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Opposition to China float fails to blossom

The Rose Parade entry is ready to roll as efforts to link it to human rights wilt.

December 30, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The shell of the Rose Parade float celebrating the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games sits in a sprawling warehouse complex in Azusa.

In a matter of hours, it will be adorned with thousands of carnations and roses, outfitted with fireworks and accompanied by 124 costumed Beijing opera singers, acrobats, traditional dancers and plate spinners down Colorado Boulevard.

Critics of China's communist government hoped to use the elaborate float and its worldwide stage at the Rose Parade on Tuesday as a rallying point for protests about the nation's human rights record.

But despite months of news conferences and protests, China foes have done little to change the parade's plans and have generated little support -- or interest -- from Southern California's large Chinese American community.

The lukewarm response underscores the increasingly close relationship Southern California shares with China. There may be no other time in which China has commanded as much influence and interest as it does today.

The San Gabriel Valley is home to one of the largest Chinese American communities in the nation and a growing business class that has made Southern California the chief trading region with China in the United States. To many, the 12-hour or longer flight to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou is more of a commute than a voyage.

Business ties between the two countries forge quickly, and though many here believe China needs to improve its approach to human rights, more attention is paid to fueling the economy to improve the lot of ordinary Chinese.

"We haven't talked about it," said Cat Chao, host of a popular Mandarin-language talk show on KAZN-AM (1300), about the Olympics float. "The majority of Chinese think the Olympics is bigger than human rights and that human rights are already improving. They'd rather see China improve on issues like pollution."

Philip Young, president of the local Chinese American Citizens Alliance, said he planned to attend the Rose Parade. But he'll be there to cheer his teenage son and daughter in the Arcadia High School marching band, not to applaud or dismiss the Beijing float.

"China needs to improve its human rights record like any country, but to pick the Rose Parade as the forum is inappropriate," Young said.

"I'm really turned off. As a Chinese American, I'm proud China is having the Olympics. It's their coming-out party. After 20, 30 years of economic improvement, it's sad that some still see China as a threat and not an opportunity," he said.

Even local supporters of independence for Taiwan -- who rarely miss a chance to condemn China's government -- have largely stayed out of the parade debate.

Some Taiwan activists will hand out fliers at the parade. But after much debate among community leaders, they decided it was too risky to criticize the float because it had such broad backing among local Chinese, some of whom they rely on for support.

"If we come out and protest this float in public, we may anger many Chinese people in L.A.," said a leading local Taiwanese activist who wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the internal debate. "They consider the Beijing Olympics a point of pride. We don't want a war between the Chinese and Taiwanese in L.A."

At the heart of the issue is a float celebrating China's first Olympic Games -- apropos, tournament officials say, because the upcoming parade's theme is "Passport to the World's Celebrations." Backers say China's government had no role in building the float, and that it was paid for by Pasadena-based label maker Avery Dennison Corp. and a coalition of Chinese American business people and philanthropists.

Many of the donors, including Avery Dennison, have significant business interests in China, but through representatives they have denied that those relationships played a role in their decision to fund the float.

A disparate group of activists banded together to block the float but failed. The Pasadena City Council dismissed the recommendations of its own human relations commission to issue critical remarks on China's human rights record.

And after weeks of negotiations, activists failed to reach an agreement with Pasadena police to allow an event on or near the parade route to counter the Olympics float.

Left with no other option, protesters have pledged to turn their backs on the float when it passes them along the parade route on New Year's Day.

The activists acknowledged that they have struggled to generate widespread support in the Chinese American community. But they believe their failure comes less from support of the float than out of fear.

"Most Chinese don't dare to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party," said John Li, president of the Caltech Falun Gong Club, one of the original critics of the float. "They worry their business [with China] can be influenced if America puts pressure on China's human rights record."

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