Chinese Americans Divided on Olympic Torch Protests

Like many Chinese-Americans, Choy is immensely proud that China won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Games.

“It’s a real honor after all these years,” said Choy, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to New York City as a teenager.

But as the torch relay travels to 20 countries before its final stop in Beijing on Aug. 8, Choy can’t ignore the protestors speaking out against China’s human rights record. Most vocal are Tibetans, Falun Gong members and activists opposed to China’s support of the Burmese military dictatorship and China’s close relations with the government in Sudan that has been blamed for the ethnic genocide in Darfur.

Choy most closely sympathizes with the monks protesting in Tibet, where Chinese soldiers led a violent crackdown in March. Next door to Choy’s shop is a souvenir shop run by a Tibetan man who regularly checks in with relatives back home. When business is slow, Choy and his neighbor linger outside their storefronts discussing the human rights crisis. “It’s awful it has to be that way. There should be other ways of settling disputes,” Choy said.

But moments later, national pride and a hardened-realism creep back in. “In China, democracy is not going to happen in one day,” said Choy. “They should not interrupt the Olympics.”

Pei-te Lien, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the Chinese-American community’s response to the Olympic torch protests is as diverse as the community itself.

Some Chinese-Americans have had firm roots in the United States for generations. Many others are recent immigrants with strong family and business ties to their homeland.

Chinese living in America hail from points around the globe; a majority come from the mainland and Taiwan, but some immigrated from places like Singapore, Jamaica and Peru.

“It’s not just a left or right issue,” Lien explains.

Some Chinese-American organizations known for supporting human rights issues have come out in support of the torch relay.

Many Chinese-Americans feel a “symbiotic relationship with China,” she said. “Historically, if there has been anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, then Chinese- Americans are affected, too.”

Lien, who teaches a class on Asian American politics, recently devoted a class lecture to the issue. “It’s a difficult issue,” she said. “I’m encouraging my students, if you take a side, to think it through.”

Daniel Chang, who teaches music in a Bronx public school, represents a second generation that feels removed from its Chinese identity and has mixed feelings about the Beijing Olympics.

“It’s good and bad,” says Chang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan. At 16, Chang remembers his mom scolding him to speak Mandarin, but he refused, saying he’s not Chinese.

Chang is optimistic that hosting the Olympics will encourage Beijing to deal with environmental issues. But he thinks the government has a long way to go towards improving human rights in Tibet.

Chang does however question the effectiveness of the Tibetans’ Olympics protests. “China’s not going to budge,” he said.

Errol Young, a Chinese-Jamaican grandfather who coaches ping pong at a Chinatown club, said he’s very proud that China is hosting the games. “It means they’re doing good,” said Young. “The Chinese have come a long way.”

Young, a one-time world-class ping pong coach, could not understand the human rights protestors. “These people want to cause problems. They don’t want progress,” he said.

Waiting for a table at a Hong Kong-style Chinatown restaurant on a recent evening, Sheley Jang, an immigrant from Hong Kong living in New York, also had harsh words for the demonstrations. “Sports and politics should be separated,” she said in Cantonese through a translator. Reading the Chinese-language press has made her cynical towards the protestors’ motivations. “People in the background are telling them to do too much,” she said.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, has said he supports the Olympics and is opposed to violent protests.

However, the Pro-Tibetan movement, lead by a growing, youth contingent, is staging protests — most peaceful — in cities around the globe.

On an afternoon in early April, hundreds of Tibetan-exiles, many under 30, gathered in a corral across the street from the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Crimson-robed monks sat cross-legged in rows, chanting soft prayers. Younger protestors, Tibetan flags draped across their bodies, pumped their fists in support of Tibet’s independence.

Tsomo Tsomo, a Tibetan college student in New York City, emphasized that the March 10 protests that erupted in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, were not timed to disrupt the start of the torch relay in Greece on the 24th, as the Chinese press has reported. March 10 represents National Uprising Day for Tibetans, marking the 1959 uprising against the Chinese government.

Tsomo, who traveled to San Francisco two-weeks ago to protest the torch in its only United States stop, said she was surprised to find herself face-to-face with young, pro-Chinese protestors, screaming. “It was tense,” she said.

Tsomo says “China absolutely does not deserve to host the Olympics.”

Tsomo, like many of the young protestors, said they must seize the moment, while the world has its gaze on China.

“Its now or never for us,” said Tsomo.

Tsomo said she won’t be watching the Olympic on television this summer and added that Tibetan protestors have planned activities in Beijing. “Definitely, something is going to happen,” she said.