ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now to a flap between the Chinese government and Corvallis, Oregon. This summer, a local businessman in Corvallis commissioned a giant mural protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Chinese consulate sent a letter to the mayor insisting the mural be removed before it quote "tainted" U.S. China relations. More on the story from Chris Lehman of the Northwest News Network.
CHRIS LEHMAN, BYLINE: The mural in downtown Corvallis is big; 10-feet high, 100-feet long. One side shows a peaceful countryside setting in rural Taiwan. The other shows police beating protestors in Tibet and a Buddhist monk setting himself ablaze in protest. Human rights groups say more than 50 people, many of them monks and nuns, have self-immolated over the past three years.
DAVID LIN: That's the strongest protest you can ever happen, right?
LEHMAN: Corvallis businessman David Lin commissioned the mural.
LIN: You burn yourself to death. Painful. And we cannot ignore that.
LEHMAN: But as the letter from the Chinese consulate makes clear, the government there isn't ignoring Lin's attempt to promote political independence for Tibet and his native Taiwan. The letter was a surprise to Julie Manning. She's the mayor of the small college town about 80 miles south of Portland.
MAYOR JULIE MANNING: I really didn't see that there was a role for local government in some sort of intervention.
LEHMAN: Manning wrote the consulate back.
MANNING: That the mural reflects protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
LEHMAN: After receiving the mayor's letter, consular officials flew to Oregon to talk with her. Manning calls the meeting cordial, but says she told them not only can't she order the painting destroyed, she wouldn't do anything about the mural even if she could. Chinese consulate officials in San Francisco didn't respond to requests for comment.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: China's position on Taiwan and Tibet related issues have been consistent and clear.
LEHMAN: But here's tape from a recent press briefing at the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing. Spokesman Hong Lei is responding to a question specifically about the Corvallis mural.
HONG LEI: (Through Translator) We oppose any one abroad using any method to engage in Taiwan's or Tibet's separatist independence activities.
LEHMAN: It's certainly not the first time the Chinese government has reacted negatively to expressions of support for Taiwan or Tibet. But Todd Stein of the International Campaign for Tibet says, until now, most of the Chinese attention has been directed toward larger cities or states.
TODD STEIN: The fact that they would bother to travel all the way up to the cozy college town of Corvallis shows that they kind of leave no stone unturned when it comes to trying to impose their narrative.
LEHMAN: The mural has spurred a lot of discussion among the roughly 900 Chinese students at Oregon State University in Corvallis. That's according to Cheng Li, head of the Chinese Student Association there. He says the painting doesn't bother him. Still...
CHENG LI: Despite how I think, I think this mural or this wall painting will actually hurt some Chinese people's feelings.
LEHMAN: Meanwhile, David Lin who commissioned the mural says he's not backing down. And he says the support he's received from both the mayor and people stopping by his building has bolstered his resolve.
DAVID LIN: That kind of support is unbelievable. And I feel very strongly about this. I have gratitude for people's support and that make me even stronger. Stronger to stand on my own feet.
LEHMAN: Nevertheless, Lin says he's scared for his safety. In his office in the building with the mural on it, a handgun sits on his desk within his reach. For NPR News, I'm Chris Lehman.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.