Organisers behind a Chinese cultural show with an association with Falun Gong suspect that Chinese diplomats are pressuring public schools in New South Wales not to attend.

Shen Yun Performing Arts will today play a school matinee as part of the end of its two week run at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, before moving on to other capital cities. Based in New York, the show is a worldwide touring music and dance show which celebrates 5000 years of Chinese culture.

But Ruby Wong from Universal Cultural Communications, the group behind the show, says that a number of schools have pulled out of today’s matinee, with one cancelling 160 tickets just two days before the show. She believes that the Sydney Chinese consulate have been in contact with the schools and have asked them not to attend.

“We have heard of cases where schools may have been contacted by the Chinese consulate to discourage them from seeing the show,” Wong told Crikey. “One school teacher told us that she was warned that if they [attend the performance] .. a [future] visa to China could be affected or denied. They were told that they better check with the Chinese consulate if they should see Shen Yun or not.”

At least three public schools had pulled out or threatened to pull out, said Wong, without making the reasons behind the cancellations clear. She said that, when contacted by Universal Cultural Communications, one of the school’s principals said they wanted to “maintain a good relationship with China”. Another school continually asked if they were speaking to the Consulate when on the phone to a representative of the show, Wong said.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, was formed in the 1990s and relies on meditation and exercise to promote spiritual awakening. It has been banned in China since 1999. The Chinese government claims Falun Gong is an anti-China political group and a destructive cult.

NSW Greens MLC Ian Cohen told Crikey that he has been the subject of pressure from the Chinese consulate about Falun Gong in the past. In 2006, the Consulate General sent out letters to politicians urging them not to attend a show called Chinese New Year Spectacular because it was a “propaganda tool” of Falun Gong.

“It really does fly in the face of proper process in terms of how diplomatic officials should be acting,” Cohen told Crikey. “I told them what I thought of them (in 2006) and I was very strident of my condemnation of that activity. They’ve learnt not to contact me but they certainly haven’t learnt about appropriately conducting diplomatic matters.”

Cohen also raised issues with schools being contacted by the Chinese consulate calling it a “coercive pressure”.

“It’s attacking very vulnerable people in our society, young people,” he said. “They have a future and they may want dream about going to a place like China.”

Cohen called for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to respond to the questions, a move supported by NSW Family First MLC Dr Gordon Moyes:

“There is no question; if a foreign government interferes in religious or education practices of Australian citizens, they are acting illegally.”

Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the newly formed Confucius Institute,  funded by the Chinese government and the NSW Department of Education.

According to the report, the institute will provide teachers from China to help oversee “Confucius classrooms” for more than 3000 students in seven schools from the second half of the 2011. Senior Department of Education figures conceded that the discussion of sensitive topics such as Falun Gong, Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square in these classes could cause problems.

When contacted by Crikey, the principals of the schools declined to comment about Shen Yun. Crikey was told to contact the NSW Department of Education, who did not supply a comment before deadline.

DFAT did not supply a comment to Crikey before deadline. All calls to the Sydney Chinese Consulate went unanswered.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education has told Crikey that the concerned schools had not been contacted by the Chinese Consulate about Shen Yun.

“Schools make decisions about attending performances using a number of Departmental policies and school priorities,” he said.

An email had been sent out to Chinese language teachers by the department prior to the show, the spokesperson said, but this simply contained information about the show and did not contain any directive from the department.