The “anti-society cult” backing the Shen Yun dance troupe

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If you’ve taken the London Underground in the last month or so, you’ll likely have been so bombarded by the Shen Yun dance show adverts that you’ve not had time to take them in properly.

Their aggressive advertising campaign and the bubblegum pink swirls of the dancer’s outfits have been around the world, selling out venues from London to Australia, with a very well-publicised darkness hiding in plain sight. They are welcome on billboards and venues virtually everywhere but in communist China. Shen Yun was founded by the Falun Gong movement, which claims that Chinese intolerance of their belief system has led to torture and organ harvesting.

It’s staggering that a dance show which features idyllic scenes of fairies on clouds has such longstanding political ties. Falun Gong, a nonprofit entity, also operates the Epoch Times newspaper, which peddles far-right conspiracy theories to add to the web of political affiliations. It’s often wrongly assumed that Falun Gong is an ancient Chinese philosophy, although it was formed in the late 1990s.

Vocal opponents of the Chinese Communist Party, the organisation is described as an ultra-conservative group that rejects modern medicine, feminism and homosexuality. The Chinese government has reported that over 1,000 of its members have died because they refused medical interventions, but these reports are contentious because of the propaganda effort against Falun Gong.

Outside of the saccharine sheen of the Shen Yun shows, which promise: “A divinely-inspired performance of soul-stirring beauty,” death dominates Falun Gong’s history. A report by Amnesty International in 2000 expressed concern over “numerous reports alleging that detained followers of Falun Gong have been tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in detention.” In turn, the Chinese government have labelled the Falun Gong an “anti-society cult” that encourages its members to commit self-sacrificial suicide.

It makes the ubiquity of the Shen Yun shows even stranger. Their presence in the West seems to have encouraged more discussion about the persecution of the Falun Gong in China but very little about their core practices in their current New York base. The PR spin of the sentimental dance show extends to the Falun Gong editing Wikipedia articles relative to it, and they have a well-tracked internet presence. In addition to that, the advertising continues through the arm of the Epoch Times.

The public-facing Shen Yun side of the Falun Gong movement is not only a vehicle to spread their belief system but also a dizzying money maker. In 2019, Business Insider found Shen Yun made a revenue of $22.5million in 2016 alone. Viewers either leave spellbound by the live orchestra and dance performances or feel like they’ve just sat through a well-choreographed political bulletin. Like an anti-Communist Cirque du Soleil, Shen Yun continues to be an all-singing, all-dancing political minefield.

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