Cathy Barbash on China

I first went to China 19 years ago, as orchestra manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the 20th anniversary of the orchestra’s historic first, post ping-pong diplomacy tour, and just four years after the demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square. Whether for business or cultural purposes, foreigners still came only when invited, and itineraries were closely controlled. It was my background as a comparative government major that enabled me to see that the “Reform and Opening Up” launched by Deng Xiaoping was finally reaching the cultural sector.

When the Philadelphia Orchestra first visited China in 1973, culture was still purely a tool of the state. Once it arrived in Beijing, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government covered all expenses. By 1993, the PRC’s priorities were shifting: the Ministry of Culture was required to find sponsors to help alleviate the costs of presenting the orchestra in Beijing and Shanghai. Without informing us, the Ministry’s presenter had thus secured five of its own sponsors, who were to receive primary recognition at all events.

By myself in Beijing, with no assistance from the U.S. Embassy but good advice from journalist friends there, I had to negotiate with the Ministry of Culture for the restitution of the orchestra sponsor’s rights and visibility. The argument that Coca-Cola had paid ten times more to the orchestra than the presenter’s sponsor had to the Ministry made no headway. However, once I explained to them through my interpreter that, though the Philadelphia Orchestra would return to Beijing at most once every four years, Coca-Cola was a “permanent resident” there, and thus if Coke was happy with the benefits it received on this tour, the Ministry itself could approach Coke to sponsor its own projects every year, the light was blinding. It was my “eureka” moment too. It was clear that the evolution of the cultural sector had begun, that I had a flair for negotiation and interest in the field, and thus I dove into these roiling waters.  

People are often non-comprehending, confused and a bit uncomfortable with an independent sole practitioner cultural consultant. I find the benefits still outweigh the challenges. To work successfully with China, a combination of knowledge of “the situation” and a well-developed personal network, “guanxi,” are paramount. My tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra provided a head-start. The independence has allowed me to stay in contact with colleagues in both countries over many years, enabling me to track simultaneously their professional development with the long-term development of cultural industries and relevant government agencies.

*”Black Cat White Cat” will share my experiences and observations on this “long march,” including the development of China’s domestic and international cultural industries, the singularities of its dual track independent and official cultural sectors, performing arts education of the Chinese, in and out of China, and the emergence of China’s young multinational creative class.   


**In 1961 in Guangzhou, Deng Xiaoping uttered what is perhaps his most famous quotation: “I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat. It’s a good cat so long as it catches mice.” This was interpreted to mean that being productive in life is more important than whether one follows a communist or capitalist ideology.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.