When the guest list for the recent White House dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao featured San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, observers highlighted the emerging political prominence of the Bay Area’s Chinese community. Just as importantly, though less well noted, their attendance also signified that community’s ever-strengthening relationship with mainland China.
At a time when headlines about China alternate between its juggernaut economy and its questionable human rights record, nowhere in the United States is the country’s growing influence more evident than in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And there’s no better place to see this than from the rooftop bar at the Empress of China.
On a clear day, you can look down at the old brick buildings and see at least a dozen red-and-gold flags of the People’s Republic of China — many more than blue flags of the Taiwanese Republic of China.
That would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, notes David Lee, a political science instructor at San Francisco State University and executive director of the non-profit Chinese American Voters Education Committee. For many years, San Francisco’s Chinese community was staunchly anti-Communist and had much closer ties to the Nationalist government in Taiwan, which China has long regarded as a renegade province.
Things began to change because of China’s emergence as a global manufacturing giant and economic force to be reckoned with during the 1990s.
Part of this transformation also was generational. Second-generation Chinese-Americans tended to be less reflexively anticommunist than their elders, many of whom fled to the United States to escape the politics or policies of Mao Zedong.
One other significant development was the defeat in Taiwan of the Nationalist Party in 2000, whose members hold out at least a nominal hope for the island’s eventual reunification with the mainland. When Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party was elected president, his pro-independence, anti-China platform fractured San Francisco’s Chinese community, Lee said.
Since San Francisco is home to the country’s oldest and best-established Chinatown, Lee notes that it’s an influential forum in which both sides of the debate must press their causes.
“Both Taiwan and China view this overseas community right here in San Francisco Chinatown as the most important place to shape hearts and minds and to shape public opinion in America,” Lee said.
Thus, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco has been active in courting and offering support to the local Chinese community since its establishment in 1979.
It was China’s first such office in the United States. The services it provides run the gamut of what you’ll find at any consulate: visa, passport, notary, authentication.
Consulate spokesman Zhou Yunliang said that both China and San Francisco benefit from increased connections, citing as an example the longstanding sister-city relationship between San Francisco and Shanghai — one that has been “greatly improved and enriched by frequent economic, trade, and cultural exchange.”
But Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, says there is a cost to too-close ties with China’s Communist government.
In April 2008, he and a small group of activists attended San Francisco’s Olympic Torch Relay to protest the imprisonment of Chinese dissident Hu Jia. When they arrived outside of AT&T Park, a huge crowd of pro-China counterprotesters was already on site, Zhou said. Some members of the pro-Chinese contingent exchanged heated words with his group, and then, Zhou alleges, they turned violent. He said his clothes were torn, and one friend was bleeding from a blow to the back of the head.
The people who hit them were all Chinese, Zhou said, and what surprised him was how systematic the whole thing seemed. “The people who did this had received training,” he concluded.
Today, Zhou Fengsuo says he is convinced that the Consulate General orchestrated that massive show of pro-China support and may even have been responsible for the counterprotesters’ violent methods. After the relay, he claims he was forwarded an e-mail sent out to a mailing list of Chinese professionals that alluded to a request by the Consulate for “protection” and discussed whether or not they ought to bring pepper spray.
Zhou Yunliang, the Consulate spokesman, said he was not aware of any physical confrontations during the Torch Relay, and he denied that any of the people who came out in support of China were asked by the Consulate to do so. “All of their acts were spontaneous activities,” he said.
But to critics of the Chinese government such as Zhou Fengsuo, the question remains whether a devil’s compromise has been struck, even as business ties between the Bay Area and China grow stronger than ever before.
Lee says that engaging with China need not be an either/or proposition, pointing out that Nancy Pelosi, one of the biggest critics of China’s human rights record, actually represents Chinatown.
“You can have economic development, intellectual exchange, cultural exchange and human rights dialogue,” Lee said. “Just because you’re doing business with China doesn’t mean that you have to accept everything.”
Just last year, San Francisco and Shanghai marked the 30th anniversary of their relationship as “sister cities,” which David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee calls the oldest U.S. sister city relationship with a mainland Chinese city.
The relationship was forged in 1980, when now-Sen. Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco and former Chinese President Jiang Zemin was mayor of Shanghai.
Over the course of the past 30 years, more than 250 programs have been established between the two cities, said Chinese Consulate spokesman Zhou Yunliang — including a whole host of economic and cultural exchanges.
Anniversary festivities last year in both cities included a special exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum that showed off the scope of Shanghai’s evolving art scene, dating from the 19th century through the present day.
And an entire San Francisco delegation visited Shanghai, including Feinstein, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Newsom even opened up “San Francisco Week” at the Shanghai World Expo, an event that, according to a New York Times report, highlighted the Bay Area’s innovations in green technology and sustainability. According to Zhou, the showcase further increased San Francisco’s popularity in China.
But Lee notes the city is already pretty famous in Shanghai.
“I’ll bet if you go to Shanghai and you ask the Chinese students at the university there how many of them know
where Oakland, California, is, who’s ever heard of Oakland? Nobody has,” Lee said. “But if you ask them how many have heard of San Francisco, I bet you everybody has heard of San Francisco.”
Since before the Gold Rush and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, San Francisco and China have had a special relationship.
1840s San Francisco’s Chinatown founded
1863-1869 Chinese laborers construct large portions of Transcontinental Railroad
1882 Chinese Exclusion Act passed — first U.S. immigration law to target one ethnic group
1906 Original Chinatown destroyed in earthquake
1924 Immigration Restriction Act bars further Chinese immigration
1943 Magnuson Act repeals Chinese Exclusion Act
1960s Large numbers of immigrants from Hong Kong begin to arrive
1972 President Nixon visits China
1977 People’s Republic of China changes restrictions on emigration
1979 San Francisco and Shanghai become sister cities
1992 Chinese Student Protection Act grants permanent residency status to immigrants from mainland China
2008 Olympic torch relay