When European orchestras tour in Asia, their social media teams usually go into overdrive. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram fill up with photos of basses on buses and musicians enjoying local delicacies. This content faces homeward. Fans, funders, donors, and the competition see the international prestige of the group reflected in its dispatches from the road. 

Things looked a little different with the Vienna Philharmonic’s recent tour under conductor Franz Welser-Möst. The orchestra played two concerts in Hong Kong on October 24 and 25. But you’d only know that if you looked at Chinese sources. The performances were listed neither on the Philharmonic’s concert calendar nor on its social media accounts. Check the orchestra’s Facebook page, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Welser-Möst had been in Vienna, hanging out backstage. From here, the Hong Kong concerts seem like a mirage: Did they really happen, or were our brains playing tricks on us?

The Chinese media has been less reticent. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department of Hong Kong put out a sponsored article in the English-language South China Morning Post describing the Vienna Philharmonic’s performances as “signature events marking the 25th anniversary of the founding” of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). The article proudly notes that Hong Kong is the first stop on the orchestra’s Asian tour. The concerts will be broadcast live on television and on the radio, and streamed on the Leisure and Cultural Services Department website.

Four concerts in Taiwan, between October 27 and October 31, were also not publicly announced—unlike the November 3 and 4 performances in Seoul. According to a Vienna Philharmonic spokesperson, this decision was due to the current political situation. “We don’t need to shout it from the rooftops,” she said. That sounds like self-censorship, a way of avoiding uncertain political terrain. 

Usually, prestige is the main motivation for an orchestra tour. In this case it seems like the cash came first. The concerts were sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), one of the richest nonprofit organizations in the world. Granted a monopoly on horse racing and sports betting by the state, the HKJC makes yearly profits in the tens of billions of dollars. Considered “the government’s ATM,” it’s the largest single source of tax revenue in the Special Administrative Region.

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On February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Vienna Philharmonic board member Daniel Froschauer defended the orchestra’s decision to keep Valery Gergiev as its conductor for the Philharmonic’s upcoming U.S. tour, reasoning that culture should not become the plaything of politics. Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) frequently does exactly this. In 2019, the mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, rejected language in its sister-cities agreement with Beijing that consented to Chinese control of Tibet and Taiwan. In response, the CCP canceled the Prague Philharmonic’s scheduled tour of China. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Hřib called on “our friends around the world to think twice and be cautious before getting into bed with such an unreliable and potentially risky counterpart.” He added, “I encourage all of you not to surrender your values and personal integrity out of fear of blackmail and threats.” (In December 2019, Prague replaced Beijing with Taipei as its sister city.)

Instead of going to China, the Prague Philharmonic performed four concerts in Taiwan this October. One, of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, took place on October 10, Taiwan’s National Day. Ales Drenik, the artistic director of the Prague Philharmonic, said the performance should be considered his orchestra’s “best congratulations to Taiwan.”

Usually, prestige is the main motivation for an orchestra tour. In the case of the Vienna Philharmonic’s recent, secret tour of Hong Kong other factors seem to have been at play. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Performing in Taiwan is not a politically neutral act, but neither is performing on the Chinese mainland. The dictatorial CCP regime is quick to seize on cultural institutions as means to the end of political legitimacy. It is almost impossible to avoid being instrumentalized by the CCP. When the Vienna Philharmonic performs under government auspices, it confirms that Chinese is a global cultural superpower that wants for nothing, from the latest technology to the best orchestral concerts. It risks—as in this tour—being co-opted for official Party celebrations.

How should Western cultural and educational institutions engage with China? It’s a big question. In October, three German universities cut their ties with the Confucius Institute, which has been accused of using its status with the Chinese Ministry of Education to spread propaganda and exert improper influence on academic freedom. The British government is considering an outright ban on the Confucius Institute; in the U.S., only 30 remain open, down from a high of 120. 

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Still, orchestras and other cultural institutions have good reason to keep the dialogue open with China. Burning bridges and separating into camps won’t help. Intercultural dialogue helps us see our blind spots, reexamine our opinions, and tolerate ambiguity. Instead of mimicking geopolitical categories of friend and foe, it can paint a more complicated picture of the world with all its contrasts. After all, culture is much more than the sum of national interests. 

But there are also good reasons to be skeptical of engagement with China. What can intercultural dialogue—that is, in its true sense, away from the superficial clichés beloved of classical music in particular—actually accomplish in China, a country which is sealing itself off from the world, where censorship is getting ever more rigorous, where the government commits cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang, where artists are ordered to state their “love of the party,” and anyone who refuses to support the party line is morally discredited? These are especially relevant questions in Hong Kong, where anti-government protests were brutally suppressed two years ago.  

One thing is clear: Going to Hong Kong, raking in the cash, becoming part of a CCP anniversary, and then acting as if it never happened… That’s definitely the worst of all possible worlds. ¶

Update, 11/3/2022: The German version of this article was published on Friday, October 28. Today, the Vienna Philharmonic posted photos of its tour to Asia, in contrast to its previous plans and communications.

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Hartmut Welscher

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.