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COLUMN ONE

Subtle art of being 'No. 1'

Three Southland Chinese American activists vie for the mysterious, unofficial post that acts as a bridge to the mainland.

November 11, 2008|David Pierson | Pierson is a Times staff writer.

As the death toll rose after the Sichuan earthquake last spring, three leaders of Southern California's mainland Chinese community rushed to mobilize assistance.

Sue Zhang, a septuagenarian socialite whose father was a famed Communist Revolution-era general, helped organize a benefit concert at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse.

John Chen, a onetime local government official in China who runs a furniture business in Ontario, led a candlelight vigil at an outdoor amphitheater in Monterey Park.

John Cheng, a soft-spoken maker of all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, announced fundraising drives in Chinese-language media.

All told, they helped raise more than $400,000. They also raised their own profiles.

Over the last few years, Zhang, Chen and Cheng have been at the center of polite jostling for who will emerge as "No. 1," a title that has taken on almost mythic proportions in the Chinese community. It's a mysterious and decidedly unofficial post that some describe as being an ambassador bridging the Chinese government with Chinese immigrants in America.

There's no pay, much grief and no clear process for gaining the title. To be recognized as No. 1, a person must have strong ties to the communist government but also be seen as a leader in the mainland Chinese American community, where there is far from unanimous support for the homeland government.

Then there is the plight of the last two who were No. 1.

San Marino businesswoman and FBI informant Katrina Leung exited the scene after being accused of being a double agent for China in 2003.

At her peak, Leung was a Republican activist who enjoyed unrivaled access to China's top leadership, claiming to have held 2,100 meetings with Chinese officials over 20 years. She helped arrange a meeting for former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and the Chinese president at the time, Jiang Zemin.

Before Leung, the No. 1 was said to be entrepreneur and newspaper owner Ted Sioeng, who became embroiled in a fundraising scandal linking Chinese money to the Democratic National Committee in the mid-1990s.

The stigma has taken a toll.

Zhang, Chen and Cheng said it was unfair to be compared to Leung and Sioeng. The three said their activities are cultural, not political, and they downplayed their ambitions to seize the role. The position of No. 1, they said, could use some distance from its controversial past.

"All the No. 1s have been disgraced," Chen said. "Some are superstitious and say the position is bad luck."

Yet there is much to be gained as well. Whoever gets the title becomes the lead contact for local and visiting Chinese officials. The new No. 1 can claim status in the overseas Chinese community, potentially boosting business ties and gaining entree into the upper reaches of the Chinese government.

"It will give you credibility when you do business in China," said Daniel Deng, a prominent Chinese American attorney based in the San Gabriel Valley. "They roll out the red carpet for you. It's something you can brag about, that you're helping with overseas Chinese affairs. You're like an underground mayor because the No. 1 has the most guanxi" -- connections.

Zhang, Chen and Cheng all have strong relationships with the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles. Officials there say the three competitors are benign and girded by the desire to improve relations between China and the United States.

Xu Chaoyou, deputy consul general, said it was well known in the community that the three were battling for power.

"In Chinese tradition, someone always wants to be predominant," he added. "Like in a family, someone needs to stand out. It takes time. People are watching."

Xu said the three regularly invite consulate officials to their events and said his office plays no role in selecting the community's leader.

"We don't have the authority" to tell them what to do, he said. "They help us do our job better. I'm here to promote a better relationship with China and help people do business. If anyone wants to help us do that, we'll let them."

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At times, the three can appear to be allies, holding meetings together to organize events. But "they are fighting very hard," said Richard Koo, a prominent accountant and old hand in the local Chinese community. "They have to show what they're doing" for China.

Using news conferences, banquets and celebrations, Zhang and Chen have helped promote almost every significant event concerning China in recent years, including the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the local community protesting Japan's bid for a U.N. Security Council seat in 2005.

The competition among the three was sent into overdrive this year with a flurry of events starting with the Rose Parade, followed by the crisis in Tibet, the Olympic torch relay, protests against CNN, the Sichuan earthquake and finally the Olympic Games in August.

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