Amelia Lam, a 36-year-old teacher’s assistant, emigrated from Hong Kong to San Jose five years ago. When she talks about how proud she is that China is hosting the summer Olympics, she almost glows.
For Cher Fu of Santa Clara, Calif., all the hype about the Games is a daily reminder of her family’s nightmare. Three years ago, she says, her parents were thrown into a Chinese forced-labor camp, tortured and brainwashed. Their crime: belonging to Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that the communist Chinese government has outlawed.
On the eve of China’s first Olympics, as the world prepares to gaze more intently than ever upon this paradoxical country, many Chinese-Americans find themselves confronting complicated—and sometimes conflicted—attitudes toward their motherland.
After two decades of extraordinary economic growth and rising geopolitical clout, the world’s most populous nation is determined to prove to the world that it deserves more respect. But China’s critics maintain that, despite taking steps toward an open society, its government is clinging to its old authoritarian ways and still ruthlessly suppressing dissent.
Chinese-American views on the 29th Olympiad in Beijing often depend on where their families came from. Did they emigrate from the mainland? Or from Hong Kong, or Taiwan? Or were their families part of the centuries-old Diaspora that scattered Chinese across Asia—in places such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Malay Peninsula?
Their attitudes also depend on whether their families came to America as traditional immigrants or political refugees. Some do business in China, while others have linked up with U.S. human rights groups to protest political and religious persecution there.
Attitudes toward the Olympics also reflect the arc of Chinese-American politics since 1989, when the world was riveted and then horrified by the events in Tiananmen Square. As China in the last two decades has gone from international pariah to economic superstar, the country’s critics have had to soften their tactics.
Immigrants who still have strong roots in China look at the Games as “a great honor and privilege—a chance to show the world how far they’ve come,” said Albert H. Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese-American and scholar who helped President Nixon plan his historic 1972 trip to China.
Many Chinese-Americans marvel at how the Chinese finished a $40 billion upgrade to Beijing just in time for the Games—digging hundreds of miles of new subway lines, constructing behemoth stadiums and other structures, planting 3 million trees and relocating factories to help clear the city’s notoriously bad air.
They’re also hoping that the Games will shatter stereotypes of China and, in turn, draw the world closer.
“It will bring a lot of world leaders and dignitaries to Beijing, and they can see how it is today,” said Dr. Albert Wang, a Fremont, Calif., physician. “Even people I work with, other physicians, still think China looks like what they see in the movies”—a land of peasants and rice fields fertilized with night soil.
“Beijing looks like New York,” said Wang, 49, who immigrated to the United States as a child but has visited China often in recent years.
But some Chinese-Americans say China’s progress has too often been at the expense of its people.
Jin Xiu Hong of Seattle said her parents’ home in a Beijing suburb was bulldozed six years ago to make way for Olympic dreams. Her family “still has not been paid one cent in compensation,” she said.
“The Olympics have become a disaster, because they bulldozed people’s houses and created this fake boom,” said Jin, a former journalist for the Beijing Review who left her homeland with her American husband after the Tiananmen massacre.
“Maybe the Olympics will bring China a good image to the world, but these goddamn Games have made people commit suicide,” she said tearfully. “They made my mother have a stroke.”
Fu, the Santa Clara woman whose parents were imprisoned for practicing Falun Gong, said she is concerned that the government is stepping up its human rights crackdown before the Games to present a vision of order and harmony to the world.
“I don’t like to see the Olympics used as an excuse for the Chinese Communist Party to persecute people,” said Fu, whose lobbying efforts in Congress called enough attention to her parents’ case that Beijing released them last year.
Chun-Yin Yu of Cupertino, Calif., a recent civil engineering graduate of San Jose State University, predicts a highly politicized Olympics, similar to the 1936 Berlin Games and the 1980 Games in Moscow.
“I’m concerned that the Olympics are being used as a propaganda tool,” said Yu, 27, who emigrated from Hong Kong when he was 10.
But many Chinese-Americans—even those who say they don’t like the government in Beijing—say they hope the “China bashing” will stop during the Games. Many say they were upset at the noisy demonstrations against China’s policies in Tibet and Darfur when the Olympic torch passed through San Francisco and other cities around the world.
“I don’t think making a mockery of the country is the way to go,” said Roger Xu, 20, of Santa Clara, a premed student at the University of California-Santa Cruz who came here at age 15.
Other Chinese-Americans warn that protests surrounding the Games will backfire.
“If you just keep pounding the government, they’ll just tighten up their security,” said Lester Lee, a Silicon Valley businessman who considers himself a friend of China. “The torch-run protests just gave the government a darn good reason to do that.”
Grace Chang, 31, a preschool teacher at Yew Chung International School in Mountain View, Calif., who was raised in Taiwan, said she has mixed feelings about protests of the Games. She disagrees with the recent crackdown in Tibet but still thinks China has made great progress in recent decades.
Her elementary school textbooks depicted the country as a totalitarian dictatorship where people were starving in the streets; today, relations between Beijing and Taipei have warmed as Taiwanese investment in China has skyrocketed.
“I’m proud that China is doing everything it can to make the Olympics the best they can be,” Chang said. “I think the whole world is very excited about it.”
The evolution of Chang’s feelings about China in some ways echo broader sentiments throughout Silicon Valley.
Nineteen years ago, after the Tiananmen massacre of young activists, the valley was a hotbed of pro-democracy activism organized by Chinese-Americans. But the movement has mellowed over the years. Its main activity these days is to send Christmas cards to Chinese dissidents.
In 2004, China even gave a visa to Cupertino’s Barry Chang, the Taiwanese-American co-founder of Silicon Valley for Democracy in China, after other local Chinese-American leaders assured Beijing he wouldn’t cause any trouble there.
“As the monster becomes bigger and bigger, it gets harder and harder to force the monster to change,” said Chang, 56. “So I think it’s better to force the monster to change from the inside, until the point where it’s not a monster anymore.”