China bans South Koreans in US student orchestra

China bans South Koreans in US student orchestra


norman lebrecht

October 25, 2019

Distressing campus news.

The Eastman Philharmonia is due to tour eight cities in China over 12 days in December. But not the whole orchestra. Three students from South Korea have been denied visas.

‘”We were suddenly caught right in the middle of this. It was really a challenging decision to make,’ said Jamal Rossi, Dean of the Eastman School of Music. ‘Do we discontinue the tour without the valued colleagues or do we still go forward?’

He decided to go ahead.


Was that the right decision?

Does it not show a lack of solidarity and a willingness to buckle to political pressure? Are China ties more valuable than Korean students? This opens a huge can of worms for US universities.

UPDATE: Eastman Dean explains


  • Allen says:

    Boo! Shame on Eastman for caving in to the pressures of communist China. That is no way to represent America abroad.

    • anonymous lemur says:

      I agree. Bombing the crap out of countries that tell the US “no” is a much better representation what America really is.

      Obviously, this is sarcasm, but many readers here would probably support this, so this is a collective f– you in advance.

  • Patrick says:

    Wrong decision. Weak leadership. Change the itinerary.

  • sam says:

    It’s far too easy to make China the boogey man, and given its history, likely has some basis, but here, by any minimal standard of journalism, the original news article fails, it provides zero supporting detail, interviews no one from China or South Korea, just makes unsubstantiated claims based on the barest of facts that demand the minimum of follow-up.

    If the reporter actually did her job, she could actually have an interesting story here:

    Why has China been banning South Koreans since 2016?

    Why has an American music school been capitulating to the Chinese since 2016? (It’s one thing to say, the first year, we already bought the plane tickets and reserved the hotels and the venue, so we gotta go, but it’s a totally different thing by 2019, that we know China is going to ban our South Korean students, but we’ll go anyway?)

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It was definitely the wrong decision. If the autocratic China takes over from USA the role of the world’s dominant super power position as predicted, we will all be profoundly affected by this development. In spite of my reservations about the USA culturally & socially, its higher values of individual liberty, justice and democracy are still worth fighting for. What a shame if we were to capitulate to tyrants & bullies.

  • Victoria says:

    China banning South Koreans? Just came across a performance news:

    Myung-whun Chung & China NCPA Orchestra
    NCPA, Beijing, October 25, 2019

    CHEN Qigang: Itinéraire d’une illusion, for symphony orchestra

    Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
    Pianist: Vadym Kholodenko

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (Eroica)


    In 1987, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under David Zinman went on a European tour. It planned to visit the Soviet Union, the first American orchestra in 12 years to do so. It was already time of Gorbachev’s “perestroika”. Nevertheless, the Soviets did not want to issue visas to me and a few others, former Soviet citizens. The management of the BSO said that either everybody goes, or the BSO cancels concerts in the USSR. They cave.

    • Christina says:

      Dear Mr. Kuperstein,
      I am a former Eastman student and wish the school had acted as the BSO management did for this tour. I am trying to learn more about the BSO’s situation in 1987 and cannot find any resources on the internet. Are there any news articles or documents that you can share from this incident?

      Thank you for your help.
      Christina (

  • Anon says:

    From Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Korea’:

    South Korean people live on a lonely island
    Lost in the middle of a Chinese sea
    South Korean people long for another island
    One where they know they would like to be
    Lockheed THAAD may call you
    Any night, any day
    In your heart you’ll hear it call you
    Come away, come away
    Lockheed THAAD… Lockheed THAAD… Lockheed THAAD

  • Karl says:

    China calls the shots, because they have the most economic power. The NBA caved when one of their executives tweeted support for democracy.

  • MacroV says:

    At first I wanted to think of this in the way that George Szell once responded when the Cleveland Orchestra was touring the South and the promoters didn’t its black member to play. Szell said he plays or the orchestra doesn’t. Which was the only thing he could do.

