Chinese Americans feel sting of Olympic protests
By David Pierson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 11, 2008
As the Olympic torch made its way through the streets of Paris, London and San Francisco, tens of thousands protested China’s treatment of Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
But inside some Chinese American communities, notably the San Gabriel Valley, the view of Tibet and its spiritual leader is far more complex.
On Cat Chao’s Mandarin-language talk show "Rush Hour" on KAZN-AM (1300), most callers haven’t been debating whose side to take but why the Western media has been so biased against China in its reporting of the riots that rocked Tibet earlier this month.
"They’re pretty angry," Chao said. "People usually trust Western media because they think it’s balanced. Not anymore."
Others complained that the torch protests have gone beyond criticizing the Chinese communist government and have a decidedly anti-Chinese feeling. In recent days, some prominent Chinese Americans who support greater ties with China have fought back.
"We’re proud of the progress, but at the same time we’re worried" about human rights, said S. Alice Mong, director of the Committee of 100, an organization of leading Chinese Americans.
Two of the committee’s members, actress Joan Chen and author Helen Zia, recently wrote newspaper editorials warning that confrontation with China would stymie progress and that support of the Olympics would lead to more openness.
"The Chinese are a proud people. They want freedom and greater rights, but they know they must fight for them from within," Chen wrote in the Washington Post.
Of course, this backlash is far from universal. Some Chinese Americans had fled the repressive region and support the outcry over Chinese human rights issues. And the San Gabriel Valley’s large Hong Kong and Taiwanese populations are naturally wary of Beijing, a feeling reinforced by events in Tibet.
But many Chinese Americans are struggling to balance their concerns about the Chinese government with the nationalism they feel as their homeland is the host of the Olympics for the first time.
"The Olympics were supposed to bring glory to the Chinese," said Daniel Deng, a leading Chinese American defense attorney based in Rosemead. "Now the focus is the Dalai Lama and Tibet. A lot of Chinese are offended."
Deng, a native of China, said a popular analogy being used among Chinese likened the protests to wearing funeral attire at a wedding. "That’s how people feel," he said. "This was supposed to be a great thing to celebrate."
Chinese authorities have used deadly force to quell the riots and arrested 2,300 in Tibet and neighboring provinces, according to the exiled Tibetan government. Beijing said there have been 22 deaths, although the Tibetan government said the toll is 154.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have condemned China’s response, and some nations have discussed a boycott of the Games. Tibetan advocates have rallied across the globe, including in Los Angeles, where hundreds protested outside the federal building on Wilshire Boulevard.
In the United States, the Dalai Lama commands a loyal following, including celebrities such as Richard Gere. The exiled Tibetan leader is popularly viewed as a symbol of peace and spirituality.
Many new immigrants from China are more skeptical of him, coming from a country that has demonized the 72-year-old monk and accused him of engineering the recent unrest from behind the scenes.
Some recent immigrants say they had little idea there was so much opposition to Beijing in Tibet. It was not widely discussed in a country where media and public education stuck closely to the party line. As such, Michelle Qi never questioned China’s claim to Tibet.
"It’s an accepted fact," said Qi, a 35-year-old secretary at a Monterey Park travel agency who emigrated from northern China seven years ago. "The Chinese government has given Tibet a lot of financial support. But for Tibetans, the economy isn’t the most important thing, it’s religion. It’s hard to tell who’s right or wrong."
For pro-Tibetans, the answer is clear. They say the Chinese government is diluting their culture and stifling their religious freedom, apparent during the days when authorities quashed riots in China with force.
"Many Chinese don’t support us," said Tenzin Sherap, a Tibetan monk at the Land of Compassion Buddha center in West Covina. "They’re used to listening and believing what the government says. Maybe some Chinese have some concern inside, but they are afraid to join the protest."
Sherap said sympathy for Tibet has grown in recent weeks. He has some Chinese students, though most are from Taiwan. Non-Asians have been stopping by the center asking for red, blue and yellow "Free Tibet" bumper stickers and Tibetan flags, he said.
The local Chinese community’s response to the opposition, in part, indicates the growing ranks of local mainland Chinese immigrants in the United States. But it also underscores a deepening sense of nationalism as China increasingly becomes a presence in their lives.
"It’s an old brand of nationalism that has been revived now that China is a major player in the world," said Richard Baum, a professor of political science at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. "Everyone loves a winner. There’s a huge diaspora that had no reason to feel proud for the last 100 years. Most of them, I suspect, identify with Beijing’s coming-out party."
Chinese immigrants worldwide have supported China despite the fact that many fled their homeland during its most repressive periods, from the Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, to seek better lives. (There are about 400,000 people in Los Angeles County who are either Chinese or part Chinese, according to the U.S. Census).
A sense of pride
Clay Dube, associate director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, said memories of those dark days have fueled a sense of pride at seeing China’s improvements. The physical distance only heightens the feeling.
"They say you’re more Irish the farther you are from Ireland," Dube said.
Sylvia Tian, a reporter for the World Journal, one of the largest Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S., said many local Chinese have reconciled their personal grievances with China’s past. They’re more concerned now with not missing out on China’s growing opportunities.
"A lot of people who participated in Tiananmen have already asked the government if they can come back," said Tian, a Beijing native who was a teenager during the crackdown. "Why? Because China is so different from before. The economy is better and there’s also freedom to say and think things. The only thing you can’t do is try to throw away the Communist Party. Other than that, people can do anything they want."
Even some Hong Kong Chinese, who only a decade ago were among Beijing’s leading skeptics, reflect China’s official message that Chinese investment in Tibet is improving a backward province.
"With so much economic growth, there’s going to be some problems. But life is so much better for all. I don’t see how Tibet can stand on its own," said Stephen Chan, a San Gabriel Valley broker and property manager who remembers watching with great anxiety when Britain signed an agreement in 1984 to return Hong Kong to China in 1997.
But now Chan and his circle of friends from the former British colony feel nothing but hope. They’ve been impressed by Hong Kong’s soaring fortunes since the hand-over. Tibet has been the hot topic in recent days and there’s been little disagreement that China is right, Chan said.
"I’ve done a complete 180," he said. "I’m a big fan of China now. Everything they do makes me proud to be Chinese."