San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade Entangled in Controversy
February 12, 2006 | By Ben Bendig and David Kute
At most Chinese New Year’s celebrations, amidst firecrackers, music, and confetti, the procession of colorful costumes, lively contingents, and traditional lion and dragon dance troupes are the biggest draw.
In San Francisco, however, the action on the sidelines leading up to the annual parade has, at times, seemed to eclipse the event itself.
The parade, to take place on Saturday February 11, is the Chinese-American community’s most seminal and high-profile Chinese New Year event. Recently, however, it has become the scene of a showdown with roots thousands of miles away. The influential Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the parade, has repeatedly denied that the cause of the controversy–the denial of participation to the Falun Gong spiritual movement–has any connection to the ongoing crackdown of the meditation group in Mainland China.
Since Falun Gong was first rejected, the group’s parade organizers have heard a variety of explanations for the denial from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “They [The Chinese Chamber of Commerce] are using a method of throwing spaghetti on the wall, whatever sticks they will try to use it,” said Falun Gong parade coordinator Huy Lu, noting that there were many inconsistencies in the reasons offered for the denial. At first they were told in a letter that many groups had applied and they were among the rejections, then the Chamber said that during the 2004 parade Falun Gong practitioners had handed out fliers, violating their rules, and then, most recently, that Falun Gong was a political group, he said.
Lu has his own theories as to why the Chamber has come out against Falun Gong.
“Sometimes the Chinese government doesn’t give a direct order, but [the Chinese Chamber of Commerce] still does it to please them,” he said of the organization’s possible motivation.
Those affiliated with the organization deny any connection to Beijing.
“I am very independent. I try to keep a balance in Chinatown,” parade director Wayne Hu told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I am not ruled by anyone else.”
“[It certainly appears] what’s happening there is they’re taking their policies from the People’s Republic of China,” said Bruce Herschensohn, an expert in international relations who has written books on Hong Kong and Taiwan. “I would assume most Chinese people living in the United States would not be opposed to Falun Gong unless they have allegiance to the People’s Republic of China.”
The Chinese communist regime’s willingness to lobby overseas officials and organizations to shun the group was the basis of a congressional resolution, House Concurrent Resolution 304, passed in late 2004.
The controversy surrounding Falun Gong’s denied entry into the San Francisco Chinese New Year’s parade has carried over from the streets of Chinatown into San Francisco City Hall, and onto the pages of local newspapers and radio.
After Falun Gong was denied, local city supervisor Chris Daly set up a hearing to investigate the issue of discrimination and authored a resolution condemning the persecution of Falun Gong. Falun Gong has also filed a lawsuit against the City of San Francisco on grounds of discrimination.
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce has retaliated in adversarial fashion. Chamber supporters rallied to collect signatures against Falun Gong’s entry into the parade; several advertisements in local English and Chinese newspapers lambasting Falun Gong were placed by the organization; and many of the speakers critical of Falun Gong who appeared at the Board of Supervisors hearing on the resolution condemning the persecution of Falun Gong were organized by the Chamber.
“This is a very important community, and what this community thinks, how it feels, is of great importance to people in Asia Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and so forth,” said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. “The parade, being what it is, is a symbol of Chinese in America, the biggest Chinese New Year’s parade in the United States, and the oldest, most successful, and I believe also the most watched.”
The controversy over the parade highlights the strong bonds between the Chinese-American community and Beijing. San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross recently noted that the Chinese communist regime is the new power source for the influential factions in Chinatown.
Falun Gong Taboo in Chinatown
The Chinese Communist Party’s sway over Chinese-Americans and its avowed attitude towards Falun Gong leaves many in the Chinese community with little room to maneuver.
Because of fears of reprisal or social pressure, Falun Gong supporters within the Chinatown community are less overt when it comes to expressing their views in public.
“People in Chinatown won’t support you publicly but do it privately because they are afraid,” Falun Gong coordinator Lu said, speaking from his personal experiences.
The opposition to Falun Gong that has manifested in San Francisco’s Chinatown community has its causes.
“Mainly it’s from the Chinese government propaganda, that [Falun Gong] is an anti-China force,” Lu said. “The Chinese people who come to this country think this is still China. When their government does something, they usually agree with them. They don’t have independent thinking…Only a small portion of them know about [rule of law, human rights, and freedom]. They are happy that they are prosperous; they don’t care about these issues. They probably hardly step out of Chinatown to see the real world.”
Many in the community face ostracism if they come out in support of Falun Gong.
“They don’t want to be outcasts, they want to be in the group,” said Lu of the consequences Chinese would face if not taking the proper stance on the Falun Gong issue and thereby overstepping the prevailing attitude of adherence to Beijing. “They don’t want to be isolated.”
Power of the Chinese-American Vote
The influence wielded by Chinatown organizations like the Chinese Chamber of Commerce is enough to be a concern for any local officials within the city, as San Francisco’s Chinese community plays a prominent role in local politics.
“The Chinese American community constitutes about 18 percent of the registered voters in San Francisco, and depending on turnout, could be as high as 20 percent of all votes cast,” said Lee, director of the voter education group.
“That may not seem like much, but it’s enough in a city that’s very divided politically, to shift an election one way or another. It makes the Chinese American community a very important influential community locally, in local elections here.”
According to Lee, the influence of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce or other social organizations on the Chinese voters is negligible.
“There isn’t any one person or one organization that controls the voting behavior. After all, it’s a very large and diverse voting block.”
However, Chinese language media, many of which are owned by the Chinese communist regime or indirectly controlled by it, play a large role in the developing voter attitudes.
“Our research has shown that Chinese-language media has great penetration amongst Chinese American voters. Chinese-language television is probably the number one media information source, other than newspapers and radio. A lot of voters say they get their information from Chinese-language newspapers.”
In 2001, the Jamestown Foundation released a report titled, “How China’s Government is Attempting to Control Chinese Media in America,” which documents four ways in which the Chinese communist regime inserts their hands in the operations of overseas media: “First is the attempt to directly control newspapers, television stations, and radio stations through complete ownership or owning major shares. Second is the government’s use of economic ties to influence independent media who have business relations with China. This leverage has had major effects on the contents of broadcasting and publishing, effectively removing all material deemed “unfavorable” by the Chinese government. Third is the purchasing of broadcast time and advertising space (or more) from existing independent media…. Fourth is the deployment of government personnel to work in independent media, achieving influence from within their ranks.”
The report describes the actions the Chinese Communist Party has taken with different media, including its influence over Sing Tao and Ming Pao newspapers, both of which ran anti-Falun Gong advertisements in response to the Chinese New Year parade situation.