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.

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

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

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 Now half have been replaced by the red-and-yellow flags of the People's Republic of China, says David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee.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.

Organizers in San Francisco, the only North American torch stop, expect some 2,000 ethnic Tibetans to trek here from as far away as Toronto to protest the crackdown on a Tibetan uprising that started last month. They will be joined by a coalition of other groups concerned with China's human rights record. On Saturday, protesters put on a Human Rights Torch relay, and a Tibetan Freedom Torch arrives Tuesday.

Activists have also succeeded in getting the city's board of supervisors to approve 8-to-3 a resolution encouraging the mayor to accept the Olympic torch with "alarm and protest" – much to the anger of many Chinese-Americans in the city.

Many are worried about potential violence. The Chinese consulate here has beefed up security after a recent arson attack. Protesters, meanwhile, hope to avoid misunderstandings. "I know there are going to be a lot of Chinese here, and a lot of times … they don't understand we are protesting the government. They think we are protesting the Chinese people," says Tenzin Dasang, head of the San Francisco Tibetan Youth Congress.

Mixing sports and politics

Some Chinese-Americans will be joining the protestors. Chen Kai, a former China national basketball team player, ran in Saturday's human rights relay wearing a homemade T-shirt with slogans denouncing Beijing's bloody crackdown on students at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Mr. Chen calls for famous Chinese sports exports like basketball stars Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian to advocate for human rights, too. Chinese sportsmen should be free-thinkers and avoid being used for modern-day Ping Pong diplomacy by Beijing, he says. Marathon runners could even wear gas masks "to protest against China's worsening air pollution," he adds.

But another former Chinese athlete living in San Francisco argues otherwise. Lin Li, the Chinese gold medalist in the 200 m individual medley in Barcelona, says it's dangerous to mix sports and politics: "We should not make a simple sport events more complicated than it is."

Selected to be one of Wednesday's torchbearers, Ms. Lin sees the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity for Chinese around the world to celebrate their history and brandish their physical prowess. "Chinese are no longer seen as the stereotypical sick men from Asia," Lin says, alluding to a derogatory term used commonly against China in the early 20th-century. "We should take pride in ourselves now."

It's a sentiment echoed by many in this community who want to be able to take pride in their cultural heritage without being seen as supporters of Beijing. Chinese-Americans "may agree with some of the criticism that China needs to open up in terms of its civil rights," says Lee. "But there's also recognition that this is a remarkable moment in time for this country."

Bridging the divide

The mixed feelings among Taiwanese here reflect in part their homeland's ongoing tensions with China. Afraid that the Taiwanese national flag would be flown and the national song sung along the torch route, Beijing last year refused to send the torch team to Taiwan.

And when the Tibetan riots first broke out last month, just days before the Taiwanese presidential election, both presidential candidates denounced Beijing's crackdown.

Some Chinese-American leaders see the Olympics as a chance to heal old wounds. "If both sides are confrontational, dialogues or negotiations can never be made," says Albert Chang, co-chair of the Pan-China Alliance, a grouping of community and family associations in California.

Yuan has seen athletics bridge divides in San Francisco before. But she knows the excitement over the Olympics won't prevent differences over the Beijing regime from resurfacing.

"Only time and mutual understanding can bridge the gap among Chinese from different parts of the world," she says. "The bottom line is, you can have your own opinion [about the Games], but don't endanger the safety of others."

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