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A Controversy over a Beijing Olympic Float for the 2008 Pasadena Rose Parade

By Hongmei Li

While the Tournament of Roses is busy preparing for the Pasadena Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 2009, it is interesting to revisit a controversy over a Beijing Olympic float for the 2008 parade for at least three reasons: (1) the controversy, largely provoked by FLG practitioners and other human rights groups, attracted huge media attention and the Pasadena city government and its human relations commission held several meetings to consider its position; (2) some analogies can be drawn between the controversy and the protests against the overseas leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay; (3) the controversy also indicates the challenges that Beijing faces in general when it attempts to engage the American public in specific and the Western publics in general.

The Pasadena Sister Cities China Subcommittee initiated the idea of a Chinese Olympic float in 2004 as a form of cultural exchange. In 2004, Avery Dennison, a Pasadena-based company that has branches in China, expressed an interest in being a sponsor. There were sporadic meetings between Pasadena and Xicheng, which is a sister city of Pasadena, from 2004 to 2006. However, Xicheng was told by the Beijing City Municipality that it had “no right to enter an Olympic float.”

Sue Zhang, a prominent Chinese American community leader in Los Angeles became interested in the idea of a Chinese rose float and thus contacted officials in Beijing and talked with the mayor in Pasadena. She was connected with Avery Dennison through the Pasadena Sister Cities Committee and thus became an organizer of a Beijing Olympic-themed float. Ten Chinese Americans became sponsors, with each contributing 20,000 dollars and Avery Dennison contributed 200,000 dollars.

The ten Chinese Americans, most belonging to Beijing Association with Sue Zhang as the chair, then become a newly named organization called the Roundtable of Chinese American Associations in Southern California, On April 15, 2007, Sue Zhang announced at a press conference that a Beijing Olympic-themed Rose Float would appear in the 2008 Pasadena Rose Parade. The announcement was greatly applauded by the conference participants, most of whom were overseas Chinese community leaders and participants in Los Angeles. A Chinese cultural consul in Los Angeles stated that “having the float was a one-hundred year dream fulfilled” and it was “a proud achievement of all Chinese throughout the world.” Many participants at the conference claimed that the float symbolized how Chinese Americans had overcome ideological differences for the first time to accomplish a common goal.

At the beginning, the Olympic float was meant to be part of an overseas marketing plan for the Beijing Olympics. However, after the entry was announced officially, various human rights groups protested against it. Key protest groups include the Caltech FLG Club, Reporters Without Borders, the Visual Arts Guild, Amnesty International, the Conscience Foundation, the China Ministries international, the LA Friends of Tibet, Human Rights Watch, Justice for American Victims in China, New York Coalition for Darfur and the Burma human rights groups. FLG practitioners voiced their concerns first at a city council meeting on June 25, 2006 and were key players in the protest.

Human rights activists made a concerted effort in lobbying the city council members of Pasadena and voiced their concerns repeatedly at routine city council meetings. They spoke about their own suffering or suffering of their relatives or friends in China. Issues such as torturing, the imprisonment of FLG practitioners, journalists and Catholic ministers, police corruption and lack of media freedom were constantly voiced during the public comments sessions on the following days: June 25, July 16, July 23, July 30, Oct. 1, Oct. 8, Oct. 15, Oct. 22, Nov. 5, Nov. 19, Dec. 3, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17.

Mayor Bill Boggard was placed at the center of the controversy because of his active role in promoting the float. The Pasadena City government and city officials made various arrangements to have dialogues with human rights activists. The city council requested its human relations commission to draft a report regarding the float. Consequently, the commission held two special hearings: One meeting was devoted to receiving public comment, and one was devoted to formulating the final form of the report and recommendation. The city council had a special meeting on Oct. 29, which marked a shift in protesting strategies for activists. Prior to the meeting, human rights activists mainly pushed for the dropping of the float from the parade. The argued that the Chinese government was sponsoring the float; the float was about celebrating the Chinese government and thus validating its human rights abuses; the inclusion of the float would be embarrassing to Pasadena. Such rhetoric and request were similar to the reactions of human rights activists to the Beijing Olympic in general. Protesters used withered roses to symbolize shame that the Beijing Olympic float brought to the parade. (See image 1)

