The Chinese government has asked Orange County not to recognize two upcoming Chinese New Year performances backed by supporters of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, drawing a stern rebuke from the chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors.
China regards the Falun Gong as a cult and a threat to the government, which outlawed the group in 1999. Falun Gong says it is an apolitical movement based on Chinese breathing exercises, and asserts its members have been persecuted.
In a Dec. 17 letter, China's consulate general in Los Angeles said the Chinese New Year Spectacular events aimed to "defame China's image in the international community and undermine the development of U.S.-China relations." The letter compared Falun Gong to the Branch Davidians, which engaged federal agents in a standoff over illegal weapons stockpiles that killed 82 members near Waco, Texas, in 1993; and to the Peoples Temple, of which more than 900 members committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.
The Chinese New Year performances -- Jan. 15 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido and Jan. 18 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles -- are produced by New Tang Dynasty Television, a satellite station based in New York that says it offers views differing from the Chinese government's.
A spokesman acknowledged that some of the station's supporters are involved in Falun Gong and that a past show included an "interpretive" performance seemingly sympathetic to the group.
The letter offended Supervisor Chris Norby, the board chairman, to whom it was addressed. In an interview Wednesday, he said it amounted to "an attempt by a foreign government to dictate to American elected officials what organizations we should support, recognize or associate with."
Norby said he had not brought up the matter with his colleagues on the board and had no plans to take official action in a board meeting. But he drafted a response to the consulate, saying: "Your letter is a formal request that the Orange County Board of Supervisors cooperate with your government's suppression of Falun Gong. . . . I am personally insulted by your request and will certainly not honor it."
It was not clear if the consulate's letter was sent to Orange County as part of a mass mailing to local officials, or if Chinese envoys had a specific reason to target the board; though the letter was addressed to Norby, it was not signed.
A spokesman for the consulate did not return several telephone calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also did not return a call, and representatives of Yvonne B. Burke, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, could not be reached.
The episode is yet another chapter in the back-and-forth between China and Falun Gong supporters in California. Falun Gong has been allowed to march in several parades but has been banned from others, including those in San Francisco, downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
This week, Falun Gong supporters and other critics of China's human rights record planned to protest a float in the Rose Parade celebrating Beijing's staging of the 2008 Olympics; the protest largely fizzled.
In 2006, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco issued a statement warning supervisors there to "refrain from making any decisions that will cause harm to Sino-U.S. relations" when they were considering Falun Gong's request to march in a Chinese New Year parade there. The group was allowed to march in 2004, but was denied subsequent permission.
Shizhong Chen, president of a human rights group called the Conscience Foundation, which has supported the rights of Falun Gong members, said Wednesday that he was not surprised by the consulate's letter.
"I'd be surprised if they didn't do this," he said. The letter "is both an attempt at suppression by the Chinese government and a reflection of [its] fear of people hearing the truth."
Joe Trentacosta, a spokesman for New Tang, said the Chinese New Year shows do not include reference to Falun Gong, although elements of Taoism and Buddhism are reflected.