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Olympic torch protests chagrin many Chinese-Americans

In San Francisco's Chinatown, support for the torch relay Wednesday has more to do with cultural pride than political concerns.

By Ben Arnoldy –Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Artemisia Ng –Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2008

Waving the flag: Chinese-American kids stood with 2008 Olympic mascots at a ceremony in San Francisco last week.

Ben Arnoldy


San Francisco

Betty Yuan left Taiwan for San Francisco in 1981, when mainland China was just beginning to open its economy.

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Now, a booming China is hosting the 2008 Olympics and is sending the Olympic torch to San Francisco. To celebrate, Ms Yuan will be helping deploy costumed performers, tai chi practitioners, and children's artwork along Wednesday's torch route.

But she is upset about the demonstrations planned by thousands of Tibetans, Burmese, Falun Gong believers, and others to protest China's human rights record.

"We are disappointed that some politicians and interest groups are threatening to stage protests and ruin the Games, for the sake of bad-mouthing and insulting China," she said in a statement in Chinese she released as head of the Northern California Chinese Culture-Athletic Federation.

For decades, the Chinese community in San Francisco has been broadly divided between mainlanders and the numerically smaller but more prosperous and influential Taiwanese, who are traditionally critical of the Communist regime in Beijing. Yet, many Chinese-Americans including Taiwanese like Yuan support the Games and denounce the human rights protests reflects the power of ethnic pride over politics – but also a shift in the diaspora's attitude toward Beijing in recent years.

Evidence that the Taiwan-mainland split has softened can be found fluttering from the rooftops of San Francisco's Chinatown, home to one of the oldest Chinese communities in North America. A decade ago, Taiwanese flags flew over most family associations or community hubs here. Now half have been replaced by the red-and-yellow flags of the People's Republic of China, says David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee.

The flags reflect a shift in demographics but perhaps also allegiance. "Those Chinese flags didn't pop up for no reason," says Mr. Lee. "China is now an emerging global economic superpower. As such, its reach into Chinatown has grown because people do business in mainland China. And the Chinese government and the consul general here has in the last 10 years been very strategic in courting Chinese-American support."

Consulate officials drop in on community gatherings and have helped organize visits to the mainland. The new president of the Six Companies, a leading community organization, caused a stir last month when he bucked the tradition of being sworn in at a hall festooned with Taiwan flags and a portrait of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. He opted instead for a restaurant setting, with the Chinese consul general in attendance.

In recent years, Beijing has also begun to help fund Chinese-language media in the United States, says Li Ding, an editor at Chinascope, a Chinese language media research organization in Gaithersburg, Md. As a result, many outlets are taking a more pro-Beijing slant on issues such as Taiwan and human rights, he says.

A public relations disaster?

Beijing sees the Olympics as a chance to court international favor. But with a wide array of aggrieved protestors fanning out along the route, the worldwide Olympic torch tour has become something of a public relations debacle. Pro-Tibet demonstrators unfurled banners in Greece last month, 30 protestors were arrested in London Sunday, and the torch was extinguished three times as protestors disrupted the relay in Paris Monday.