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The CCP’s Performing Arts Troupes in the U.S.

Chinascope has obtained a list of shows by Chinese performing-arts troupes in the U.S. between 2011 and 2019. Despite being incomplete, the list accounts for nearly 600 shows on U.S. soil. Additional data show that Beijing has been sponsoring performing-arts tours in the U.S. with political focus dating back to at least 2004.

The Chinese government has devoted significant resources to enabling these touring troupes to perform abroad, and the focus in sponsoring these shows is obvious, with a heavy political emphasis. These performing tours do not merely represent civil or cultural exchange; they are part of a substantial game played out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on foreign soil, aiming to build soft power influence and eliminate space for alternative voices.

One example concerns the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which hosted performances by at least 68 Beijing-sponsored groups during the period from 2011 to 2019. Moreover, in the single month of October 2005, the Kennedy Center saw shows by 13 different Beijing-sponsored groups, some of which put on multiple performances. Shows during this month included the National Ballet of China, the China National Acrobatic Group, the Beijing People’s Arts Theater and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra.

Other examples include New York City, where 41 such troupes visited during the period from 2011 to 2019. California, which has a high concentration of Chinese diaspora and where the Chinese consulate is influential, saw 220 visits during the same period. During the period from 2004 to 2006, the San Francisco Bay area specifically saw at least 24 visits by Beijing-sponsored performance troupes.

Productions have included shows by professional as well as children’s theater groups, martial arts demonstrations, film screenings, musical shows ranging from solo pianists to national-caliber orchestral groups, acrobatic and circus performances, professional dance troupes, ethnic performing arts groups, and more. Such touring paused between 2020 and 2022 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, resuming in 2023.

While nations of the free world see arts exchanges as a means of building friendship, sharing inspiration, and promoting cultural understanding, Beijing’s efforts clearly go beyond such noble objectives. The CCP has been employing art exchange as a weapon of influence in soft power competition. Through persistent, massive, inconspicuous-looking art exchange and touring theater operations, Beijing has aimed to gradually shape civil discourse and expand communist influence in the United States as well as in other countries across the globe.


The CCP’s “Culture Going Abroad” Strategy

While such performances appear innocuous when considered independently, they paint a clear picture when viewed collectively: the CCP is sending performance troupes to penetrate live entertainment markets in U.S. and across the world.

This is not empty talk – the CCP has long used tools of culture, including the performing arts, as means of influence and propaganda. As Mao Zedong once said, “Culture not only reflects but can also guide political fighting and economic struggle.” {1} It was in this vein that Mao launched the infamous Chinese Cultural Revolution, wielding such tools to take down his political rival Liu Shaoqi (the CCP’s second-most prominent leader at the time).

When the CCP uses culture and the arts as tools of influence, it does so differently depending on whether its target audience is within China’s borders or abroad. To achieve its goals domestically, the CCP develops “red songs” and “red arts,” aiming to indoctrinate the mainland-Chinese audience. This means, for example, injecting lyrics that praise the “mother-party” into popular Chinese folk music, using imagery to depict the iron fist of the proletariat striking at capitalists, or using ballet performances to tell stories about landlords exploiting peasants so as to stir up public hatred against the landlord class as a whole. Meanwhile, when operating internationally, the CCP performs soft power infiltration by exporting communist art under the banner of Chinese Culture.

The CCP first introduced this concept of “Culture Going Abroad” (文化走出去) in the mid-1990s, and the idea was officially adopted as part of the CCP’s core strategy at the Sixth Plenum of the 17th Party Congress on October 18, 2011. In detail, the adopted strategy consists of the following directives:

  1. Develop multi-channel, multi-format, and multi-level cultural exchanges.
  2. Innovate overseas propaganda methods and “enhance international discourse power.”
  3. Implement the “Culture Going Abroad” project.
  4. Strengthen the development of overseas Chinese Cultural Centers and Confucius Institutes.
  5. Establish mechanisms of cultural exchange.
  6. Create a mechanism of cultural exchange for youth in other countries and set up Chinese culture international promotion awards and international-level cultural awards. {2}

Many CCP researchers have justified or praised this strategy of soft power competition, emphasizing how culture plays a subtle yet pivotal role in shaping thoughts and “is the highest form of conquest.” {3} Beijing has implemented government policies and devoted tremendous efforts to making the “Culture Going Abroad” strategy a success. {4} {5} As a result, Chinese performing arts troupes, ranging from the Peking Opera to acrobatics groups, from national-level to small-time troupes, have frequented theaters in the U.S. as well as in other countries.

One example of praise for this strategy came from China News Service (CNS), the second-largest state news agency in China. CNS, which is under the purview of the CCP’s United Front Department, published an article in July of 2023 saying that the Anhui Huangmei Drama Theater had traveled to the U.S. as well as nearly 20 other countries, calling the group “a leading ‘Culture Going Abroad’ performance troupe.” The article also declared, “With the blessing of Anhui Province’s ‘Culture Going Abroad’ strategy, Huangmei opera (one of China’s five major opera genres) has not only appeared on the world stage but has also taken root in many countries and regions.” {6}


Logistics, Coordination, and Recruitment

The CCP is not just focusing on the biggest cities and states in the U.S.; it has been targeting the entire country. During the period from 2011 through 2019, we have records of Chinese performance troupes visiting at least 44 U.S. states (including Washington, DC). Given what we know about the CCP’s pattern of political maneuvering, and given that the data we’ve obtained are incomplete, we can extrapolate that Chinese troupes have likely visited all fifty states in the U.S., demonstrating an attempt at sub-state level cultural infiltration.

