Falun Gong Banned from Calif. New Year's Parades

Controversy will mark some of the Chinese New Year parades to be held this Saturday in several California cities, including San Francisco. Parade organizers banned followers of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual group, from participating in the annual celebration. They argue the group is too political, but critics say parade officials are trying to appease China, which has outlawed the group. Zoe Corneli of member station KALW reports.

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MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeline Brand. Tomorrow caps a two week long celebration of the Chinese New Year. America's biggest Chinatown parade will be held in San Francisco ringing in the Year of the Dog with colorful floats, dancing dragons and costumes. But this year a political dispute is simmering behind the scenes and it's one that reflects the changing face of Chinatown. From member station KALW in San Francisco, Zoe Corneli reports.

ZOE CORNELI reporting:

In a warehouse on San Francisco's waterfront builders are making huge glittering statues of animals, dragons and people for the parade. Lead float builder Dave Thomas says he's excited for this year's event.

Mr. DAVE THOMAS (Lead Float Builder): The public loves it. You know, almost a million people line up to watch the parade if it's not raining.

CORNELI: Decades ago, parade organizers decided to avoid conflict between supporters of Taiwan and mainland China by keeping all politics out of the China Town parade. But this year that's been difficult.

Supervisor CHRIS DALY (City Supervisor, San Francisco): If their goal was to avoid politics in and around the parade they have failed miserably. This is the most politicized Chinese New Year parade that I've ever seen.

CORNELI: Chris Daly is a San Francisco City Supervisor. He's referring to the fact that this year parade organizers have banned participation by a Chinese spiritual group known as Falun Gong. Wayne Hu is the parade director. Hu claims the group violated parade rules in 2004.

Mr. WAYNE HU (Director, Chinese New Year Parade): They came in the parade, they brought more people than they said on their application and then they handed out leaflets that we interpreted as political statements.

CORNELI: Falun Gong is a kind of religious practice that incorporates meditation and traditional Chinese breathing exercises. It's been banned in China since 1999, after practitioners organized a major protest in Beijing. Since then it's been the subject of a brutal crackdown and many followers have immigrated to this country. Supporters of the group such as Supervisor Daly say the Chinese government's hostility toward the movement is the real reason why it wasn't allowed into the parade.

Supervisor DALY: There is influence. The Chinese government and their policy of persecution against Falun Gong practitioners, there's influence of that policy on what happens here locally, at least in San Francisco.

CORNELI: As China gains prominence on the global stage, its interests are becoming more powerful around the world, says Joe Briel(ph), a lawyer for Falun Gong. He points out that in San Francisco the Chinese Chamber of Commerce has clearly stated its goal of promoting strong business relationships with China.

Mr. JOE BRIEL (Attorney): And to do business with the People's Republic of China, as everyone from Google to any entrepreneur in San Francisco has found out, is going through the government, and they work with the government and their goal is to foster that relationship.

CORNELI: Leaders at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce deny bowing to any pressure from the Chinese goernment. Wayne Hu.

Mr. HU: There are members in our chamber who have business relationships with mainland China, but there are also other members who have business relationships with other countries. So we're there as a trade organization to support business ties with all countries.

CORNELI: Rose Pac(ph), a long time community activist in Chinatown who works for the Chamber, says its businesses are mostly active here in San Francisco.

Ms. ROSE PAC (Chinese Chamber of Commerce): All our memberships are small local businesses.

CORNELI: Pac has been one of the most outspoken public figures against Falun Gong. In the weeks leading up to the parade, Supervisor Daly took her on in a fierce public debate. Daly introduced a resolution condemning the persecution of Falun Gong and called for a hearing on whether the Chinese Chamber of Commerce was discriminating by rejecting the group's application. The parade receives 77,000 dollars of city money each year.

Supervisor DALY: Clearly you have the right to, you know, assemble a parade, but when you access public resources there are nondiscrimination clauses. Basically you can't use public resources to discriminate.

CORNELI: In recent days, Falun Gong has filed a complaint with the San Francisco human right commission and a lawsuit asking for an injunction to bar the city from funding the parade. But the case won't be heard until early April. The threat of a lawsuit doesn't scare Rose Pac.

Ms. PAC: They can file lawsuits until doomsday. We retain the right to invite whoever we want.

CORNELI: For now, if Falun Gong is present at the parade it will only be in protest. For NPR News, I'm Zoe Corneli in San Francisco.

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