Notes on a Scandal: Corruption at China’s Top Classical Music Academies

Posted by on Feb 13, 2014 in Institutions | No Comments

For young musicians looking to enter Beijing’s prestigious Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM), the jury audition is the most stressful performance of their nascent careers.

For many of their professors, however, it’s the most profitable time of the year.

“The new semester is when they make all their money,” admits one professor over lunch, requesting anonymity. “Students and parents have already handed out cash hongbao to most or all of the professors who will sit on their jury panels.”

“I had parents from Dongbei [north-east China] calling me up three weeks before the exams, asking how can we ‘maneuver’ this,” says another professor, who also asked not to be identified but who says bribes often reach into the hundreds of thousands. “Of course, parents want to do everything for their kids. Especially when they have money.”

The Ministry of Education has been attempting to root out a culture of bribery in China’s conservatories for years; there’s talk of crackdowns from officials every time a scandal pops up. But it’s especially hard to enforce rules of evaluation on conservatory admission panels, where decisions are always more subjective.

“Although the Ministry of Education announces its crackdown on corruption every year, arts institutions always seem to fall from the cracks” says Lao Kaisheng, head of the School of Education at Capital Normal University who specializes in education policy. “Most universities are now kept in line with test scores, which have to be inputted into a database. But arts schools, where admissions are based on aesthetic standards and decided by a select few, are completely immune to oversight.

“This environment that breeds sexual favors and bribery,” Lao adds.

Reports of corruption surfaced in 2004, when CCOM’s next-door neighbors, the China Conservatory of Music, found itself embroiled in scandal after erhu professor Song Fei spoke out to reporters over unfair admissions practices. The same year, the People’s Daily reported that the Xi’an Conservatory of Music had essentially blackmailed all enrolling students for a mandatory RMB30,000 fee, under threat they would have their applications pulled.

“Just ask any student from any conservatory. You’ll get the same answer,” says ‘Zhao,’ who recently tested into the CCOM vocal department (she also requested not to be identified). “If you get into the top five, you’ll get in without paying a cent. But if you’re ninth or tenth, you’re either out of luck or you need to bring a ‘gift’ to your audition. In all fairness, if you’ve ranked even lower…even if you come with keys to a new car, there’s nothing you can do.

“If you’re truly talentless, there’s no professor who’d want to claim you as a student, for any price,” she explains. The persistence of student scandals illustrates the long-enjoyed autonomy of conservatories in an under-supervised system, one in which CCOM sits at the very top.

“It’s like a headless monster,” says one professor. “There’s no one to point to and accuse. There’s no individual who can take responsibility for a system that has always existed. “But if you do have new ways of thinking, there is conflict.”

Originally the Music Department of PKU, CCOM became a separate entity in 1950, along with the Central Academy of Drama (CAD) and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CCAFA), enjoying the prestige and recognition that only a brand-name ‘Central’ school provides.

Alumni include composer Tan Dun, pianist Lang Lang and pop-rocker Wang Feng (who named his first band 43 Baojia Street, the school’s address).

Yet the school’s Soviet-era pedagogy and average facilities may make its attraction hard to understand for some. Alumni benefit from a strong network of connections that, played right, can ensure positions in orchestras, media companies or, in many cases, jobs back at the school – hence its popularity.

Unlike many Western conservatories, CCOM tends to hire from its own pool of doctoral graduates, once taught by the same professors. The constant inbreeding creates an environment of favoritism and allegiances – or, as one professor describes it, “Most professors here were never professional musicians. They were students last week, and became teachers the very next.”

Also strikingly different is that, despite its downtown location, the school exists in almost self-imposed isolation. Apart from the Beijing Modern Music Festival, there is little-to-no effort made to publicize weekly recitals or even performances by visiting musicians. Posters for events are rarely seen off campus. Often whole festivals – such as the annual modern music Musica Acoustica conference this month – go completely unnoticed outside of Chinese academia.

Such isolation also comes with its advantages, though: CCOM has averaged just one scandal a year since 2009. The rest of the cases reported never really resonated beyond the gates. But even the most esteemed ivory towers are no longer completely immune from public scrutiny.

