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China Denies Visas to U.S. College Musicians

Orchestras do not receive the same media scrutiny as, say, the NBA, and every act of repression that is not met with full-scale exposure strengthens China’s soft power.


- October 30th, 2019
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The NBA isn’t the only American institution walking on eggshells when it comes to the agenda of the People’s Republic of China. Last week, Rochester-based WHAM-TV reported that three South Korean students from the Eastman School of Music were prohibited from travelling to China with the school’s touring orchestra, the Eastman Philharmonia.

In 2016, Beijing began canceling tours of Korean artists to China, including Korean pop (K-pop) artists and classical musicians, in economic retaliation for South Korea’s involvement with the United States to begin constructing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. The deployment of the anti-missile battery was in reaction to growing concerns of North Korea’s missile threat, but China viewed it as an act of nuclear deterrence targeting them.

Last week, China and South Korea resumed vice-ministerial strategic defense talks, which for five years had ceased because of the THAAD installation. These talks, however, did not end suspensions of cultural exchanges between the two countries, including educational opportunities for college music students.

In a letter to Eastman faculty members, Dean Jamal Rossi explained that the repeated efforts to obtain visas for the South Korean musicians failed because of the THAAD-related artist ban, despite the involvement of the U.S. Congress and the Chinese Consulate in New York City. Rossi initially announced the tour would proceed without the three South Korean student performers, drawing severe criticism from the artistic community. Days later he reversed his decision and postponed the tour.

The New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) have also had to combat China’s censorship of South Korean artists.

The DSO in 2017 was preparing for its first international Asian tour in 16 years when China denied permission to seven South Korean members of the ensemble to travel into the country. Willing to cancel the Chinese leg of the tour unless the entire orchestra could perform, music director Leonard Slatkin ultimately secured visas for its South Korean members after Beijing capitulated. The 87-piece orchestra performed 11 concerts in China and Japan, a cultural exchange commemorating the Detroit Symphony’s first visit to China, fortunately not tainted by the politicized foreign relations that art and music are championed to transcend.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) faced a similar predicament with the USSR near the end of the Cold War. The orchestra planned performances in Moscow and Leningrad during its 1987 European tour, but the Soviet Union denied visas to nine former Soviet orchestra members. Unwilling to accept the forced personnel modifications, BSO President John Gidwitz threatened to cancel appearances in the USSR, and the USSR backed down.

After an 11-year hiatus, an American orchestra appeared in the Soviet Union, and the result was momentous. The unanticipated energy of the Soviet audience prompted five encores. BSO violinist Gregory Kuperstein, one of the former Soviet citizens who was able to perform on the tour, recalled that the Baltimore Symphony “could’ve hired European subs or brought extra players, but it would create a firestorm of condemnation within the orchestra and in the community.”

In addition to performing highly successful concerts, Kuperstein and his American-born wife were able to travel to his hometown in Odessa to visit his family following the tour, likely the first visit a Soviet émigré was permitted to take behind the Iron Curtain to Odessa.

Several members of the student body at the Eastman School of Music as well as alumni urged Dean Rossi, the school’s administration, and members of the Eastman Philharmonia to reconsider the initial decision to proceed with the tour. What was supposed to be the educational opportunity of a lifetime had turned into forced acceptance of the censorship that the PRC exports. “It is very troubling that such an act of blatant discrimination was not met with condemnation and refusal to go under the circumstances,” Kuperstein remarked on the Philharmonia’s situation prior to the trip cancellation. “Would the Dean behave the same way if the host country refused visas for Jewish or Israeli students?”

While Rossi reversed course on his decision, we should not rest on our laurels. There is almost no documentation of the known discrimination faced by South Korean orchestral players in online records, and as the Washington Post is pleased to remind us, “democracy dies in darkness.” These orchestras do not receive the same media scrutiny as, say, the NBA, and every act of repression that is not met with full-scale exposure strengthens China’s soft power.

Bearing in mind the immense preparation that has already been invested in the tour, perhaps Dean Rossi should reroute the Eastman Philharmonia to South Korea instead.

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