    While I have no love lost for the Chinese government, it has a right to decide to whom it issues visas, as does any government. If, as a matter of its bilateral relations with South Korea, it doesn’t issue visas to Korean citizens in such situations, and Eastman knew this going in, then it should have decided up-front whether or not it would go if the musicians were denied.

  • Larry W says:

    The Dean asked the group if they should go and asked the three South Koreans (not 2) if it was OK if they didn’t. Neither question was appropriate and showed a lack of leadership by passing the buck. College students don’t always have broad perspectives (the vote was 2-1), and the South Korean students would understandably want to avoid controversy. What if the excluded students had been another minority singled out for discrimination? Orchestra means “together.” You go together or you don’t go. In this case, Eastman failed in its educational mission.

    • ESM-Alum says:

      I think it was entirely appropriate for Rossi to consult the S Korean students. Given current US-China tensions, ALL East Asians and East Asian diaspora will be affected in some way (let’s be honest; you can’t tell us apart). So it was good on Rossi to give the directly-affected a voice, although it’s hard to say whether he would have actually considered their opinions when making his decision.

      China’s decision to deny these students visas stems from a 2016 nationwide ban on S Korean businesses and performers due to its objection of the S Korean military adopting THAAD technology from the US, which could be used to spy on China. These kids are no exception to the rule. It would be a different story if this decision was one of racial or ethnic discrimination, but it is not.

      As for the students’ unanimous decision that the tour should continue, perhaps they cared enough for their colleagues that they would want the tour to happen even without them? Collectivist thinking – the concept of sacrifices – is common in East Asian cultures – certainly more common than individualist thinking in many cases. I say this as an Asian person. You need to quit this infantilizing notion that they lack “broad perspectives” on basis of their age, just because what they see might be different from what you see. They made their decision; end of story.

      Americans seem to finally be grasping the concept of making compromises when dealing with other nations.

      • Larry W says:

        “You need to quit this infantilizing notion that they lack ‘broad perspectives’ on basis of their age, just because what they see might be different from what you see.”

        Sorry, but you have no understanding of my meaning. Limited perspective is not age but experience based. You may not share the same level of experience as a more mature person.

        • ESM-Alum says:

          To me, South Koreans have a more informed, developed perspective on an issue between South Korea and China than you do as an American.

  • B. smith says:

    Disgusted. Absolutely wrong decision. Another instance of a US group failing to stand for basic American values.

  • William says:

    Don’t go!!!

  • Ben says:

    These American exceptionalism comments crack me up; why? because:

    -NSA mass Illegal (according to the constitution) spying on its citizens.

    -Endless Wars in the Middle East that are basically just a way to transfer taxpayer money to the coffers of lockheed martin and the like.

    -Money as political speech; almost all Politicians are bought. Last few Pres. elections costed billions.

    -Occupy Wall street broken up and smashed in a coordinated effort around the US.

    -The Corporate media (something like 90+% of the News companies in America are owned by 5 large corporate conglomerates).

    -You could go on and on.

    My point… while it may be true that the US, domestically speaking, has more rights for its citizens than China, lets not kid ourselves and speak from the moral high ground because domestically we are well on our way to being just as autocratic as china is internally. On a side note… lets also be careful to not bomb the shit out of another country again because we want to spread above said “values” to them.

    We have become a deeply corrupted people and society with “good values” existing increasingly only in name.

    -From an American

  • This all began when China started banning K-Pop musicians from performing live. It then extended to artists from the U.S, including orchestra members. The Detroit Symphony went there two and a half years ago, but were told that we could not bring our seven Korean musicians. I could not allow that and said that we would not come to China under those conditions. Delicate negotiations took place and the full orchestral compliment was accepted. Other orchestras have found themselves in similar situations and each has dealt with it in their own way.

    I think it is a bit more complicated for an educational institution, especially one with a number of Chinese students. It is certainly possible that the government could prohibit those young musicians from getting great musical training and that would be even sadder. Tough decision for the school and I do not envy the position they were put in.

    • Karl says:

      Maybe it’s time to start playing hardball and ban Chinese students from attending the institutions?

      • Patrick says:

        God, no! We need the violinists and pianists….