Human rights activists urging dropping the float, provided by Xiao Rong

Human rights activists also repeatedly linked the Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany. They called the float “the float of shame,” “the propaganda float” and the “float of genocide.” They produced and circulated an image that transformed the float into a tank that featured a lonely person with a rose in hand trying to stop the tank, which resembled a well-known image about the Tiananmen Square Student Movement in 1989, where a lonely person was trying to stop a stream of tanks from advancing. This tank image was constantly circulated over the Internet as a symbol of brutality of the Chinese Communist regime and humanity of protesters. (See Image 2)

Float of Shame

At the same time, Reporters without borders, also set up a billboard at the intersection of Del Mar Avenue and Arroyo Parkway in early December featuring the Olympic five rings as handcuffs, suggesting that the Beijing Olympics represents tortures rather than human connections. Lau faxed this image to city council members and distributed this image. This powerful image was widely used in protests against the overseas leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay. (See Image 3)

Five Rings as Handcuffs

On December 31, more than one hundred protesters gathered around the Orange Grove Boulevard close to the Tournament House. Some were local people and others came from Northern California and other places. They distributed flyers and set up banners exposing human rights abuses in China. Some drivers honked to show support. On January 1, 2008, when the Beijing Olympic float, featuring five mascots with the logo “one world one dream” rolled down through the Orange Grove, some protesters held the handcuff image aiming to shame Beijing in front of the world. Protesters also asked supporters to turn their backs to the Beijing Olympic float, but few spectators complied though. (See Image 4 and Image 5)

Beijing Olympic Float in Pasadena Rose Parade (AP/Reed Saxon)

(AP/Nick Ut)

The controversy was covered extensively by media such as Pasadena Star News, Pasadena Weekly, the LA Times, KPCC, the Associated Press, Voice of America, KTLA Channel 5, KABC Channel 7 and Chinese-language media. Pasadena Weekly also published letters from residents, most condemning China’s human rights records and viewing the US human rights policies toward China as too soft. Kenneth Todd Ruiz from Pasadena Star News and Joe Piasecki from Pasadena Weekly were staunch supporters for human rights activists.

For the float supporters, one of the most important strategy is to keep the float apolitical by delinking the Beijing Olympics in general and the float in specific from human rights issues in China. It must be pointed out that all city council members and officials, and officials from the Tournament of Roses, regardless of whether they supported the float, all expressed sympathy to human rights activists, condemnation of human rights abuses, and support for human rights improvement. The support can be seen in ongoing conversations between the city government of Pasadena and the human rights coalition about a possible pre-parade human rights torch relay and other arrangements. Even though the arrangement failed for various reasons, with each side telling a different story, sincere efforts to accommodate human rights activists indicate that human rights issues were of significant importance to officials in Pasadena.

There were several controversial points regarding the float. The first was whether the float was political, whether the inclusion of the float was a “validation of the government of China and all its activities such as human rights violations,” and whether such violations should be embarrassing to Pasadena. While protesters viewed the float as the right target, supporters argued that “the float is about celebrating the Olympics and it is consistent in the patter of the celebration tradition in the parade.”

The second point that led to disagreement was whether human rights should be a leading concern when the US deals with China. While some viewed as more desirable to have good relationship and share values, but for others, China is about human rights abuses and anything related to China is opportunity to reach out. It was really about engaging China or shaming China. For supporters of the float, the shame strategy was ineffective and they argued for a middle ground that let the float in and simultaneously showed concern to human rights issues. But for protesters, losing face for the Communist Government was an important strategy to get their message out. While supporters generally viewed that people should be patient with the government and that changes were not made overnight, protesters were extremely suspicious of the government and felt that some Chinese organizations were front organizations of the government.

The third point of disagreement was whether Pasadena had the jurisdiction and moral authority to address human rights issues in China. For many, it was the federal government that should address China’s human rights abuses and the role of local government is to take care of local issues, but for protesters and their supporters, Pasadena should express its stand in China’s human rights abuses. The Beijing Olympic float is complicated because it is a local float with international meanings. Pasadena was especially reluctant to address this issue for being afraid of opening up possibilities for other human rights groups to request Pasadena to deal with similar issues. Because many overseas Chinese were proud of the Beijing Olympics, Pasadena did not want to offend the large Chinese community in Los Angeles.

