prepare students to become “professional artists.” A phone call to the Academy reveals that "a fair percentage" of graduates go on to perform in the movement's flagship propaganda tool: Shen Yun Performing Arts, set up in the same year and, like Fei Tian, registered as a non-profit organisation.
Today, Shen Yun has six fully equipped dance troupes and orchestras of about eighty people each touring the globe. According to the 2019 “ticketfinder” at the Shen Yun website, in the first five months of 2019 alone, the six dance groups and orchestras performed in 601 theatres in 156 cities worldwide, each time with audiences of up to 3,500 people.
With an average ticket price of $80 per ticket, total box-office proceeds could amount to some $168 million over the five-month performing season. A substantial amount is used for the omnipresent advertising and promotion campaigns, rent for the theatre venues, plus food, lodging, travel and compensation for the performers and crew members.
A money trail pointing to Cuddebackville
Shows take place in some of the world's top venues, including the Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington DC, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Palais des Congrès in Paris and in Taiwan the troupe used the National Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall.
Tax documents of the “mother company” Shen Yun Performing Arts that date back to 2008 and which are accessible to the public shed some light on the show's finances. The organisation had total net assets of over $3 million in 2008. Ten years later, in 2017, this amount had grown to $95,7 million. Shen Yun seems to make between $10 and $20 million per year.
The 2017 “Return of Organisation Exempt from Income Tax” found at the website of Foundation Center for Shen Yun Performing Arts states $20,495,860 as “Program Revenue,” over $10 million as “Functional expenses” of which about half is listed under “other salaries and wages” – possibly money for the artists of the six orchestras-cum-dance troupes. It lists only 7 full-time staff members with a combined salary of $127,687 and almost $9 million in “contributions and grants.” In total, $19,864,001 is registered as “revenue less expenses” for 2017.
Separately registered, local Falun Dafa associations in the US (all with "non-profit" status) receive the money generated by Shen Yun ticket sales, pay for the “advertisement and promotion,” “occupancy” and “travel expenses” and in some cases “donate” a substantial part to Shen Yun Performing Arts in Cuddebackville.
For instance, the Southern USA Falun Dafa Association, based in Richmond, Texas, in 2016 states that “Shen Yun show tickets” generated $3,074,255. $1,553,180 was spent on “Advertising and Promotion,” and $853,049 was “donated” to Shen Yun Performing Arts in Cuddebackville. Other associations have published comparable figures.
"We are all Falun Gong practitioners"
Tax records for 2016 and 2017 examined by RFI show that an average of 55 percent of ticket revenue is spent on promotion, 10 to 16 percent on the rent of the venue. In all cases the “salaries” box is empty, but some 15 to 20 percent is mentioned under “Performance fee” or “artist fee”.
Falun Gong members are unwilling to talk about the inner workings of the movement and fiercely deny anything which could resemble a structure.
“There is not a direct connection at an organisational level,” according to Alain Tong, president of the French Falun Dafa Association in Paris, who says he has visited Dragon Springs Buddhists, Inc. “It's very nice from a cultural point of view. But is there a direct link? No,” admitting that “there is a relation because we are all Falun Gong practitioners.”
Apart from shared Falung Gong practices, the common denominator between Cuddebackville and the worldwide Falun Dafa associations is, clearly, Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Because of the lack of detail in the tax forms, the exact amount of money that flows from the Shen Yun shows back to the Dragon Springs complex in Cuddebackville is unclear as there are no tax returns available online for the organisation after 2005, when it reported net assets of over $20 million.
Discord in Deerpark
Massive, new investment plans in the Cuddebackville compound in upstate New York suggest that the group is doing well financially - to the chagrin of the local inhabitants.
Their initial enthusiasm faded quickly when it became clear that the newcomers didn't plan on paying any organisational taxes - Dragon Springs, Fei Tian and Shen Yun are all registered as "501 (c)(3) non-profits" and since they engage in "religious" and "educational" activities, they are exempt from paying tax.
"They took hundreds of acres of land off the tax roll," says neighbour Ketcham, "when that happens, the rest of us have to make up for the difference in taxes and it costs me more money every single day."
Newly planned developments at the Dragon Springs complex, proposed in Draft Environmental Impact Statements (DEIS), include a 400,000+ litre/day waste water treatment plant, a 920-seat music hall, for the Shen Yun performing arts center, a residence hall with 30 rooms and a parking garage.
