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Some Say China's Agenda Leads New Year Parades

January 30, 2006|John M. Glionna and Hemmy So | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — 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."

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