The best way to bring attention to human rights abuses is by visiting China
By Ellen Snortland
If I had the bucks for a Rose Parade float, mine would display the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the words "Go to Beijing for the Olympics!"
If you want to impact China, go to Beijing. Also ask the city of Pasadena and the Avery Dennison Corp., which sponsored this year's float, to sponsor a float promoting the United Nations and the UDHR float for 2009.
The public controversy over the Beijing Olympic float in the Rose Parade was a "Boo-Yay" situation: "Boo" for the egregious human rights violations of the Chinese government, and "Yay" that their violations got a parade-full of attention. Pro-floaters included Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, the Pasadena City Council, Avery Dennison and the Tournament of Roses; anti-floaters were human rights activists including Leslie Levy, a self-selected "Goddess of Democracy" mascot (www.democracygoddess.org), Ann Lau, head of Visual Artists Guild, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and members of Falun Gong. Regardless of what side you were on, reasonable people can agree to disagree on the best way to impact domestic and foreign policy in China. I know firsthand that citizen-to-citizen diplomacy is vital to empower the Chinese people.
I've been in China twice, and both times people on the street reached out to me to talk about democracy. And both times I was closely monitored. My first visit was in 1984 when I was a star of a TV show, a short-lived series called "Anything for Money." I was given the royal treatment by the Chinese government. How did they know about my series? Creepy, right? They invited me to tea and questioned me about it. Imagine a blonde, blue-eyed and stereotypical-looking Californian trying to explain a hidden-camera comedy that bribed people to do outrageous things to four dour and patriarchal Chinese communist officials.
They couldn't quite grasp the photo I showed them of me kissing C.J., the then well-known orangutan who was on our series a lot. How odd our capitalist notion of entertainment must have seemed to them as I described how I lured unsuspecting Americans into wacky circumstances, such as kissing an orangutan, flossing my teeth or taking my dog to the indoor restroom for a fee that I would negotiate with them. My hosts were not even vaguely amused. No orangutan kissing for these guys. Nonetheless, one of them wanted a picture with me. During that trip, countless citizens stopped to chat with me about the United States and democracy.
My second visit in 1995 was with the United Nations Association Pasadena Foothills Chapter to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. I was credentialed as a delegate as well as a journalist. This conference was a feather in China's global face saving cap, as it had been turned down for the Olympics as well as the World Cup.
Nonetheless, as a journalist I had a hellish time getting my column filed. At the time, lovable, cigar-smoking curmudgeon Jim Laris was the publisher of the Pasadena Weekly. He rallied to help me by enlisting the support of Pasadena Star-News editor Larry Wilson, in concert with Marvin Schachter, another former PW publisher. I delivered my column to my hotel business center per protocol and then called Pasadena to verify that it had been received. Nada. I tried emailing, but my computer caught a virus. We decided that I had better not risk infecting the PW system. Finally, Roan Tempest, then the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief, got my columns out for us.
Did the Chinese care about my journalistic experience of them? Nope. They intercepted my writings. They broke into my hotel room. I caught a man pawing through my luggage. I was consistently tailed by several ill-trained spies. One guy reeked so badly of BO that I actually smelled him before I saw him.
However, I also had plain, ordinary people eager to practice English with me. People wanted to see my press pass and show their kids that I was a journalist. Furtive but eager students asked me to describe liberty.
Why do I share these things? As insignificant as I was, the Chinese control media BIG TIME! They do not care what we think of them. Really. But the dialogue that's developed around the float has made a difference to our awareness. In China, people-to-people contact makes a difference. New technology makes a difference. If you'll recall, the then-new technology of faxing made it impossible for the Chinese to hide the Tiananmen Square massacre.
My respect goes to the efforts of both the pro- and anti-float folks who are making our citizens pay attention to China and human rights. Hopefully, the kerfuffle over the float will inspire folks to go to Beijing and personally meet Chinese people. Thinking and speaking are contagious. So is freedom.
Pasadena Weekly: 1/3/08