Understandably, float supporters expressed displeasure of the float being hijacked and they questioned why they did not pick up the Huntington Library where there is a Chinese Garden, or GE or even Wal-Mart that has large businesses in China. Protesters focused on the float because of the tremendous publicity the tournament of roses brings. The 119-year-old yearly parade is one of the most viewed events in the US. The 2008 parade was broadcast live by nine networks/stations and amounted to 14.7 U.S. national Nielsen rating points, or approximately 15.96 million households, with a total audience of approximately 40 million in the U.S. In addition, the Rose Parade was televised in 215 international territories.

The controversy also indicates that relatively small number of committed activists can be very powerful in setting the agenda and influencing international issues. While during the Olympic torch relay, Tibetans and their supporters were most active in posting Beijing, but FLG practitioners were active protesters against the Olympic float. Generally speaking, China’s dim international images, particularly the perception of China’s human rights records, can pose tremendous challenges for China when it engages with the international community. In my conversation with float supporters at the Pasadena city government and the China Sister Cities Committee about whether they would have done things differently if they had known the controversy, all of them expressed a hesitation and stated that they would think twice before any involvement.

One idea about human rights activists seeking overseas support. On the one hand, seeking overseas support can publicize their causes and give the Chinese regime more international pressure, but on the other hand, it gives the Chinese government more legitimacy to crack them down and it might further alienate many Chinese who do not necessarily support the Chinese government and nevertheless are concerned with China’s international images. Indeed, the overwhelming support for the overseas leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay in April-May 2008 indicates that Chinese nationals or overseas Chinese can rally around the government when an idealized image of China is threatened. To a large extent, many Chinese nationals and overseas Chinese are still very sensitive to the issue of national dignity, largely because the national narrative of China’s one-hundred-year humiliation (bainian quru shi) is still resonant with many Chinese. Thus, the backing from any foreign government can backfire by provoking the image of foreign colonizers suppressing the Chinese people again.

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In late October, the European Parliament announced that it would award this year’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Hu Jia, an activist for HIV/AIDS and the environment currently imprisoned in Beijing. Hu and his wife, Zeng Jingyan, have been adept at using new media to share their message of human rights activism with an international audience, making Hu Jia better known outside China than inside it.

The award ceremony was held December 17. China has continued to protest the award.

Zeng Jingyan, who remains under surveillance at the couple’s apartment, accepted the award via video, subsequently posted on YouTube. Both installments of the video are below.

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This year, Human Rights Day (December 10) had a special meaning, since it came as the 60th anniversary of the most famous United Nations document on the subject was being marked. With this in mind, we asked Jeremy Paltiel, a political scientist at Carlton University, to offer his thoughts on the meaning and marking of the anniversary in China. Here’s what Paltiel, the author of The Empire’s New Clothes: Cultural Particularism and Universal Values in China’s Quest for Global Status and a contributor to the edited volume Confucianism and Human Rights, wrote in response on December 12:

By Jeremy Paltiel

Today, December 12, 2008 Xinhua reports that China’s President and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao sent a letter to a symposium held by the China Association for the Study of Human Rights to commemorate International Human Rights Day, the 60th Anniversary of the passage by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his letter, Hu avers that since the founding of New China in 1949 China has made steady progress in the protection of human rights according to China’s “national situation” culminating in the solemn enshrinement of the principle of respect and protection of human rights in the Constitution of the Communist Party of China and the state constitution of the PRC. The letter was read out by the Vice-Director of Party’s “Publicity Department” a.k.a. Propaganda Department concurrently the head of the Central Committee’s office for foreign propaganda and the State Council Information Office Wang Chen.

This symposium and Hu’s letter took place against the background of “Charter 2008.” This document, (modeled on the Charter 77 movement of led by the dissident Czech playwright and later president Vaclav Havel in 1977) was signed by 303 well-known intellectuals, legal practitioners and human rights activists, from the length and breadth of China. Both documents were written in the shadow of the thirtieth anniversary of China’s opening under Deng Xiaoping that the Communist Party is celebrating this month. The Charter by contrast, gives credit to “Democracy Wall” the popular movement that accompanied and promoted the Party’s reform thirty years ago until it was shut down on the orders of Deng.