Beijing’s strategy for scheduling performances in every corner of the U.S. has been as follows: the national-level and highest-caliber troupes are sent to large cities and top venues, while small-time troupes, e.g. provincial- or municipal-level groups and more entertainment-natured performances, are sent to smaller cities. For example, the Jiangxi Art Troupe, invited by the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, went to Ames, Iowa; Shaanxi Provincial Art Troupe went to Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Acrobats of China troupe went to Butte, Montana.

Chinese Consulates and other diplomatic and soft-power outlets have played a role in promoting and facilitating performances by Chinese groups in the U.S. For example, one of the first post-COVID Chinese performances in the U.S. was the dance drama “Mulan” by the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) at the Kennedy Center between September 29th and October 1st of 2023. The Chinese Embassy in the United States gave a high-profile endorsement to the show. The Embassy even co-hosted a debut-day reception with the CAEG, and the Chinese Ambassador delivered remarks. According to the Kennedy Center’s website, CAEG is dedicated to spreading Chinese performing arts worldwide and “since its inception in 2009, has presented works at venues across the globe, including Lincoln Center in New York; The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and performance venues in Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany, Italy, and throughout Europe.” {7}

Beijing has also tried to recruit foreign performing arts venues to its cause, founding a “Silk Road International Theater Alliance” to rope in the world’s top-tier theaters. CCP news outlet People’s Daily recently reported that “in October 2016, under the guidance of the former Ministry of Culture, the Silk Road International Theatre Alliance was formed. As of today, the alliance has 155 member units from 45 countries and regions, including 83 overseas members and 72 domestic members. Since its establishment, the alliance has played an active role in information exchange, personnel exchanges, and collaboration in performance production among theatre members. It has fostered long-term, deepened cooperation in the field of performing arts with countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.” {8}


Why Do These Performances Matter?

Some living in free nations may wonder: why should we care about Beijing’s “Culture Going Abroad” campaign?

These Beijing-sponsored shows are of concern because the CCP is not a “normal” government. It attaches political, diplomatic, and ideological strings to art exchanges. One well-known example is the now-infamous Confucius Institute Initiative. Twenty years ago, when China began establishing Confucius Institutes at schools throughout the world, how many foresaw that such a language exchange program would be used as a trojan horse for propaganda? Since inception, the Confucius Institutes have been used to “tell the China story,” suppress dissidents, isolate Taiwan and Tibet, and dictate to Western universities what they can and cannot say about China.

However innocent they may appear on the surface, these Beijing-sponsored cultural exchanges and performances betray a definite clandestine agenda:

  1. The performances present the benevolence and beauty of the Chinese people and of Chinese culture, aiming to give the impression that the CCP too is benevolent and that it poses no harm to the world.
  2. The “red” propaganda embedded in these performances can subtly impact the Western audience, leading them to believe that the CCP has benefited the Chinese by bringing them a better life.
  3. Through cultural exchange, the CCP connects with potentially influential politicians as well as the cultural elite at the federal, state, and local levels; these individuals are the primary targets of the CCP’s united front work.
  4. Just as Beijing has engaged in worldwide dumping of “made-in-China” goods, lowering prices and driving out competition, the CCP aims to monopolize the worlds theaters. This means squeezing out any non-CCP voices – especially voices that have a different but true story to tell about the history of China or the CCP.

Of course, the individual performers comprising many such Chinese touring troupes may be unaware of the extent of the CCP’s ambitions. Nevertheless, the CCP is devoting significant resources to make such a grand infiltration effort possible. It has been covering costs, providing logistical and promotional support, and pulling strings to secure visas and performance venues as appropriate.

Let us not forget that the CCP’s goal is to propagate its ideology to every corner of the globe, either surreptitiously or by force. It follows the doctrine of “unrestricted war,” actively working to permeate all aspects of society, both physical and abstract. The realms of information, culture, ideology, public opinion, and normative morality are all battlegrounds in its fight to consolidate power.

The performances of the Chinese troupes can be downloaded here.

{1} The Collections of Mao Zedong, Third Volume, “On the Culture and Education Issue at the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region,” March 22, 1944.
{2} Chinascope, “Communist China’s Cultural Invasion of the World — Part I,” April 15, 2019.
{3} Ibid.
{4} Chinascope, “Communist China’s Cultural Invasion of the World — Part II,” April 19, 2019.
{5} Chinascope, “Communist China’s Cultural Invasion of the World — Part III,” April 18, 2019.
{6} China News Service, “Anhui Huangmei Opera Played Overseas to Renew Its Pre-Destined Relationships with Audience Overseas,” July 17, 2023.
{7} The Kennedy Center, “Image China: Dance Drama MULAN.”
{8} People’s Daily, “Civilizational Exchanges and Mutual Learning Promote Chinese Culture to Better Reach the World,” November 7, 2023.