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City won't rain on this parade float

Pasadena rejects calls to take action in regard to a tournament entry with a Beijing Games theme.

October 31, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Pasadena officials have rejected calls that the city condemn China's human rights record or take any other action regarding a controversial Rose Parade float celebrating the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The decision came despite impassioned protests and is a key victory for the Tournament of Roses as well as prominent Chinese Americans and business interests sponsoring the planned float.

"Voters look to us for local issues like planning, police protection and potholes," said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard shortly after the City Council meeting ended late Monday evening. "I believe the proper channel for dealing with human rights is through the federal government and not the state and local government."

John Li, president of Caltech Falun Club, which is associated with Falun Gong -- a spiritual group outlawed in China that has led efforts to condemn the float -- accused the City Council of missing an opportunity to take a moral stand against China's human rights record and set an example for other cities to follow.

"I'm so sorry to see the result," Li said. "What makes them hide from the facts?"

The City Council's decision late Monday ends months of debate that has brought to the forefront Southern California's ever-growing ties to China and the conflicting views of local Chinese Americans -- many of whom share a collective memory of a downtrodden homeland but now see the economic boom and modest freedoms in modern China as massive improvements.

To some, the proposed Rose Parade float itself represented how far China had come. But other groups, including the Falun Gong, Tibetan independence activists, Burmese interests and advocates of religious and journalistic freedom, offered accounts of torture and wrongful imprisonment at the hands of Chinese authorities, saying they provide emotional reminders of China's serious shortcomings.

It was because of that testimony that the Pasadena's Human Relations Commission recommended in September that the City Council create an ad hoc committee to bring opposing sides on the matter together and issue a resolution addressing concern over the violation of human rights in China.

But by the end of Monday's meeting, the seven-member City Council agreed on more generic terms that didn't even mention China. They approved motions to endorse the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and denounce human rights violations wherever they occur.

The statements will be delivered to federal officials, all of Pasadena's five sister cities -- including one in China -- and the consuls general for the countries those sister cities belong to. The transmittal will include an explanation that testimony against China's human rights record heard before the City Council prompted the action.

"This is not what we were elected to do," said Councilman Steve Madison, who worried that the debate would only encourage more appeals for issues outside the city's jurisdiction.

"Next week it will be Cuba," he said. "The week after that, North Korea. Then the next week, Guantanamo Bay."

Kenneth Hardy, chairman of the Human Relations Commission, urged the City Council to accept his group's recommendations, explaining that Pasadena had a moral responsibility to address the issue and had taken a stand on foreign affairs in the past, such as prohibiting contracts with companies tied to South Africa to protest apartheid.

"Naturally, we're disappointed," Hardy said of Monday's decision. "It's a general statement. Making a general statement is important, but that wasn't what was before the Human Relations Commission."

The Tournament of Roses issued a letter at the City Council meeting reaffirming its position and stating that the idea for the float was presented locally without any connection with Chinese officials.

"Government officials will not be on the float, nor will they be in the group of entertainers and artists that will ride on the float or walk alongside the float," wrote CL Keedy, president and chairman of the board for the Tournament of Roses.

"The application for this float was accepted because we believed and still believe that the Olympic Games are the largest celebration of sport in the world and that the float was consistent with and supportive of the parade theme, "Passports to the World's Celebrations," Keedy wrote.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Keedy said he applauded the City Council's decision.

"The separation between the float and human rights was the correct move on their part," he said.

Final details of the float's design are still being developed. An early drawing shows a group of colorful cartoon characters, the Games' official mascots.

The float was paid for by 10 wealthy Chinese American donors, some of whom have business interests in China, and Pasadena-based Avery Dennison Corp., which has thousands of employees in China and assumed half of the float's $400,000 cost.

"In the beginning, we didn't think it would be a problem," said Sue Zhang, a fundraiser for Beijing's Tsinghua University who brought together the float's donors. "Everything was by the law. They cannot cancel the float. [Activists] just wanted to use this issue to get people concerned with human rights."

Councilman Chris Holden supports the float but wanted his colleagues to address China directly in its resolution. He said the goal of the sister-city program was to create dialogue on important issues such as human rights, even if they are uncomfortable.

"It feels like we wasted a lot of time," Holden said. "This was an opportunity to be specific about how people are being treated in China. We're not saying 'don't have the float.' "

david.pierson@latimes.com

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