The floats won’t begin rolling for two weeks. The giant slinking dragon costume remains mothballed. But a push by the controversial Falun Gong sect to march in the city’s Chinese New Year Parade has ignited political fireworks over whether China’s government is trying to meddle in U.S. politics.
Falun Gong, which is outlawed in China, has been barred by sponsors of the Feb. 11 event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to downtown San Francisco and caps a two-week celebration of the Chinese New Year, which began Sunday. The group has also been excluded from similar events in Southern California; organizers of parades in the San Gabriel Valley and downtown Los Angeles rejected Falun Gong’s applications in 2005 and 2006.
Parade organizers say there is no room for groups such as Falun Gong, which China contends is an “evil cult” that aims to overthrow the Beijing government.
“Having them is an endorsement of their philosophy of overthrowing the Chinese government,” said Pinki Chen, organizer of the San Gabriel Valley Annual Lunar New Year Parade. “We just don’t want to get involved in something like that.... We have a lot of business connected to China.”
But Falun Gong practitioners describe their group as a nonpolitical self-improvement regimen based on exercise and meditation, and say parade officials are simply doing Beijing’s bidding.
“There’s no reason we should not be in the parades,” said John Li, a Los Angeles-based Falun Gong volunteer coordinator, noting that his group’s parade team consists of a lotus-flower float, meditators, drummers and dancers. “It’s just because we’re Falun Gong.”
In San Francisco, a city with one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Chinese Americans, and which is routinely visited by Beijing’s top government officials, the Falun Gong dispute has resulted in caustic name-calling, threats between two of the city’s most headstrong public figures, and warnings from the Chinese Consulate.
Central to the standoff are San Francisco County Supervisor Chris Daly and longtime Chinatown activist and fundraiser Rose Pak, who is praised by supporters for her plain-spoken manner but attacked by critics for her frequent profanity and pointed political attacks. Many here refer to her as “the Dragon Lady of Chinatown.”
Pak -- who has been called the city’s most powerful citizen not in public office -- has argued that Falun Gong is too sharp-edged for the family-oriented parade, which is sponsored by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
For years, Pak, a 57-year-old former Bay Area journalist, accompanied former Mayor Willie Brown on official city visits to Beijing, where they were treated like major foreign dignitaries, officials in San Francisco say.
“It’s well-known that Beijing accords Rose Pak the red-carpet treatment and her relationship with the Chinese reaches to the highest levels of government,” said the 33-year-old Daly. “But if her reception’s an exchange for doing China’s bidding here in town, I have a problem with that.”
Pak dismisses such suggestions: “I’m being accused of being a foreign agent taking millions of dollars from the Chinese government. I’ve got a mind to call the consul general and say, ‘Where is all this money that I’ve allegedly been getting?’ ”
At one packed and heated City Hall hearing last week, Daly suggested that Pak is pushing China’s political agenda. She in turn accused Daly of triggering an FBI probe into her longtime relationship with Beijing officials.
“You’re a liberal supervisor and this is what you’re advocating,” said Pak, an advisor to the Chinese chamber. “That sends a chill down my spine.”
San Francisco’s Falun Gong controversy erupted in 2001 when Daly introduced a resolution urging the Chinese government to end its persecution of group members, whose numbers in China alone have been estimated at 100 million.
The motion was defeated, thanks in part to lobbying by Pak, Daly says. At the time, the Chinese consul general in San Francisco sent a letter to the president of the Board of Supervisors, defending its stance toward the group.
Daly later testified on Capitol Hill prior to passage of a congressional resolution calling on Beijing to end what Daly called the “anti-democratic and heavy-handed” treatment of Falun Gong practitioners.
During his testimony, Daly also mentioned Pak’s campaign against the group in San Francisco.
In last week’s four-hour public hearing about Falun Gong’s parade request, Daly repeated his contention that the Chinese Consulate’s 2001 letter demonstrated how Beijing was trying to impose its will on local politics.
Moments later, Pak accused Daly of reporting her to the FBI. Daly acknowledged in an interview that in 2004 he met with an FBI agent, who contacted him after his testimony before Congress. “He asked a lot of questions about Rose,” he said of the agent. “They never called me back.”
Pak had a few words for Daly and the FBI: “Bring ‘em on.”
“I don’t care if it’s the FBI, CIA, IRS or INS -- I’m trembling in my boots,” she said. “If working for community interests merits an FBI investigation, I’m very honored.” She called Daly a “jingoistic, superficial bully. Chris Daly should join the John Birch Society. He sees communists behind every rock and tree.”
Pak said the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, a San Francisco group, voted unanimously to exclude Falun Gong from the parade, yet she is taking the heat: “When you step on my toes, I fight back.” Daly disagreed: “Rose makes the calls at the chamber.”
Falun Gong marched in San Francisco’s parade in 2004 but was excluded last year after sponsors accused members of handing out political tracts to onlookers. In protest, Daly last year let two Falun Gong members ride in his processional car, from which he hung banners extolling the group.
In a statement last week, the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco warned supervisors to “refrain from making any decisions that will cause harm to Sino-U.S. relations.” The consulate also chastised Daly for making “irresponsible remarks and accusations” about China.
Daly has been lampooned in the local Chinese press. A recent edition of AsianWeek featured a front-page photo of Daly with this headline stamped on his forehead: “Butt Out!”
Falun Gong has received an equally frosty reception from sponsors of Chinese New Year events in Southern California, many of whom worry that the group will disrupt parades by forcing politics onto the public.
Group members dismiss such accusations. Li, the Los Angeles-based volunteer coordinator, said Falun Gong would not push a political agenda or hand out brochures and noted that it had participated in other parades in the Los Angeles area, including the Hollywood Christmas Parade.
After their rejection last year from the San Gabriel Valley Lunar New Year Parade, Falun Gong decided to fight back. The group made presentations to the Alhambra and San Gabriel city councils, hoping to convince officials that Falun Gong was a peaceful, spiritual group that could contribute positively to the parade.
Falun Gong members lobbied the local chambers of commerce, city officials, even a congressman -- to no avail.
“They washed their hands of it, saying they turned over the organization of the events to Pinki Chen and her company,” said Falun Gong member Dan Sanchez, who led the lobbying efforts.
Although organizers have already denied requests to march in this year’s San Gabriel Valley and Golden Dragon parades, both scheduled for Saturday, Falun Gong has not given up.
“We talked to government officials and organizers. If they still reject us, we cannot accept those kinds of results,” coordinator Michael Ye said. “We will protest in front of the Chinese Consulate and speak to elected officials.”
In San Francisco, both sides agree on one point: The fight isn’t over.
Daly says he won’t ride in this year’s parade unless Falun Gong marches.
Fine, counters Pak: “People come to the parade to watch the floats and the bands, certainly not the politicians.”
And Pak welcomes Daly’s suggestion that the city review its contribution, about $7,000, to the parade’s funding.
“Keep your money,” she said. “You want to play politics? I could suspend the whole parade and take it to Oakland. I could do that.”
Glionna reported from San Francisco and So from Los Angeles.