Rose Parade caught up in Chinese politics

Daily Bulletin, Ontario California/July 9, 2007
By Kenneth Todd Ruiz

Pasadena - Last month's announcement that the Rose Parade - iconic American event that it is - would include a Chinese entry was not the first time the city drew complaints from China critics, who have spoken up in the past after Pasadena adopted Xicheng, a Beijing district just west of Tiananmen Square, as its fifth "sister city" in 1999, the same year China began its crackdown on Falun Gong, a sect of Buddhism.

It also comes at a time of resurgent national wariness of China's growing power, which was at crisis level in 2001 when the crew of a U.S. spy plane was held captive after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet, killing its pilot.

China has further been criticized for violating human rights and jailing journalists to quell discord in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics next year, and in that context, just as its government has frequently pressured U.S. lawmakers to distance themselves from Falun Gong, the outlawed group is amplifying its calls for those same officials to take issue with China's human-rights abuses.

Members of the Caltech Falun Gong club have added their own compelling stories of persecution to those efforts, coming before the Pasadena City Council in recent weeks with accounts of detention, abuse and of missing family members.

If Falun Gong portrays a wretched Chinese government, that sentiment is returned.

According the China, Falun Gong is a dangerous, doomsday cult that misrepresents itself to the outside world to leverage political pressure.

"It's an evil cult," said Jianhua Li, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. "They are very dangerous. Some people, they kill their family members, kill their children."

The Communist Party's fear of Falun Gong is rooted in the intense loyalty it inspires in its followers and is fed by a history of rebellions fueled by religious fervor, such as the Boxer Rebellion of the early 1900s, according to USC graduate student Daniel Tauss.

"The mainland Chinese government does perceive it as a potential threat because it does command a great deal of respect and allegiance of its followers," he said.

Of Falun Gong, Tauss described it as a "interesting hybrid religion that combines elements of Buddhism and tai chi physical practices, with other very interesting metaphysical, even science fiction elements."

Founded in 1992, Falun Gong would have remained relatively unknown in the West had the 50-year-old communist government not outlawed its practice seven years later.

Xicheng district lies just west of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, where a Falun Gong protest in 2000 drew a tough crackdown that reminded many outside of China of the brutal suppression of 1989's pro-democracy student movement.

It is known by tourists for its lakes and its culture.

Yaning Liu and Jie Li know it for the Xicheng Detention Center. They say that's just one of the many camps and jails Liu's mother and Li herself were held for years after their Feb. 4, 2000, arrest for practicing Falun Gong. According to reports from Falun Gong's extensive media operations, many of its adherents have been held in Xicheng.

Li, a resident of Rowland Heights, said she was jailed at the age of 23 for five years before her release and subsequent flight to the United States. Liu, who until recently lived just up Wilson Avenue from Caltech, found out in January that her mother, who had just purchased tickets to join her, had been arrested again.

Hongwei Lou, also of Rowland Heights, said she has had no contact with her husband, an employee of the San Francisco- based Asia Foundation, since his arrest in May of last year.

"I don't know his situation," she said. "All the reports of abuse make me feel so horrible. Sometimes the horror is unbearable."

Those three, along with Caltech employees and Falun Gong practitioners Wen Chen and John Li, have asked Pasadena to do something.

"I love China, and it deserves to host the Olympics," John Li said. "But not at the same time they refuse to improve human rights, and not at the same time they are arresting so many people and Falun Gong practitioners."

And next week, officials with the Tournament of Roses have agreed to meet with John Li to discuss his concerns. The Tournament has subsequently invited representatives from Chinese float sponsors Avery Dennison, Smith Barney, and the Roundtable of Southern California

Chinese-American Organizations along with public relations firm Casey Sayre and Williams to attend.

"The Tournament of Roses, over the years, is really an event that tries to put people together and not really separate people," said Bill Flynn, Tournament of Roses chief operating officer. "The theme is about world festivals and how people celebrate and the Olympics is something the world does to celebrate athletics for a very long time."

Flynn said the float was entered by its sponsors and encouraged by City Hall.

Advocates of Chinese engagement said there is no alternative.

From global environmental issues to security and the U.S. economy, "our fates are intertwined," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, adding that China has made good on some of its promises by negotiating with North Korea and putting pressure on Sudan over Darfur.

Mayor Bill Bogaard, like Schiff, advocates engagement and said the 50-year-old sister city program "is based on a philosophy of people-to-people diplomacy."

Although Pasadena has heard from China about Falun Gong, Bogaard said he has never brought up human-rights concerns with any of his Chinese contacts.

"When it comes to diplomacy, I haven't tried to take that on," he said. "In part because the people we're dealing with have no more influence over foreign policy than I have over our country."

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