S.F. keeping a light on for China? Not exactly

Times Staff Writer

The Olympic torch relay for the Beijing 2008 Games is set to make its only North American appearance here next week, but this politically charged city is still squabbling over whether to roll out or roll up the red carpet.

One supervisor accused Mayor Gavin Newsom of trying to keep the relay route a secret to stymie critics of China’s human rights record. Advocates for Tibet, Darfur and the religious sect Falun Gong are among those who plan to protest the April 9 event, but rumors are flying that police will stop them from unfurling banners or even holding up signs. Newsom denies it.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors took a stand that seemed anything but welcoming, voting 8 to 3 for a resolution to greet the torch “with alarm and protest.” The board shelved a competing resolution to welcome “in the true spirit of the Olympics” the Beijing torch and two others that arrive here next week -- a world human rights torch and a Tibetan freedom torch.


In introducing his successful resolution, Supervisor Chris Daly cited China’s 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square as well as its repression of the press and religious groups.

“These may seem a bit out of reach for San Francisco supervisors. But this torch is coming to our city,” he said to an ovation from a packed crowd that included robed monks and those holding up letters that spelled out “Expose Beijing.” “And with it comes China’s record and the attention of the international press. The eyes of the world will be watching San Francisco on April 9. China knows this.”

Chinese officials are already displeased with the Bay Area’s reception. They cite an incendiary device recently thrown against the door of the Chinese Consulate here. Consular officials say the board’s theatrics haven’t helped.

“If this resolution passes, it will hurt the Chinese people,” consulate spokesman Defa Tong said before Tuesday’s vote. “What they are doing is an insult to the torch relay.”

By contrast, Pasadena’s City Council pointedly rejected activists’ calls to condemn China’s human rights record before this year’s Rose Parade, which featured a float celebrating the Beijing Olympics.

In San Francisco, a city that is one-third Chinese American, the torch’s impending arrival has caused friction between residents who say they want to support China’s rising economic and political power and human rights activists who want to embarrass the superpower. The activists see the lead-up to the Olympics as the best time to do so.

Protesters reject claims that they are wrongly mixing sports and politics. Although they vow to be nonviolent, they promise to line the six-mile relay route with banners and placards as the torch -- handled by about 80 volunteers -- passes along the city’s waterfront Embarcadero.

China’s violent response to recent protests in Tibet has sparked widespread condemnation.

And Beijing’s close ties to Sudan have drawn the criticism of activists seeking to end the bloodshed in the African nation’s Darfur region.

“China is putting itself out there as a citizen of the world qualified to hold an Olympics, and has a duty as an international superpower to take responsibility and help end genocide in Darfur,” said Martina Knee, spokeswoman for the Darfur Coalition. “This is an opportunity for American activists to give a strong message in person they otherwise could never give, especially in China.”

Protesters who want Newsom to take a hard-line stand against China say they have been ignored.

“The mayor refuses to talk to us. We chased him down and asked why he didn’t read our letters,” said Nordup Jamyang, vice president of the Tibetan Assn. of Northern California. “He said he had 700 letters to read. He didn’t have time.”

Newsom said: “People have the right to protest, but they don’t have the right to deny the torch to come here. They’re losing sight of what the Olympics are all about.”

Former Mayor Willie Brown, who has worked with Olympic officials to raise money for the relay, said that if protesters “have a problem with China, they ought to criticize something Chinese. The Olympics is not Chinese. The Olympics is worldwide.”

Newsom, who made the relay route public Tuesday, said he had worked hard to ensure that San Francisco gets the best exposure from the event. He wanted the torch to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, venture into the harbor aboard a boat and ride a cable car -- but those suggestions were overruled by Olympic officials.

The mayor criticized Tuesday’s vote by supervisors.

“This is par for the course in San Francisco,” he said. “You could have written this script beforehand. I have the next chapters, and I’d be surprised if I was wrong. It’s just some people’s way to say, ‘Mr. Mayor, condemn China and the torch and then host an event where everyone is happy.’ That’s not going to happen.”

Rose Pak, an activist with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, has stepped in to help the Chinese Consulate deal with the dispute: “Talk about sleeping giants; this thing could turn into a free-for-all.”

She said many elderly Chinese and families will be scared off by the protests, which are expected to draw South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actor Richard Gere, a longtime activist for Tibet.

“On what moral ground does a country that’s been involved in the slave trade in Africa and that drummed up false charges to invade Iraq shake its finger and lecture China?” she asked. “They’re turning this whole thing into something ugly. Chinese people thought they had a moment to be proud. Now they’ll stay away, bewildered.”