As misinformation about the coronavirus spreads as quickly as the epidemic itself, Shen Yun now wants you to know that it actually has nothing to do with China.
It marks a sudden strategic shift for a company that has devoted its seemingly endless marketing budget to convince theatergoers around the world to see its elaborate performance of “genuine Chinese culture.” The New York-based dance group, which was founded in 2006 by expatriate Chinese Falun Gong practitioners, markets itself as a revival of Chinese history that, it says, has long been suppressed by the country’s Communist government. Its tag line, featured in many of its ubiquitous commercials, is “5,000 Years of Civilization Reborn.”
All of Shen Yun’s performers live and train in the United States, the company says, and it’s not even allowed to perform in China. (The Chinese government has accused Falun Gong of being an “anti-society cult.”) But that hasn’t stopped unfounded, racist rumors from circulating in the US claiming the group’s performers are infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus, which began in Wuhan, China.
Health officials in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Reno, and other cities have fielded calls from concerned citizens asking if it’s safe to attend a Shen Yun performance, the Daily Beast reported last week. The Daily Beast also obtained an email sent to the Salt Lake City health department peddling a conspiracy theory that members of the group showed symptoms of the virus upon returning to the US from a trip to South Korea. The department tweeted that the rumor was unfounded and performances pose no risk to attendees.
A Shen Yun emcee told the Epoch Times the Chinese government was behind the conspiracy theory as part of a “long line of attempts by the regime to sabotage Shen Yun.” The Epoch Times is an international newspaper with ties to the Falun Gong movement, and a history of supporting far-right politicians around the world, including US president Donald Trump. Last year, Facebook banned the publication from advertising on the platform after it bought $2 million worth of ads espousing conspiracy theories against Trump’s political opponents.
No matter who is responsible for stoking the baseless fears, Shen Yun is now distancing itself from the very idea of China. The first thing you see when you visit the company’s website is a message reading, “Proudly made in the USA, Cannot be seen China,” with a link to a press release assuring ticket buyers that the show is “in no way affected by coronavirus.”
“Performers have not been to China in years, have not had recent direct contact with people from China, and in fact Shen Yun is not even allowed to perform in China,” the press release says. Shen Yun adds its performers are blacklisted and banned from traveling to China as individuals as well.
In recent weeks, Shen Yun has aired TV commercials with a similar message. “Proudly made in New York, cannot be seen in China!” one boasted. Another ad aired nationally in the US during the Feb. 29 episode of Saturday Night Live.
The ad blitz is a reminder of the wide-reaching cultural effects of coronavirus, which has now killed more than 3,000 people and infected nearly 90,000 others in countries around the world. China’s box office has lost $215 million over the last few months as theaters remain closed to help prevent the spread of the virus. Several Hollywood film shoots, including the latest Mission: Impossible movie, have been postponed indefinitely.
Shen Yun did not respond to a request for comment.