June 15, 2024

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Why Corruption Plagues Chinese Conservatories  • VAN Magazine

In April, Xue Wei, a former professor of violin at the Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM) in Beijing, posted on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media channel, to accuse Tong Weidong, the current dean of the orchestral instrument department at the same conservatory, of sexual abuse toward students and corruption in the entrance examination process. Xue, who wrote that he learned how to use Weibo “in order to collect allegations from others supporting his accusation,” offered 500,000 yuan—approximately $70,000—for victims of the alleged abuses to come forward. Tong denies the allegations. 

The CCOM is China’s flagship conservatory: Lang Lang and Yuja Wang both graduated from its affiliate Middle School, while Tan Dun graduated from its composition department. Admission is extremely competitive: partly because of the Lang Lang phenomenon, which fueled an insatiable appetite for music education, and partly because until recently, conservatory students were exempt from the essential Nationwide Unified Examination for Admissions to General Universities and Colleges, or Gaokao. (The loophole has now been filled.) Those factors help make the faculty at the CCOM among the most respected in the country. 

Both Xue and Tong are prominent violinists and pedagogues. Xue was appointed professor at the CCOM in 2005; in 2014, the Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China named him a “Top Cultural Scholar.” He left the CCOM this year. Tong, a longtime professor, was named dean of the orchestral instruments department in 2018. Tong also sits on the jury of nearly all the major Chinese violin competitions, including the Qingdao International Violin Competition, the Chinese Golden Bell Awards for Music, the China Youth Music Competition, and the Hong Kong International Violin Competition, and Xue told me he felt sidelined following Tong’s promotion. 


After his public Weibo post, in late April, Xue filed a formal complaint against Tong with a Communist Party disciplinary commission. (Tong is a party member.) I obtained a copy of the complaint, which lists allegations that Tong had sex with underage students. (None of the women have come forward with their own allegations, and one former student explicitly denied the claims.) The complaint filed by Xue also accuses Tong of “collecting money from students and jobseekers” and offering “admission and employment in return.” According to Xue, Tong received kickbacks at rates as high as 1.5 million yuan ($210,000) in exchange for teaching positions at CCOM, and 2 million yuan ($286,000) for admission to the conservatory. 

Xue also told me he has received emailed death threats after posting his allegations against Tong to Weibo. 

Tong declined to comment on specific allegations but said that he plans to take “legal action against defamatory allegations.”  

On April 13, the CCOM issued a statement, writing, “CCOM takes the accusations seriously and is conducting a thorough investigation into the allegations.” It added that it “will hold whoever commits a criminal offense accountable… while preserving the right to take legal action if the accusations are unfounded.” 

The public nature of Xue’s allegations has shaken the classical music world in China. And while these allegations are unproven, they highlight structural issues that make abuse of power and corruption common at Chinese conservatories. 

Key decision makers at Chinese conservatories are given wide leeway in admissions decisions, and their influence is subject to little oversight. Among the 23 faculty members currently teaching in the CCOM orchestral instrument department’s violin class, for example, six studied with Tong, meaning that almost a third of violin teachers at China’s premiere conservatory trained with the same teacher. 

Photo: N509FZ via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The state-controlled Xinhua News Agency lists at least seven independent cases among conservatories and art colleges where teachers responsible for admission were charged with corruption, describing bribery at such institutions as a “cancer” in a 2020 report. Members of admission committees allegedly even pay other members to ensure “safe passage” for favored students, the report claimed.

While Chinese conservatories are subject to the same anti-corruption drives led by Xi Jinping in other swathes of Chinese society, this process can be politicized to remove potential rivals, meaning that in some cases the corruption continues, carried out by different people. Chinese Community Party investigations into alleged wrongdoings by mid-to-high-ranking members of the party precede prosecution in court in order to filter out information deemed classified or too sensitive to be public knowledge, giving little outside insight into the process. 

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At the most prestigious conservatories, reports of corruption are common, mainly in admissions and employment. In 2021, the Ministry of Education issued a report with suggestions for arts universities on improving transparency: strengthening the admissions process, enforcing stricter qualifications guidelines, and applying more serious consequences for teachers who fall afoul of the rules. Still, students who are eager to be admitted to a conservatory continue to pay exceedingly high fees to study privately with a professor. Many incentives remain: Once the student passes the Gaokao, the same professor becomes an important factor in their individual candidacy, advocating for them with the admissions committee and in their post-conservatory career, especially at competitions. 

These incentives have led to a number of high-profile corruption cases at Chinese conservatories in recent years, preceding the most recent allegations against Tong. In September 2023, Wang Xiuming, party boss of the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou, was placed under investigation by the Party’s disciplinary commission for alleged severe violation of discipline and law. In August 2023, Dong Qinxue, the former party boss of the Shenyang Conservatory of Music, was placed under investigation by the Party’s disciplinary commission for the same alleged offenses. In August 2020, three professors of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music’s vocal department, including the deputy dean, Deng Fangli, were dismissed by the conservatory and investigated by the Party’s disciplinary commission, accused of granting admission in exchange for kickbacks. In 2015, Chai Yongbai, then party boss at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined 1 million yuan ($134,000) after allegations of sexual harassment. It’s safe to assume many similar cases go unreported.

Xue’s accusations against Tong remain to be proven. Meanwhile, the best way to prevent such alleged abuses from happening remains unclear. Spots at top conservatories in China remain coveted, encouraging discreet, mutually beneficial relationships between people looking for convenience, and those willing to sell their conscience. ¶

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