Protest reflects a shift in Chinese Americans’ views

Times Staff Writer

It was far from the biggest protest in Los Angeles. But when more than 1,000 demonstrators including students, business people and engineers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia rallied in front of CNN’s Hollywood headquarters a week ago, it marked a milestone for the local Chinese community.

The protest was a rare instance in which large numbers of Chinese Americans demonstrated in unison with mainland China -- in this case, calling for the firing of CNN commentator Jack Cafferty after he called the Chinese “goons” and “thugs” during a segment about China’s relationship with America.

The protest borrowed from the wave of nationalism that has swept across China in recent weeks as well as in other Chinese communities in France, Australia and even San Francisco. The protests came after anti-China critics disrupted the torch run for the Beijing Olympics.


Critics around the world have condemned China’s handling of Tibet, its environmental record and other government actions.

Though there are signs that the pro-China activities were carried out with the blessing of the Chinese government, there is little evidence that they were orchestrated by Beijing despite the claims of anti-Chinese activists.

Now, many in the Chinese community are wondering if this is the beginning of a more vocal support for China from immigrants here in Southern California and beyond.

Organizers and participants in the rallies say the pro-China demonstrations grew so large thanks to grass-roots organizing efforts on the Internet, including several favored by Chinese university students.

“If people think we’re supported by the government, they really don’t know the truth,” said Minxue He, president of UCLA’s Chinese Students and Scholars Assn., one of the most active organizations in recent weeks. “We felt that we needed to promote the Olympics to American students to let them know what’s really going on in China. This idea came from our committee members.”

His organization held pro-Olympics rallies on campus, one of which resulted in a near-scuffle with pro-Tibetan demonstrators. He said the Chinese Consulate provided his group with five inflatable Olympic mascots, but that was the extent of its support.

Nineteen years ago, rallies in support of Beijing would have been unheard of. Chinese Americans were among the thousands who stood outside the Chinese Consulate to protest the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. But dramatic changes in the nearly two decades since then have reversed the local view of China and paved the way for public demonstrations such as last Saturday’s event.

Today, Chinese Americans enjoy access to China’s booming economy, and many consider Chinese society significantly more free than in years past.

The local community also consists of more mainland Chinese than ever before -- including working-class immigrants who toil in restaurants, students who attend some of the region’s most prestigious universities and wealthy entrepreneurs who have established Chinese suburban outposts in areas such as Walnut and Rowland Heights.

The changing complexion of the community has allowed a softer view of Beijing to prosper and, some say, a greater influence from China.

Though the protests might not have been organized by the Chinese government, some of the organizers have decidedly more positive views of the mainland.

“I don’t think the Chinese government has to give marching orders,” said Clay Dube, associate director of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “I think the signals are sent when you have the foreign minister demanding an apology from CNN” and editorials in newspapers saying the same. “You don’t need to convince these students. They feel very strongly.”

One of the lead organizers of the anti-CNN rally in Hollywood, John Chen, is a former government official of the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. Now a patio furniture manufacturer living in Diamond Bar, Chen has an honorary position with the Chinese government as an overseas consultant -- a role that sometimes requires visits to China to advise officials on topics like the economy, he said.

Chen, 56, a U.S. citizen, said he and other community leaders organized last Saturday’s rally because people were fed up with what they saw as China-bashing in the Western media. “We didn’t expect such a big gathering,” said Chen, who believes most Americans would benefit from a closer relationship with China.

For the event, Chen said he borrowed 200 Chinese flags and 100 American flags from a group that does tai chi -- a Chinese martial art -- to distribute to the crowd. He advertised the event on Chinese radio and in two Chinese-language newspapers.

Though he said the decision to hold the rally was made by him and a handful of other Chinese organizations, it came after the Chinese foreign minister’s demand for CNN to apologize for Cafferty’s remarks.

Chen said he decided not to involve the Chinese Consulate in the rally after questions were raised about possible Chinese government involvement in coordinating counter-protesters for San Francisco’s Olympic torch relay April 9.

Many were caught by surprise that day by the thousands of demonstrators carrying Chinese flags -- some of whom arrived on buses that came from as far away as Los Angeles and Arizona. Anti- Beijing activists alleged that Chinese students were paid to attend by the Chinese government and that the buses were secured by the consulate.

It’s a charge that has been fiercely rejected by Chinese officials and students at USC and UCLA who say the rumors were spread to question the credibility of their support for China. Chinese campus leaders said buses were hired out of pocket or through donations collected from the popular overseas Chinese Internet bulletin board

“There’s no way the government can control us,” said Nancy Yao, president of the USC Chinese Students and Scholars Assn. “We’re doing this all on our own.”

Yao was running an Olympics promotion Wednesday in front of USC’s Alumni Park, where tables held posters with smiling Tibetan children and graphs depicting the economic growth in Tibet under Beijing’s rule. “Looks like propaganda,” muttered a passing non- Chinese student who inspected the charts.

The growing nationalism and sensitivity to China’s image overseas is born out of frustration among Chinese who expected the run-up to the Olympics to be a time when China would be applauded on the world stage. But now they’re fielding worldwide criticism for China’s actions.

“There’s resentment because, right when they were getting ready to celebrate, instead there’s a need to mobilize and pound home a different message,” said Dube, of the USC U.S.-China Institute.

“These are a rare set of circumstances where you have all this national pride because of the Olympics and then something that threatens it in a dramatic way captures the world’s attention,” Dube said.