An Asian American Viewpoint On China, Tibet and the Olympics

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It’s yet unclear whether the tumult over China, Tibet and the Olympics will ever reach a crescendo. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, however, could not help but join the fray by calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies and by protesting the passage of the ceremonial Olympic torch through San Francisco on April 9.
The issue is not that the City is meddling inappropriately in global affairs. San Francisco prides itself as being the gateway to the Pacific. The United Nations was founded here with good reason. And it was the Chinese Olympics Committee that chose San Francisco as the only U.S. host city for the Olympic torch relay.

The issue is that this San Francisco grandstanding is based on pure ignorance — ignorance of the views of these politicians’ own Chinese American constituencies, and ignorance of the real and complicated economic, cultural and political forces at work in China and the Tibetan region.

As Yoichi Shimatsu comments in this week’s issue, it is not just Buddhists and democracy that are causing unrest in Tibet. There is a mix of religions and ethnicities with Muslims, Mongols and others involved, as well as dire ramifications from the spread of Western-initiated globalization. The complexities of China mean that 70 percent of China’s residents still live in poverty, but the 350 million people that makeup China’s middle class is greater than the entire population of America.

By oversimplifying the issues, San Francisco supervisors are practicing the politics of divisiveness. They are turning the Tibet issue into one that is “either/or.” Either we must support the call for democracy in Tibet, or we are not being true to America’s ideals — even worse, we get labeled as politically incorrect. It is the same kind of demagoguery that was used to whip the American public into a war furor over Iraq.

Here at home, these actions feed an undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment that all too often spills over onto Chinese Americans and, more generally, against all Asian Americans. The FBI is already asking Chinese Americans to effectively spy on each other.

It’s not so surprising that the Chinese American community has remained largely silent in the face of all the sound and fury. The nearly all white Board of Supervisors simply doesn’t represent Chinese Americans or Asian Americans in San Francisco. It’s as if the community is saying, “No need to waste our voices on deaf ears.”

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