      • Donna says:

        Cautious parents from China may stop sending their kids here to study regardless. (Spies will continue : )

        After Boston Marathon bombing Lu Lingzu and several CA students killed by degenerates since, I’d reconsider America.

      • Lou says:

        Excellent idea! What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander. Actually, I wish all products made in China could be banned, for shoddy workmanship.

    • Larry W says:

      Lenny, you represent the highest artistic and personal standards in the business. You learned that from exceptional parents, teachers, and mentors. That foundation contributed to your position regarding the Detroit tour to China. Would that you impart such wisdom when you conduct the Eastman Philharmonia in two weeks.

      With the new Tianjin Juilliard School, Chinese students can get great musical training at home, but they will always be welcome in our country.

    • Actually, it all began when the USA installed the THAAD high altitude missile system in South Korean to deal with the North Korean nuclear missile threat. North Korea hardly reacted, but China felt THAAD weakened the deterrent effect of China’s nuclear missiles. They thus declared an unofficial boycott of South Korean products and cultural exchanges. This has caused some serious harm to the South Korean economy. Sad to see three college students caught in this mess.

    • Pauker says:

      Thank you, Maestro…..

  • Mr. Knowitall says:

    The USA routinely does the same thing: denying visas to just some members of ensembles that intend to tour the country. The justifications, and pattern, of these denials remains a mystery.

  • Peter says:

    Unbelievable! I guess nothing stands in the way of the all mighty dollar! This Dean is nothing more than an amateur. Shame on you sir!

  • Frank G. Kirchgessner says:

    Shame on the Eastman. What ever happened to united we stand, united we fall.”

  • ESM-Alum says:

    American alum of Chinese descent weighing in here.

    Most people in this thread seem pretty intent on bashing China, and this article (and US media in general) isn’t helping. With the recent dramas concerning Blizzard and the NBA, being anti-China is vogue again, so I thought I’d offer up another view. Americans are pretty ignorant about anything that happens outside of their country, and react badly when they don’t get their way, and that’s a pretty deadly combination.

    South Korea is home to 25 US military bases and ~28,000 American soldiers. Since the end of the Korean War, the country has served as a buffer in the Far East primarily against China, Russia, and North Korea. In 2016, South Korea signed an agreement with the US to adopt THAAD technology as a countermeasure against North Korean missile testing. Unfortunately, THAAD technology is American technology, and the Chinese gov is wary that it can be used by the US/S Korean militaries to spy on China. South Korea adopted THAAD despite China’s objections, so China responded with an ongoing nationwide ban on South Korean exports – which includes artists and entertainers – as well as Chinese tourism to South Korea.

    The refusal to grant visas for three of the orchestra members is a result of this ongoing drama. Whether you think singling out three musicians is necessary is irrelevant; the decision falls in line with current Chinese gov policy regarding South Korea, its businesses, and its people.

    It is not Rossi’s place to challenge the Chinese gov’s decision. He’s a university dean, not a congressman. He COULD cancel the tour, but I imagine he sees music as a form of diplomacy, and if that’s the case he SHOULD concede to China’s conditions. A tour sans three members is better than no tour at all. Alternatively, you COULD smuggle them into China, but (hopefully) you agree that’s dumb.

    And before you hit me with idealized cliches about what role you think music should serve on this planet, the three S Korean students urged the tour to continue without them.

    • Peter Chun says:

      Fair points: This is a no-win situation for Eastman. However, Rossi’s statement is disingenuous at best, and cowardly at worst. Plus, Eastman chose NOT to see it as a no-win situation and decided to go ahead, not realizing that whatever message they think they are delivering has been diminished by their acquiescence.

