‘We need to speak out on that’
Rose Parade float prompts council to consider official review of human rights abuses in China
By Joe Piasecki 06/28/2007
Outcry by local Chinese Americans voiced in this newspaper and at Monday's Pasadena City Council meeting over the entry of a Chinese government-sanctioned float into the upcoming Rose Parade has prompted city leaders to consider investigating claims of human rights abuses in China and perhaps speak out against them.
Practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement who have sought asylum in America from beatings and imprisonment under the authoritarian communist regime made an emotional appeal at City Hall, urging council members to take official steps toward asking for the float's removal from the parade or an official rebuke of Chinese government persecutions.
Last month, the Tournament of Roses announced that the annual New Year's Day parade would include a float designed to celebrate the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as part of its theme, “Passport to the World's Celebrations.”
Yaning (Jenny) Liu, a member of Caltech's Falun Gong club, made perhaps the most striking statement. Her 64-year-old mother, Shuying Li, was seized by government agents in December on suspicion of practicing Falun Gong.
“I hope the Pasadena City Council will help rescue my mother,” she said.
Li, said Liu, was without benefit of public trial and sentenced to 30 months in a labor and re-education camp that is located directly adjacent to Xicheng, a district of Beijing that Pasadena adopted as a sister city in 1998.
Councilman Chris Holden was first on the council to speak up, saying the sister city relationship “would pull us into needing to take some kind of position” after further study of the issue.
“Maybe at this point there's an opportunity to use that relationship for good,” said Holden, who as mayor in 1998 voted against making Xicheng a sister city amid human rights concerns. “Because of our relationship with a portion of the Chinese community there, we need to take a position. We need to say that if something is being done that is creating a human rights violation, we need to speak out on that. I think it is important to fully understand what all the issues are and then at such a time take a position, whether in writing or some other way of communicating.”
Councilman Victor Gordo supported Holden's call, which Mayor Bill Bogaard recognized as evidence that the council should consider taking action at a later time. Any formal action, however, would require a scheduled public discussion.
“I do think we have a responsibility here to have our voice heard and to say something. The parade is viewed throughout the world, and the message that's going to be sent is it's the city of Pasadena that's inviting the Chinese government to have a float in its parade,” said Gordo.
Tournament of Roses President CL Keedy, who was traveling and could not be reached for comment, told the Weekly earlier this month that the Olympic float is sponsored by local business interests, including the Avery Dennison Corp. Although not directly funded by the People's Republic of China, the float was approved by its Olympics Committee, he said.
Jianzhong (John) Li, a Caltech laboratory technical aide and Falun Gong practitioner who sought asylum from the Chinese government after 1989's Tiananmen Square violence, said Tournament officials are already scheduling a meeting with him for July.
“We're looking forward to hearing what the comments are,” said Tournament Chief Operating Officer Bill Flinn on Tuesday.
Keedy previously said that the float was intended to be an apolitical nod to the Olympics and that he did not expect such strong reactions.
This isn't the first time, however, that the Tournament has become the focus of international controversy. In 1991, the selection of Cristobal Colon, a Spanish duke and a descendent of Christopher Columbus, to serve as grand marshal of the 1992 event was protested by civil rights groups who viewed Columbus and his crew as genocidal pillagers. The Tournament eventually chose Native American and then-Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell to serve as a co-grand marshal with Colon.
“I think the Tournament will take this very seriously and help respond to the questions that are being raised,” said Bogaard.
Although he has at times expressed reluctance to involve municipal government with international affairs and on Monday also urged careful deliberation, Bogaard said he felt Holden's statement was “a good one by taking into account the very strong views of those who are here tonight.”
A spiritual movement that involves exercise and meditation, the practice of Falun Gong was common in China until it was suddenly outlawed in 1999. Since that time, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been imprisoned or put into forced labor camps, according to Amnesty International's Web site.
One of those imprisoned was Jie (Angel) Li, who became a member of the Caltech Falun Gong Club after she was granted asylum by the United States government.
She was joined at Monday's meeting by Wen Chen, a Caltech laboratory assistant, who wept openly as Rowland Heights
resident Liu spoke of her mother.
Rowland Heights resident Bin Li told council members that because of her beliefs she was forced into slave labor in China and at one point was beaten by men using electrified batons who demanded she renounce Falun Gong.
“This is horrible, genocidal persecution. Leaving China for America for me was an escape,” said Li.
Last year, the Falun Gong-owned newspaper Epoch Times published accounts that agents of the Chinese government had begun harvesting organs from jailed practitioners.
Although such claims were not vetted by a US State Department investigation, they became widely known after journalist Wenyi Wang publicly denounced Chinese President Jiang Zemin during his visit last year to the White House.
Human Rights Watch last year reported that government preparations for the Beijing Olympics have resulted in increased censorship of local journalists and the mass arrest of activists.
Also in direct relation to the games, the group wrote in December to the Beijing Olympics committee, hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents have been evicted from their homes.
Bogaard, who two years ago publicly condemned treatment of New Orleans residents following the Hurricane Katrina disaster, said the council should be cautious in making any rebuke of China.
“One of the challenges when we take up a factual investigation of this kind, of course it's in a foreign country and along distance away, and at the same time we're forced to look into the heart of our own country and raise the same questions about it that we raise about a country abroad. That sometimes causes us to be circumspect about our public statements about other countries because of our own long history, which falls short of perfection in regard to the recognition of human rights across the board and for all the great people of this country,” he said.