Falun Gong dispute hangs over S.F. Chinese parade

San Francisco, USA - For decades, the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco ushered in good fortune and happiness. The colorful floats, lion dancers and marching bands reflected the unity of one of the city's oldest and largest ethnic communities.

But this year discord threatens the biggest Chinese New Year parade in the United States and a major tourist draw.

Members of Falun Gong, the controversial spiritual movement, demand a spot in the Feb. 11 parade, which more than a million people are expected to watch in person and on television.

After the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which runs the parade, rejected the Falun Gong application last month, the group -- which was banned in China in 1999 as an evil cult -- flew into action.

There have been daily demonstrations outside City Hall, protests at the Chinese New Year Flower Fair, threats of legal action against the city, and a demand that the city withdraw both public funding and police and other support on the day of the parade.

The parade has an annual budget of more than $800,000 -- $77,000 of it from the city -- and has more than 3,700 participants this year. But decisions about who gets to march should remain in the hands of the Chinese chamber, its supporters say.

"If you force them, that's not good. You have to respect their policy," said Jack Lee Fong, a director at the Chinese Six Companies, a group of influential Chinatown business leaders often courted by candidates for their financial and political support.

"Falun Gong is too extreme," Fong added. "They are really strong against China. It's too political."

The dispute reaches around the globe: Beijing's government has a strong interest in cultivating the loyalty of Chinese people overseas.

And when Supervisor Chris Daly proposed a resolution in 2001 condemning China for its harsh treatment of Falun Gong, the Chinese Consulate here lobbied the board, warning such actions could "mislead more innocent people and bring misfortune to them." The resolution failed to pass.

"This is a key battleground for hearts and minds," said David Lee, head of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee in Chinatown. "Beijing is watching. This is about holding the line against Falun Gong."

Likewise, the international Falun Gong movement wants to maintain its legitimacy by participating in the high-profile commemoration of the most important Chinese holiday.

"This is a political wedge into an internationally famous Chinese American community event to celebrate the Lunar New Year for the sake of publicity and attention," said Marlon Hom, chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.

When the Chinese chamber announced it would exclude Falun Gong, it said the group violated the parade's rule against making political statements by handing out leaflets while marching in the 2004 parade. The group also brought in more people than it said it would, which caused delays, organizers said.

Falun Gong followers say they are part of the whole Chinese community that deserves to participate in the celebration. They contend the Chinese chamber is acting at the direction of the Chinese government.

"The Chinese chamber is using taxpayer money to help the Chinese government," said Huy Lu, 38, a Daly City land surveyor and Falun Gong spokesman. "It's helping the persecution of Falun Gong followers. We come here for freedom. We shouldn't have to receive pressure from the Chinese government."

Adherents of Falun Gong practice meditation and traditional breathing exercises for physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Human rights activists say it was the group's ability to organize large protests via word-of-mouth and the Internet that alarmed the Chinese government in 1999.

Falun Gong contingents marched in the San Jose Holiday Parade in December, the Hollywood Christmas Parade and the Columbus Day Parade in San Francisco, followers point out.

Other geopolitical clashes have rained on San Francisco's Chinese New Year Parade in years past.

Until the early 1980s, participants displayed the flag of the Nationalist Chinese government, which ruled in exile on Taiwan after 1949 and had the sympathies of many Chinatown residents, business owners and political leaders. But Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco and now California's senior U.S. senator, asked organizers to stop the partisan practice because she wanted to encourage trade with China, which reopened diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979.

The turmoil continued when organizers invited an envoy of the Chinese government to participate in the parade and then withdrew the offer. It did the same with a representative of Taiwan.

Since then, organizers have asked participants to fly only the American flag, and no political statements can be displayed or pamphlets distributed during the event.

In the latest conflict, another resolution proposed by Supervisor Chris Daly condemning the Chinese government comes before the full Board of Supervisors in watered down form next month. Daly also called last Monday's hearing at City Hall on whether the Chinese chamber is discriminating against Falun Gong.

Wayne Hu, parade director, said he was insulted by allegations that the chamber did the bidding of the Chinese government.

"I am very independent. I try to keep a balance in Chinatown," Hu said during the hearing, adding that he was a fifth-generation Chinese American. "I am not ruled by anyone else."

For a variety of reasons, Hu said, the Chinese chamber has in the past denied applications by Chinese lion dancers, motorcycle and car clubs, circus performers, people running for office and community organizations.

Hu has worked on the parade since the early 1960s, when his father was the event's co-chairman.

Tong Defa, a spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, called accusations of influence on the chamber "totally groundless and ill-founded."

The Board of Supervisors should avoid being misled by "this anti-China force and refrain from making any decisions that will cause harm to Sino-U.S. relations, especially the friendly exchanges fostered jointly by China and the San Francisco city government," he said.

Falun Gong has become extremely political in recent years, said Ling-Chi Wang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Wang said the movement has a vast network of newspapers, radio stations and (worship) cells throughout the world and across the United States. He said he was referring to Epoch Times, New Tang Dynasty Television and Sound of Hope Radio, all U.S.-based, Chinese-language media outlets with strong ties to the movement.

"It is a religious organization with a political agenda," Wang said.

Daly's efforts have drawn the ire of some Chinese American leaders. The headline "Butt Out" was emblazoned across his forehead on the cover of the Jan. 12-18 issue of AsianWeek, an English-language weekly.

The Rev. Norman Fong, a community activist, has many happy memories of the parade over the years, whether marching with his saxophone or helping build a papier-mache pig float. The Falun Gong's aggressive tactics will win it no friends, he said.

"We don't want a war," Fong said. "Respect the commonalities of our history in America. It's not about China and other things that divide us. This is a positive celebration of American society."