“It's like putting a city in the middle of a country setting,” says E. Christopher Murray, the attorney representing the Deerpark inhabitants who complain about the building activities. “It changes the whole character of the area.”
On 10 April, during a Deerpark town hall meeting where inhabitants voiced their concerns, about fifty people spoke, the majority condemning Dragon Springs' new developments proposed in the DEIS.
"Plans will not support the performances of the world famous Shen Yun Dance company that is based at Dragon Springs," says Martin Wechsler, former director of programming for the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, who now lives in Deerpark, pointing out that a large theatre needs catering facilities which are not accounted for in the plans which "will have a significantly negative environmental impact on waste and traffic."
"Galley Hill Road is rural residential and was not constructed for a complex that is expected to host thousands upon thousands of visitors annually," remarks Ken Porada, who says he has been living in the area for thirty years.
"Who will monitor? The pollution is going to be horrendous," adds Carlon Nielsen, another resident.
"We in Deerpark don't buy the Dragon Springs' statement that they patronisingly stated will bring culture to our area. Deerpark Rural Alliance wants no more expansion," says Grace Woodard who represents the alliance.
“They are building illegally, not conforming to zoning laws, disregarding impact to the environment, destroying animal habitats, and pissing off their neighbors with noise, pollution, over-development,” summarises Dusanka Marusic, another resident contacted by RFI, while Maya van Rossum of the environmental watchdog Delaware Riverkeeper Network points at the fact that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation is partly to blame as it "has not been stepping up to enforce the law" and check Dragon Springs' overzealous building hunger.
"I am sorry to hear you today"
Some Falun Gong supporters who spoke during the 10 April Town Hall meeting expressed regret: "I am sorry for the trouble we bring every day" says Shirley Hu, a Falun Gong practitioner who said she was jailed in China, acknowledging the concerns raised, but adding that Dragon Springs "really saves a lot of people". Others are defiant. "Of course there are concerns for the rivers, but the environment is for the people too and people count a little more than trout," says Kaishin Yen, a teacher at Tian Fei Academy.
Gail Rachlin, a former Falun Gong spokesperson who lives in the region and works as a real estate agent stressed that "the Falun Dafa practice moving to our areas can only enhance the area," while Liam O'Neill, who served on the Deerpark town board and is known to be sympathetic to the movement points out that Dragon Springs helped Deerpark's "economic development".
Falun Gong “Mecca”
But critics of Dragon Springs are not convinced. They complain that more and more Falun Gong members are buying up property near the complex. Ketcham was told by one adherent that the place “was like a Mecca” to Falun Gong practitioners, “everybody is trying to move to it as close as they can." At the same time they criticise the closed nature of the complex itself.
“Not even some of the local practitioners have ever been inside,” says Ketcham, who describes how “outward looking” cameras have been mounted “on almost every tree” surrounding the complex. Initial “open houses” stopped after 2006, he says - the very year that the Tian Fei Academy and Shen Yun were officially registered.
Richard Aber, a contractor who entered Dragon Springs said he was "met at a gate with an AK47. What do they need guns for up there? Don't we have cops to protect them here?"
Asked why local residents are not allowed inside the Dragon Springs Buddhist compound, Falun Gong spokesperson Zhang Erping told RFI he thought that the area “will be open to the public when it is finished. You're not allowed to enter into a construction site, are you?”
But it is not sure if, and when, planned developments will be approved. According to Murray, the attorney, a final ruling may take years. Meanwhile, construction continues - unchecked. "Deerpark is going to be growing in the future, whether you like it or not," says Kaishin Yen.
Town of Deerpark Supervisor Gary Spears answered to an emailed request for an interview that he couldn't comment because the town is "currently involved in disputes with Dragon Springs."
But the culture lovers watching the colourful spectacle of the Shen Yun show in the Palais des Congrès here in Paris are far removed from the controversy in upstate New York.
In another scene that stands out during the otherwise fairytale-like performances set in ancient dynasties, the skyline of a modern city is suddenly submerged by a massive, red tsunami that transforms into the bearded face of Karl Marx, before it is wiped away by a shining light radiating from an image that vaguely resembles Li Hongzhi.
“It was against the government in China?” guesses Audrey, another theatre-goer in Paris.
“The message? They are against their politics? Do they just want to promote their culture, the way it was before? Anyway, to me it is just art,” she says, hurrying back to her place.