Hitting the Right Note in China: The Arts and Censorship

Monday, January 23, 2012

Given China's demonstrated thirst for Western classical music -- witnessed in its dozens of new concert halls and millions of kids studying the piano -- it's no surprise that major American arts organizations are clamoring to get a toehold there. The New York Philharmonic has signed a deal to work with the Shanghai Symphony; the Philadelphia Orchestra is partnering with Beijing's National Arts Center; and Lincoln Center is providing consulting services to a performing arts center in Tianjin.

But along with opportunities come challenges in working with a government that has been accused of repressive policies. Do Western organizations have an obligation to speak out against censorship and government controls? Or can such organizations help spread democratic values by doing work there?

Joining host Naomi Lewin to discuss these issues are three guests: Phelim Kine, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch; Robin Pogrebin, an arts reporter at the New York Times; and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine and author of the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Weigh in: What are the obligations of Western arts organizations doing work in China? Please leave your comments below.

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Comments [7]


This week while New York was celebrating Chinese New Year with many concert performers and guests from China, I couldn’t help but think of the harsh contrast between these festivities and the heart-breaking plight of artists, musicians and writers, who are currently imprisoned in China. These brave people have been largely imprisoned, and in many cases tortured, because of their yearning for artistic freedom and greater human rights in China. In light of this situation, I believe that Western arts organizations should either protest China's repressive actions or refrain from collaborating with the Chinese government until it frees its imprisoned citizens, such as the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo , who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. If these organizations truly want to influence greater democratic reforms and the right of artists to express themselves freely, then
they should not collaborate with the very institution that is silencing the bravest artists in their plea for artistic freedom – the corrupt Chinese government and its various ministries. Rather, I believe that Western arts institu-
tions should organize concerts in honor of some of China’s greatest artistic individuals – the ones that are currently silenced in dismal prison cells, with little hope of realizing their artistic visions in the future.

Jan. 30 2012 12:05 AM

Things will definitely change in time. I do not think opening up too fast is good for this nation, as we can already see there are still a lot of things in the "free world" (whatever that means) that they're still coping with. In other words, they're in many ways not ready. If you look back at history, there are certainly a lot of improvements along the way --- the people who deny this are either blinded by their own preconception or plain ignorant. You simply cannot ask a nation completely different from your country to catch up with your pace right away, given that it's been closed up for so long --- just like you can't ask your toddler to learn to run overnight. Given time, I trust that things will change, and in the mean time, people from foreign countries should work more with them, giving inputs on how things are done outside (without being condescending). And also, do not forget that there are lots of students who studied overseas and will go back to their country at one point, these people are the ones we can count on to slowly change the general situation over there.

Jan. 26 2012 11:02 PM
George Jochnowitz from New York

Classical music--and all music--is good for democracy. Chairman Mao banned all music except for eight revolutionary operas. Ayatollah Khomeini benned almost all music in Iran. Plato, the grandfather of totalitarianism, said he would ban the flute and all instruments capable of switching modes.
China's current opening to classical music is a step in the right direction. As an old Chinese proverb says, "Bu pa man; jiu pa zhan" (Don't fear slow progress; just fear no progress).

Jan. 26 2012 05:00 PM

The alternative between speak out against oppression and repression and doing business in China in order to (im)plant democracy is so embarrassingly self-suppressive both historically and philosophically that I could not believe it has been raised by my favorite radio. Doing business with China after Tiananmen Square did bring NO democracy whatsoever to this country and Americans should finally get used to it. Democracy is a different game of Modernity and does not necessarily go together with free market. Doing business just legitimates a power that is much more dangerous as it is lofty and scornful to the West in its elaborately cunning manner; speaking out in an audible way might gradually break up the spell of conformism in which the majority of Chinese are immersed in such a deplorable way, despite the sacrifice of so many known and unknown dissidents. I know that the fact that I taught in Beijing for two years does not prove anything but it helps to lose the illusions that brought me there.

Jan. 25 2012 06:37 PM
Frank from Brooklyn

Fascinating stuff, Pete. I remember when Carnegie Hall did a China Festival a couple years ago. There was lots of great traditional Chinese classical and folk music as well as Western crossover styles and I'm sure they did their research. But what you didn't see were underground Chinese rock groups that speak out against the government, outsider artists, filmmakers or people from Tibet (I think), let alone the likes of Ai Weiwei.

The fact that arts groups have turned it back on you - as if you were looking for trouble by portraying that part of the world - is telling.

Jan. 24 2012 10:46 PM
Pete from New York

It is a fascinating debate and in the long run I'm optimistic, however I think an important point is missed in this discussion and that is self-censorship:

In fact, while the panel talk about it being in the interests of organizations to do 'due diligence' on human rights, I do not believe this is a reality when it comes to arts organizations.
For example; I am a composer and have several works which are concerned with Tibetan culture, including an opera which was recently shown as work-in-progress in New York - the fact that the piece was shown is testimony to the integrity of its producers, however, it was educational to discover just how many arts organizations expressed concern that it would have a detrimental effect on their own developing relationship with China.

When the representatives of a large New York based arts organization said to me recently 'aren't you concerned you'll become known as "that Tibet composer"?' what I understood was that they were expressing their own concerns. This is an experience I have had several times.

The results of such thinking are not immediately obvious - nonetheless, when choosing what gets made, what gets presented and what doesn't it makes life so much easier when you choose the thing that doesn't make waves - very few people will notice what doesn't reach our stages, concert halls and/or galleries. and no-one who represents a major arts organization will talk about or consider that they are implementing a political agenda for financial reasons that have implications for freedom of expression. This is why we ask politicians to declare their interests, but in arts there is no freedom of expression oversight.

In my own professional dealings I have found, so far without exception, those who have financial/professional relationships with China have a reticence about approaching a work that they feel could upset a lucrative relationship (and in most cases it is big money and not high artistic ideals that drive the deals). When really pushed on the subject I have heard these choices referred to as 'diplomacy'. It is not diplomacy.

Ultimately, where this form of self-censorship is engaged, the reverse of the 'positive effects' talked about on the show actually happen - I spoke recently with a charity that facilitates dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese at both political and grassroots level, their response was that, when our arts organizations self-censor in this way they become the enablers of the darker forces of repressive government.

There are plenty of people in China at all levels, including government, who would love to see greater openness, but when those who hold on to a more oppressive form of authority see that fear of offending them can determine how and what gets programmed, those forces are emboldened, empowered and reenforced, sometimes at the cost of a voice or profile for oppressed minorities, perhaps even at the cost of great art.

Jan. 24 2012 07:16 PM
Bernie from UWS

The Philadelphia Orchestra traveled there in the 1970s and some would say helped bring Western culture at a pivotal moment before the end of the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, companies like Yahoo have been complicit in China's authoritarian agenda, agreeing to block certain kinds of content. Arts orgs need to make sure they're not following the latter approach when working there. It's their moral obligation.

Jan. 24 2012 06:32 AM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

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