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Beijing's Blaze

Watch Video

Length: 3:09

protester shouting

A protester in downtown San Francisco protests the imminent arrival of the Olympic Torch.

On Wednesday, the Beijing Olympic torch is scheduled to blaze through San Francisco, home to the second largest population of Chinese in America. But rather than celebratory cheers, cries of protest from China's critics have rung throughout the city. Today, Tibetan exiles scaled Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled a banner that read: "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet."

Earlier, Tibetans and Burmese exiles led spirited protests on the steps of City Hall, with little or no opposition from Beijing's supporters. And, it seems the city is doing its best to keep it that way, especially following the protests that disrupted the torch relays in London and Paris over the weekend.

Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that the torch will not travel through the city's historic and iconic Chinatown, because the streets are too narrow. But given all the tension worldwide generated by China's recent crackdown in Tibet, the mayor's excuse seemed like a tactic to prevent a clash between the Chinese and the Tibetans in the Bay Area.

Having worked in San Francisco Chinatown as a community organizer, I know that the Chinese American community, although not monolithic, has conflicting feelings about the Beijing summer Olympics and the torch spectacle. On the one hand, there is great ethnic pride. On the other, there is a lot of bad feeling about the Chinese government and its policies. Many Chinese immigrant families suffered back home in China under the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Because the Olympic torch relay is a show put on by the People's Republic of China, there is ambivalence about it.

"As a San Franciscan, honoring the Beijing Olympics here is appropriate as well as protesting it," says Sabina Chen of the Chinese Culture Center.

"As a San Franciscan, honoring the Beijing Olympics here is appropriate as well as protesting it," says Sabina Chen of the Chinese Culture Center.

"Personally, I'd like the torch to come through Chinatown to recognize the contribution of Chinese immigrants all over the world," says Arnold Chin of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Among the younger generation of recent Chinese immigrants, many believe that Western media is hypocritical when it comes to criticizing China for its human rights abuses. They see the West as engaging in China-bashing because of its recent economic success.

However, "China can't have it both ways," says Nyunt Than of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance. "As much as they want to celebrate [the Olympics], they must also be held accountable for the suffering they are causing in their own country and around the world."

Than is organizing Burmese monks to march across the Golden Gate Bridge on the morning of the torch relay. "China is becoming a global leader and a global economic power," he tells me, "so it should behave as a global leader. If it wants to play a bigger part in the world, it must respect human rights not only in its country but all over the world."

protester holding sign

Despite complaints from protest groups, the mayor and the police department have acted to keep demonstrators away from the torch route.

At a City Hall protest on April 1, a Tibetan woman named Yang Chen Lhamo told me, "I don't think China should get any opportunity to host the Olympics. China doesn't deserve the Olympics. They're killing people. They're liars."

There are an estimated 13,000 Tibetans living in the United States and Canada, but only about 1,100 in northern California. Nevertheless, with strong support from actors like Richard Gere, from Buddhists, and from human rights groups, they have made their presence felt way beyond their small numbers. Tenzen Nomil Tetong, chairman of the celebrity studded Committee of 100 for Tibet, has praised the Bay Area's Tibetan community and their supporters, for turning out in force and "giving voice to the Tibetan people."

San Francisco is the only city in the United States where the Beijing Olympic torch will be on display, and Mayor Newsom seems determined to let the event take place peacefully. Despite complaints from protest groups, the mayor and the police department have acted to keep demonstrators away from the torch route. "Free Speech Zones" at the Ferry Building finish line will pen in groups of protesters.

San Francisco is the only city in the United States where the Beijing Olympic torch will be on display, and Mayor Newsom seems determined to let the event take place peacefully.

The same tactic was used when Chinese president Hu Jintao visited the city.

Some protesters may be corralled, but the showdown over the symbolic torch -- and the debate over China's policies in Tibet, Burma and Sudan -- will be impossible to cordon off. The signs are everywhere. As drivers arrive in San Francisco from across the Bay Bridge, they are now greeted by a giant billboard proclaiming: "Stand Up for Tibet, Say No to Beijing's Bloody Torch."

Video: Charlotte Buchen

Watch for a second report on the protests later this week.

Related Stories

Burma: The Chinese Connection
In this recent video dispatch, Orlando de Guzman reports from the Burma-China border, where Chinese boomtowns are sprouting up, bankrolled in large part by the trade in narcotics, jade and timber from Burma. Despite international sanctions, trade with China along the historic Burma Road has become a lifeline for the Burmese military regime.

REACTIONS

V M - Brooklyn, New York
What a well written article! A very clear presentation of the complicated nature of this situation.

(anonymous)
Great job. Looking forward to seeing footage from those "Free Speech Zones."

- Dallas, TX
PBS should take a close look at the overwhelming view of the Chinese communities both in the Mainland and abroad. The support for Olympics free of politics is overwhelming. Also one should spend a few hours reading history books to find out true facts about China and Tibet's intertwined history since 700 years ago. One would wonder what good does it bring when the Western media and protesters continue to ignore an internationally recognized history: Tibet has been part of China for longer than the USA ever existed. Not a single country today recognizes Tibet as a separate country. If you check ancient maps by Britain and the US from 200-300 years ago, you will see Tibet was part of China then. It significantly undercuts their moral and legal ground when human rights protesters try to advocate for a radical (and unrealistic) separatist movement, instead of focusing on cultural preservation and poverty reduction.

- San Diego, CA
This story is a great look at the people and issues behind the media spectacle. As to why now? What better time to raise American awareness to these important issues than when the torch comes to the USA!

scarsdale, ny
The story is timely but there has to be a bigger story about why now and not way back when China was chosen to host the Olympics. Is this just an impotent minority staging a media event?