Feb. 10 (Bloomberg) — Members of Falun Gong, a spiritual group outlawed in China and growing in the U.S., plan to demonstrate at tomorrow’s Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco after organizers barred them from participating.
The group, with about 1,000 members in the San Francisco region, sought permission to march in the parade, an event that has been held in the city since the 1860s. Parade officials denied the application, citing Falun Gong’s demonstrations about human-rights issues in China.
“We have strict rules: No political statements,” said Wayne Hu, president of San Francisco’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which runs the parade.
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The fight strained relationships in San Francisco’s Chinese community, the second-biggest in the U.S. behind New York. More than 150,000 people of Chinese or Taiwanese heritage live in the city, according to the 2000 Census. The Chinese population in San Francisco increased 85 percent in the 1990s.
Falun Gong’s practices and meditation were introduced in China in 1992. It has 10,000 followers in the U.S. and tens of millions in more than 60 countries, the group says on its Web site. Sherry Zhang, a spokeswoman for the group, said the parade’s decision extends oppression of the group from Asia to the U.S.
“Truth, compassion and tolerance form the backbone of Falun Gong’s philosophy,” she said in a telephone interview. “We are allowed in other parades, like St. Patrick’s Day, and we don’t understand why we can’t participate in the Chinese New Year Parade. It’s very clear discrimination.”
Tradition of Celebration
The San Francisco parade is the largest annual Asian- American celebration in North America, the chamber says. Police estimate as many as 900,000 visitors will crush into Chinatown’s narrow streets on Saturday, easily surpassing San Francisco’s population of about 799,000.
The 2 1/2-hour parade, celebrating the Year of the Dog, will feature decorated floats, school marching bands, martial arts groups, lion dancers and a 201-foot Golden Dragon held up by more than 170 people. It’s the culmination of two weeks of celebrations that began with the new moon on Jan. 29.
Members of Falun Gong, who have their spiritual roots in ancient China with beliefs that combine exercise and meditation, say they will show up to protest at the parade. City police have set aside a spot along the route, behind the barricades, for the group.
Falun Gong wants to make “peaceful statements” about human rights in China, Zhang said. “It’s not a political issue.”
Handing Out Leaflets
In 2004, Falun Gong allegedly violated parade rules by bringing more participants than allowed and handing out leaflets about human rights in China. Last year, the group’s application was denied.
“But they crashed the parade anyway, and I am prepared for them to do this again this year,” Hu said.
More than 100 community groups and schools, comprising almost than 3,700 people, will participate in the parade this year, reflecting “the diversity of the city,” Hu said.
Maggie Chan, who runs Asian Gallery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, said she supports the decision against Falun Gong. Still, she worries the dispute may mar the parade and disrupt sales of ornamental dragon heads and lanterns at one of the retailer’s busiest times of the year.
“We wish the New Year to be a prosperous one,” she said. “Tourists will come, and they come for the parade.”
The Chamber of Commerce first managed the parade in 1958 and expanded it by the late 1980s into a two-week fete with a street fair, flower festival and the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. pageant.
The Falun Gong clash led city Supervisor Chris Daly to call for a resolution condemning Chinese “persecution” of the group. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco called the move “severe interference in China’s internal affairs,” according to spokesman Defa Tong. He described Falun Gong as “an inhumane and antisocial cult.”
Daly also threatened to cut city funding for the parade. The event is sponsored by companies including Southwest Airlines Co. and Wells Fargo & Co., which help defray costs of about $800,000.
“The international issue is one of human rights,” Daly said. “The local issue is one of discrimination in San Francisco, a city famous for tolerance.”
San Francisco provides money from hotel taxes to non-profit cultural groups in the city. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce was awarded $77,200 for this year’s parade.
“The event meets the criteria for funding,” said Khan Wong, who helps administer the grants. Falun Gong describes itself as a cultural group, not a political or religious group, he said, so the Chinese Chamber of Commerce isn’t guilty of discrimination under San Francisco’s rules.
The parade was first held by Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, who arrived in the 1840s to seek their fortune after the discovery of gold in the region. They hosted a parade down Grant Avenue, waving flags and holding lanterns, beating drums and setting off firecrackers to drive away evil spirits.
“The parade is inclusive, but Falun Gong overstep the bounds when they bring up political issues and make statements about China,” Hu said. “They call us agents of China, but as a fifth-generation Chinese-American, my loyalty lies with America.”