    • Ayelet HaShachar Birulin says:

      Your points are well taken. However, there is no reason for The orchestra to go then. Everyone goes or everyone stays. I am Israeli and I would feel the same way if our government banned Arab students, which they wouldn’t unless they were on a wanted terrorist list, which wouldn’t happen. In fact, if it was Israel and this happened, it would be all over the international media, and orchestra for sure wouldn’t go. Keep the politics out of the tour. Period.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It warrants remembering that in 1952 when the Toronto Symphony was going to make the short trip to Detroit for a concert, the visa applications for 6 members were rejected by the US government on a “best interests of the country” basis. The TSO decided to play the concert with replacement musicians. Permanent replacements by the way – the 6 were out of a job, not just out of a tour. One was Steven Staryk (not yet the “King of Concertmasters”) who recounts the story in his book Fiddling With Life. The irony is that Staryk had been commuting to the US constantly at the time for lessons with Oscar Shumsky.

  • Warren Kessler says:

    This is a pathetic decision and clearly lacks probity. What a terrible example to set for students in a setting of higher learning. Eastman has lowered the bar to depths rarely reached before

  • William says:

    What does this show? It shows us that Jamal Rossi, Dean of the Eastman School of Music, likes to kiss Mainland Chinese ass so he can put the filthy Mainland Chinese Yuan he received from the Communist Party Officials into his pockets.

  • Steph says:

    Norman Lebrecht, why did you choose not to mention that Jamal Rossi asked students to vote, and the students voted to go?

  • Robert Freeman says:

    This was a difficult decision for Dean Rossi to have to make, but in my judgment he made the right call. I don’t think it an appropriate role for a great American music school to try to make a
    stand against the Chinese government!

    • Peter Chun says:

      At any rate, Dean Rossi’s statement is disingenuous…

    • Larry W says:

      It is totally appropriate for a great American music school to take a stand for its students.

    • Ayelet HaShachar Birulin says:

      I think Maestro Slatkin had a more nuanced approach that preserved the integrity of the ensemble and three tuition paying students who are being punished in the name of “musical ambassadorship.”

  • Michael Paré says:

    Some may recall that the tables were turned when in 1951 the US refused visas to six members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a concert in Detroit. Shamefully the TSO replaced the musicians (who included the violinist Steven Staryk) for the tour and fired them the following year. The so-called “Symphony Six” received no support from either its local union or the parent AFM. Faced with a similar ban on some of its musicians, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cancelled its entire tour.

    • Peter Chun says:

      “Concertmaster” Steven Staryk…

      • Michael Paré says:

        Well yes, but he was not the TSO concertmaster at the time as, at the age of 19, he was the youngest musician in the orchestra. He did return as concertmaster of the TSO in the 1980s after having held the position in a number of distinguished orchestras.

  • Peter Chun says:

    Unbelievable… #EastmanSchoolOfMusic… #ShameOnYou… #Kowtowing to #China, just like the #NBA & #LeBron #Hypocrisy

    Yes, the three students from Korea all encouraged the group to go, but that they’re still trying to claim high moral ground is like speaking out of both sides of the mouth:

    “In an email to students, Dean Rossi said “music transcends differences” and unifies. It’s a message they will now take directly to the Chinese people.”

    …That is, after the differences have been eliminated… It’s not genuine nor truthful of them to say “music transcends differences and unifies,” when their GROUP represents DIS-unity, and is reflecting the wishes of a government that was PROMOTING differences.


  • Robert J says:

    Imagine say if South Africa during apartheid banned black artists from entering the country And if Eastman Philharmonia said “well, okay we’ll just send non-Black performers.” I am extremely disturbed by a growing trend of American institutions bending over for a racist authoritarian regimes like the Chinese Communist Party. This is a sad moment for humanity

  • Clarence Firth says:

    This was related to a 2016 decision by the US to deploy a missile defense system in South Korea, and China responded by blocking South Korean artists from performing in China.  This is old news – boycotts of anything Korean have been taking place in China for several years now even though Korean pop stars are otherwise popular.  The boycott is very popular within China – in a poll 80% favored it. Militarily the Chinese feel this is a ruse so that the US can spy on China’s military and its missile system.

    I don’t blame China one bit. The US thinks it can bully the rest of the world.

  • Shawn says:

    “A source familiar with the matter in Seoul, however, said on Thursday what the American university claimed has so far turned out to be untrue. According to the source, none of the students from the band or tour organizers have applied for visas yet.”