The San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce's decision to bar Falun Gong from Saturday's Chinese New Year parade has grabbed headlines and raised concerns about discrimination. However, what is flying under the radar is the simple question of why the local participation of this meditation group -- known for its slow-moving exercises, colourful parades and history of being persecuted by the atheist Chinese communist government -- would cause so much international commotion?
A line from The Chronicle's Jan. 31st article on the parade controversy provides some clue: "The dispute reaches around the globe: Beijing's government has a strong interest in cultivating the loyalty of Chinese people overseas." So, what is seemingly at stake -- at least in part -- is Beijing's ability to retain the loyalty of Chinese communities in the United States, many of whom have formed their own identities. In San Francisco, this translates to a clash of identities. On one hand is the traditional Chinese culture, celebrated by American-born Chinese, permanent residents and recent immigrants alike as their precious cultural heritage. On the other hand is the communist-flavoured, nationalistic representation of China that aims for the global unity of all Chinese. The latter aspiration is what Beijing's communist leaders hope to cultivate.
Facing global disillusionment with communism, the Chinese government increasingly turned to culture and nationalism as the means of inspiring loyalty among Chinese people overseas. Under the banner of cultural diplomacy, Beijing's leaders have invested a vast amount of capital to boost the Chinese Communist Party's influence in Chinese communities overseas, according to a study for the independent Jamestown Foundation in Washington. The dominating presence of Beijing's state-run, 24/7 satellite CCTV-4 station, the People's Daily, and the China Radio International in Chinese communities attest to their dogged efforts.
Educate, mold and control -- what appears to be the party's basic propaganda strategy reminds one of a monopolistic corporation. However unrealistic its goals may be, the party still harks back to the days when the emperor commanded the loyalty of distant Chinese subjects, regardless of their location.
In this context, it is not hard to understand why the Beijing government sees the participation of Falun Gong in the New Year parade as a challenge to its ideological and cultural crusade for the "hearts and minds" of people in the San Francisco Chinese community. The Falun Gong spiritual group is known as much for its principles of "truthfulness, compassion and tolerance" as for its colourful parades that celebrate traditional Tang Dynasty culture. This assertion of spiritual and cultural values is at odds with the Chinese Communist Party's insistence on atheist materialism and ideological loyalty. Thus, the party's persecution of Falun Gong can be seen as an inevitable clash of cultures that reflects the insecurities of an ideologically challenged regime.
In this clash of cultures, the San Francisco community need not look outside for an answer, but only to its own history for its cultural and political identity. Ever since the arrival of the earliest Chinese settlers in San Francisco, an independent community that does not answer to the Chinese government has thrived and expanded, creating in the process a rich and unique culture. In the generations that followed, each has carved out its own identity. Today, for a Chinese American, the sense of culture and identity can be individual based, centred on the local community or aligned with an American or Chinese-American consciousness.
Regardless of foreign demands, the San Francisco community only needs to consider what is best in the interests of its community, the rights of its residents and the local laws and regulations. The Chinese New Year parade, for example, is a vibrant San Francisco tradition that reflects the accomplishments and rich cultural heritage of the local Chinese community. If the local Falun Gong dancers can contribute to this growing tradition, then they should certainly have the right to participate. By being faithful to its cultural and political autonomy, the San Francisco Chinese community can only add to its legend as it rings in the Year of the Dog -- a year that represents the values of faithfulness, honesty and justice.
Hao Wang is the former political chair of the Chinese American Students' Association at Yale University.
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