Chalk another one up to free speech. That pesky First Amendment sure has some staying power, even if it offends the feelings of a billion Chinese people.
Last month, Chinese diplomats discovered a threat in Corvallis, Oregon, and moved to quash it before more feelings were hurt. The offending action was a mural painted on the side of a building with pro-Tibet and pro-Taiwan messages. According to the story in the local paper, “in vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.” It was commissioned by the property owner, a Taiwanese-American businessman.
In a letter dated August 8, the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco wrote to the mayor of Corvallis asking the town to “adopt effective measure to stop the activities advocating ‘Tibet Independence’ and Taiwan Independence.’” In a fit of arrogance, the letter was not signed by a person, but rather stamped by the Consul General’s seal.
The mayor, Julie Jones Manning, boldly responded to the Consul General by citing the First Amendment’s protection of speech and artistic expression. She wrote, “We as a local government entity do not have the right or authority to prescribe what kinds of art may be shown.”
Not content with no as an answer, two officials (Vice Consul Zhang Hao and Deputy Consul General Song Ruan) visited Corvallis to convey their remonstrations in person. That didn’t work either. After hearing their concerns, City Manager Jim Patterson said, “We also had a conversation with them about the US Constitution.” ‘Nuff said.
Such interference by Chinese diplomats is not new, but it appears that their tactics have softened, likely because the hard sell wasn’t working.
In March 2010, Chinese diplomats reportedly threatened trade retaliation against the city of Portland, OR, following the city council’s declaration of a “Tibet Awareness Day.” That same month, the Chinese Counsul General in Chicago wrote the President of the Wisconsin State Senate that a Tibet resolution had caused “damage to our relations.” By contrast, the letter to Corvallis did not make any explicit threats to trade or relations, although the latter was implied through reference to cultural exchanges between Oregon and China.
The tone is milder too. In 2010, the Chinese wrote of the “unpleasant event” to which they are “firmly opposed” and find “unfortunate and unacceptable.” The letter on the Corvallis murals merely says they are “very concerned about this matter.”
In 2010, the Chinese remonstrations blamed the “tricks of the Tibetan splittists” and the “Dalai Lama clique” for the pro-Tibet statements. Such blame-gaming is absent this time.
Lastly and notably, the Chinese diplomats have abandoned their charge that pro-Tibet statements by American mayors and state legislators constitute “interference in China’s internal affairs.” Maybe they recognized that making this argument through acts of interfering in the affairs of city counsels and state assemblies was self-defeating hypocrisy.
Perhaps this reveals a recalibration in Beijing’s soft-power approach to advancing the official Chinese position inside the United States.
One element remains the same, though. The diplomats imply that such statements are contrary to U.S. foreign policy. The letter to Corvallis cites China’s appreciation of the “repeated position of the U.S. government in sticking to the one-China policy and opposing both “Tibet Independence” and “Taiwan independence.” While it is true that the U.S. considers Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it conveniently ignores the rest of the policy, which, in the words of President Obama, expresses “strong support” for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans.” The U.S. repeatedly calls on the Chinese government to negotiate with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, has given support to the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way, and routinely admonishes China for its rampant human rights abuses in Tibet, both in high-level meetings (such as by Secretary Clinton last week) and in annual reports.
Lastly, it should be pointed out that while two Chinese diplomats can freely travel to Corvallis, Oregon, to complain about a mural, U.S. diplomats in China are routinely denied access to Tibet areas to inspect much more dire circumstances, such as interviewing self-immolation survivors, looking into the siege around Kirti monastery, or monitoring rebuilding in Yushu.
If you would like to contact Corvallis Mayor Manning to thank her, here is her webform.