Unlike Hu’s letter, the Charter specifies doleful human rights events under Communist party rule – the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, the Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, 6.4 (1989) and the continuing repression of popular religious observance.

The Charter sets out ideals that they wish to see promoted : freedom, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutionalism setting forth nineteen recommendations beginning with constitutional revision, checks and balances, democratic legislation, judicial independence, public control of public institutions including the placement of the armed forces under the authority of the state (as opposed to the Party); human rights protection and guarantees; public election for public office; equal status for urban and rural residents; freedom of association; freedom of assembly; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; civic (as opposed to ideological) education; protection of property; fiscal reform to ensure fair and responsible taxation; social welfare protection; environmental protection; federalism; transitional justice – compensation for past abuse.

Already some of the signatories have disappeared from public view and presumed to have been placed under arrest. It is worth examining Charter 08 in relation to China’s most recent human rights White Paper –“China’s Efforts and Achievements in Promoting the Rule of Law (2008.02)” This document claims that

The rule of law signifies that a political civilization has developed to a certain historic stage. As the crystallization of human wisdom, it is desired and pursued by people of all countries.

The Chinese people have made protracted and unremitting struggles for democracy, freedom, equality and the building of a country under the rule of law. They know well the significance and value of the rule of law, and thus cherish the fruits they have achieved in building China into a country under the rule of law.

The rule of law in a country is determined by and conforms to its national conditions and social system. To govern the country according to law and build a socialist country under the rule of law is the Chinese people’s demand, pursuit and practice.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has led the Chinese people in successfully opening up the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Along this road, China, in line with the objective requirements arising in the course of continuous economic, political, cultural and social development, has upheld the organic unity of the CPC’s leadership, the position of the people as masters of the country and law-based governance, stuck to the principle of people first, advocated the spirit of the rule of law, fostered the idea of democracy and rule of law, freedom and equality, fairness and justice, developed and improved the socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics, promoted the exercise of administrative functions in accordance with the law in all respects, deepened the reform of the judicial system, perfected the mechanism of restraint of and supervision over the use of power, guaranteed the citizens’ lawful rights and interests, maintained social harmony and stability, and continuously promoted institutionalization of all work.

There is no contradiction allowed here between the security of the rule of law and the paternalism of Party leadership. Nothing requires contestation because everything is already guaranteed.

Havel’s Charter was directed as much at his complacent countrymen as it was at the Communist regime of Gustav Husak. The policies of “normalization” had distributed middle class comforts like automobiles and country homes in return for conformity. Czechoslovakia had practiced distribution at the expense of the long-term growth of the economy. China’s communist authorities by contrast have promoted growth above all else, pushing high speed growth to the exclusion of practically everything, including the environment and public health. In the process however, tens of millions have been lifted from poverty and millions now enjoy a middle-class lifestyle unimaginable at the onset of reform. The crisis of faith that afflicted the legitimacy of the Communist Party at the beginning of the 1980s has given way to public demonstrations of loyalty to the Party and nation, whether it be through spontaneous campaigns against foreign support for the Dalai Lama or altruistic mobilization on behalf of earthquake victims.

It isn’t as though Chinese are unaware of the venality and outright corruption of communist party officials, nor do they relish the heavy-handed paternalism of the state. Most are acutely aware of the deep fissures in Chinese society and are cognizant of the pervasive injustice that surrounds a bifurcated labor market for rural and urban residents. Two factors mitigate against the perception of unfairness that could motivate widespread dissatisfaction and public sympathy with China’s scattered and largely ignored human rights activists. One is the optimism born of successful striving, rewarded by the demonstrable trappings of material success, second is the pessimism born of the deep fear of the fragility of the current social edifice. The two faces of this ambivalence were demonstrated most clearly in the successful mounting of the Beijing Olympics and the tainted milk crisis that immediately followed. More than anyone gives them credit, Chinese are acutely aware of who is on their heels and how jealously they must guard the fruits of their striving.