The most recent affair popped up in July, when acclaimed percussionist Wang Beibei posted an open letter on Weibo, accusing CCOM of corrupt hiring practices after she was turned down for a teaching position at the Music School Attached to the Central Conservatory of Music in Xicheng district.

Percussionist Wang Bei Bei

Percussionist Wang Beibei

Wang, an alumnus of CCOM pursuing a second degree at the UK’s Royal College of Music, has already appeared with major orchestras throughout Europe, performed solo at the United Nations and was included in the 2012 ‘Sounds of the East’ list of 50 Chinese musicians recommended by the Ministry of Culture. Yet her application was ultimately passed over in favor of a graduate student, fresh out of school.

“They told me the ‘best’ doesn’t mean the ‘most suitable.’ This runs completely counter to recruiting based on merit,” reads her letter, which was reposted thousands of times and currently has over 1.2 million views.

Wang had twice traveled from her home in London to Beijing for interviews. Despite an outpouring of support online, school affiliates pointed out her lack of solid evidence and dismissed her accusations as nothing more than a temper tantrum. “If you had gotten the job, wouldn’t there be someone else talking about scandals?” asked percussion professor and jurist Wang Jianhua in response.

Refraining from direct accusations, Wang points to a lack of overall transparency and decisions that don’t add up in a supposed meritocratic system. “To talk about connections is nothing new, especially in places like conservatories,” Music Weekly, a Chinese paper covering news from pop to classical, commented. “But if Wang has done anything, she has exposed once again the unspoken rules and the people that play the game – albeit from a position of weakness.”

Wang’s is just the latest annual episode to have garnered unwanted attention for the school. In 2009, Liang Maochun, a 73-year-old doctoral tutor came clean about an affair with a 30-something doctoral candidate called Zou Jiahong, the People’s Daily reported. Hardly an academic first – but Liang also admitted to taking RMB100,000 to ensure Zou’s degree was approved. Liang only confessed after fearing Zou would expose the transaction.

Liang Maochun

Liang Maochun

Professor Liang Maochun with student Zou Jiahong

Professor Liang Maochun with student Zou Jiahong

“[Liang] was honest while confessing to the school in a tearful voice,” a CCOM spokesman told the Beijing News, adding the case was “the first time such a scandal had occurred since the school was founded in 1950.”

The school called for students “not to trust any promises made by a professor, or other intermediary, regarding degrees.” Far from this dampening faculty spirits, however, 2012 proved a bumper year for sex scandals – even if some played no louder than pianissimo in state media.

In May 2012, CCOM guitar professor Li Kai was fired for alleged multiple relationships with students in his studio. In June, accordion professor Cao Xiaoqing was treated for multiple stab wounds, resulting from an angry father who found his wife had an affair with Cao to help with their daughter’s admission.

Professor Li KaiProfessor Li Kai

But it was the tragic suicide of 52-year-old piano professor Wu Long that finally made local headlines. Wu, an American citizen, jumped from his 17-story Xicheng apartment building. CCOM colleagues described Dr. Wu as an introvert under work pressure. The school stated he was having “problems at home.”

His wife, Wang Lin, chose to break the official silence. Her husband, a professor at CCOM for eight years, had suffered from clinical depression, Wang told Southern People Weekly. He had become increasingly distressed about the school’s reluctance to confirm a new contract; without one, he would be without a valid work visa. “He always said this is where all the best students come,” Wang Lin said. “This is the price we paid for coming back [from the US].”

Quite why a straightforward contract renewal ended so tragically may never be explained; insiders say that CCOM contracts can be an expensive process, with ‘negotiations’ often including bribes.

Like most organizations, CCOM suffers from a systemic illness rather than a philosophical one. There are still academics who nurture differences and talents that achieve worldwide fame. But until sweeping changes take place, both professors and students are held hostage to rules that persist at nearly all institutions, experts fear.

“It’s funny because, as educators, we’re supposed to be preparing them for the concert-hall stage,” says one professor. “Instead, they are only learning how to perform on a bigger one – society. But that is the greatest stage, isn’t it?”

>> Names of academics and students were withheld at their request.

>> This article originally appeared in That’s Beijing magazine in October 2013 and is re-published here by the author, James Tiscione.