After quake, a new role for officials

Times Staff Writer

For years, the boxy office building housing the Chinese Consulate on Shatto Place in Koreatown maintained a low profile. Its only major brush with the news came nearly two decades ago after the Tiananmen crackdown prompted Chinese Americans to hold protests there.

But after this month's deadly Sichuan earthquake, the consulate has emerged as an unlikely galvanizing force for Southern California's thriving ethnic Chinese community.

Its modest offices have swung into action and served as a donation center for a community united in grief and desperate for a connection to a country some have only recently left. Some prominent Chinese American organizations have held fundraisers, with the proceeds going not to a third-party nonprofit but directly to the consulate.

As of Friday, the consulate had collected $2 million. By contrast, the San Gabriel Pomona Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross -- a traditional recipient of donations -- has taken in $150,000 with a pledge of an additional $800,000 from the owners of the Panda Express chain of restaurants for aiding the quake-stricken area. (Nationwide, the Red Cross has received $16 million for earthquake victims).

The outpouring of support for the consulate underscores a shift in its relationship with Southern California's sprawling Chinese community. To some, quake relief marks the culmination of the government's effort to reach out to Chinese Americans in a way the consulate never has before.

In years past, local Chinese officials did little to endear themselves to the surrounding community -- a reflection of a harder-line Beijing government. Previous consul generals have been known to walk out of events attended by their Taiwanese counterparts and lecture Americans who disagreed with the Chinese Communist Party line.

But some say the current office run by Consul General Zhang Yun is more savvy in crafting a public relations message and seizing on the consulate's status as a gateway to some of China's business opportunities.

As part of the mobilization to assist in earthquake relief efforts, the office's 40 employees are regularly working 18-hour shifts. Consular officials have also attended a concert fundraiser at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse and a candlelight vigil in Monterey Park's Barnes Park to accept donations. They were present at the news conference for the Panda Restaurant Group donation.

"The diplomats today have more freedom and flexibility to engage with the community," said Philip Young, president of the Los Angeles Chinese American Citizens Alliance. "In the past, they would have to worry about saying the wrong thing. They are more sophisticated now and not as stiff."

In just the last few years, consulate officials have arranged visits to China for Chinatown leaders, offered assistance to companies trying to do business in China and regularly had officials attend major cultural events.

Isadora Chen, a spokeswoman for the consulate, said officials are not trying to polish their image but now see themselves as being part of the community.

"Image isn't the most important thing," Chen said. "We want to do something for the overseas Chinese and mainstream communities. We work as a bridge, and I think we're doing that very well."

Privately, some community leaders see other motives in the generous contributions to the consulate, speculating that donors hope to gain recognition from officials and advance their business ties in China. They point to the certificates of appreciation the consulate gives to anyone who donates.

"If a person truly donates money because they believe in a good cause, they shouldn't care whether people will see or know their name or amount," said John Li, president of Caltech's club of Falun Gong, a banned spiritual group in China. "Just do it out of your good conscience. You don't need anyone to recognize it."

Donors, however, say they don't expect any quid pro quo.

Some said they chose the Chinese government over the Red Cross because they feared the Red Cross would not send their money directly to Sichuan and would take a large percentage for overhead costs.

Michael Oko, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, said he has heard those rumors but insisted they were unfounded. His organization sends the donations directly to earthquake victims and takes out 9% for the operation budget. A donation also qualifies as a tax write-off.

"I'm not sure what the source of the rumors are but we've been hearing a lot of concerns," Oko said.

The consulate also accepted a $400,000 donation from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which set up donation booths at a Cathay Bank parking lot Saturday in San Gabriel.

"There's more transparency," chamber President Chester Chong said about why the donation went to the consulate. "They've changed so much. Before, their attitude was 'I'm government; I'll see you when I want to.' You don't have to bow anymore. Now we trust each other."

On Thursday, the consulate's press office sent mass e-mails to mostly Chinese-language media inviting them to view donated relief materials loaded into Air China cargo containers headed for the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu.

More than a dozen people from the media attended, snapping pictures of volunteers from a Chinese church in San Gabriel stacking boxes of tents with "Made in China" labels on a wooden pallet. More than anything else, the shelters are needed to house the homeless, officials said.

"We want the process to be transparent," said Ingrid Luo Wang, political and press consul, after she was asked why news media were asked to witness the process. "We want people to know this is a channel for donations."

On Friday, a steady stream of donors -- including a janitor from Hebei province and a healthcare worker from Hong Kong -- walked into the consulate's lobby and lined up with wads of cash and checks. Officials said they were seeking to have the donations qualified for a tax write-off.

That was of little concern for Dana Xiong, an accountant from Shanghai who drove two hours from Orange County to deliver $200. "It's for my heavy heart," she said, walking away with a receipt and a stamped certificate thanking her for her donation.

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david.pierson@latimes.com

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