Absent a social safety net, and absent a reliable system of the rule of law, they have no choice but to put their faith in the constituted authority of the Communist Party. It is precisely because they are aware of the profoundly uneven distribution of the benefits of reform that the Chinese middle class is hostile to foreign efforts to denigrate the achievements of the Chinese state and condemn its shortcomings. The Communist Party constantly reminds them of the miraculous transformation of their lives and urges them to protect the fruits of their striving by showing loyalty. By contrast, the critics, dissidents and foreign naysayers seem to suggest that all the fruits of their labor are born in sin. Looking at the unwashed masses at their doorstep, the claims of human rights activists have the whiff of revolution about them. “Been there, done that” the elders might say, while the young and college educated beat the drum chanting “China number 1.” In many ways the debate between China’s cheer-leaders and its foreign and domestic critics, lies along two kinds of awareness about the distance traveled and a consciousness about what remains to be done. It is a relationship between pride and anxiety. In many ways the Party pumps up the pride in order to assuage the thinly-veiled and profound anxieties that afflict China’s middle classes.

Both the Party and its loyal urban support base know the flimsy premise of their mutual support, but both are anxious to maintain the basis of their reciprocity. That is why in the midst of a global crisis the Party is desperate to extend the trend of high speed growth. Only the constant promise of striving for a better future links China’s “haves” with its “have-nots.” In today’s China universal striving displaces universal rights. So long as loyalty is rewarded with an open license to participate in the culture of universal striving then individual claims on the state have little purchase on the public consciousness. So far the bargain that Deng Xiaoping struck between the Party and the Chinese public with his Southern Tour of 1992 still holds: by opening the private economy, individual enterprise was diverted from public concerns to private affairs. The Party manages the market and the market, not the Party, provides the yardstick of individual failure and success. Success brings its own reward. Opportunity is public, responsibility is individual.

Hence, when the Party leader proclaims his desire for cooperation and dialogue in the area of human rights maintaining as the most basic principle the notion that material life should continue to improve and spread throughout China and the world in a spirit of harmony, he is neither cynical nor disingenuous. Just as individuals in China vie for economic success, so do various nations participate in a global playing field which should not discriminate on the basis of values or culture. However, we should not be surprised that Hu’s letter to the China Association for the Study of Human Rights makes no specific reference to any of the thirty articles in the Universal Declaration. Instead General Secretary Hu stated that China “will base its human rights development on the basic situation of the country while acknowledging the universal value of human rights” and place priority on the right to subsistence (shengcun quan) and the right to development. Instead of the normal understanding of rights as claims, the program of universal human rights has been assimilated to the general discourse of striving.

Yet today, the underlying basis of the spectacular growth of the Chinese economy is under global stress. China’s exports have dropped precipitously and it is unclear whether the Chinese state has the wherewithal to reinflate the economy quickly and promote the growth of domestic consumption to replace shrinking export sales. Without the universal discourse of development through striving and effort there is no legitimacy. Moreover the careful management of an economic open door with ideological filters and “special characteristics” is likely to be strained. The very fact that Hu has emphasized the universality of human rights discourse and international cooperation and dialogue means that he is aware that China cannot escape interdependence, nor can the discourse of striving permanently overlay the language of rights claims when the government cannot fulfil the basic guarantee of subsistence. Even if his letter was intended to distract international attention from the signatories of Charter 08, the marking of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration is not without significance. Should the prosperity and security of China’s emergent middle class be threatened, the loyalty which has sustained Communist Party rule is likely to be questioned. Whether this will be enough to make common cause with precarious rural migrants in favour of universal rights remains to be seen. All that we know for certain is that rights discourse is out there, available, even endorsed by the publicity department of the Communist Party of China, and waiting to be deployed

In the short run, Charter 2008 is likely to attract more attention from international media than it does domestically, with international attention prompting the usual harsh denunciations from Chinese officials. The recent cancellation of the EU-China summit as a result of French President Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama is a demonstration of the uncompromising mood of the Party towards unsolicited foreign advice. In the current climate, fear of uncertainty is not likely to embolden anyone to go much further to support “the usual suspects” that constitute the signatories of this Charter. Instead, we should watch in the coming months what happens when the largest cohort of university graduates in Chinese history attempts to find work in a shrinking labor market. Millions of parents sacrificed to put their children through college, while students sublimated their desires in the effort to move ahead through education. Long inured to politics, families are hoping to reap the rewards of a secure middle-class life. Sometime soon, the ideology of striving will meet the harsh reality of market economics.

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