A small-scale demonstration against human-rights abuses in China and the upcoming Summer Olympic games erupted into a heated conflict between opposing protesters competing for the attention of passers-by and local news crews, outside the Irvine Barclay Theatre prior to the performance of the Olympic Spectacular: One World One Dream event, just before 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 9.
“Shame, shame, communist shame! Human rights is not a game!” chanted protesters outside of the theater.
Accompanying their words, signs were held high by both sides throughout the night. One poster-board held by Jojo Kyo, a West Covina resident from Taiwan, featured images of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. In Chinese characters the sign declared, “The same war, the same evil, three groups.”
“In China it’s upside-down. … They supported these people for the nation,” Kyo said.
Initially, about an hour prior to the show, a group of about 10 protesters stood in a cordoned-off area next to Pereira road outside the theater, with about three police officers standing nearby, although the area was largely empty. As the time of the performance grew nearer and more community members arrived for the show, the protest attracted more attention, including hostile reactions from supporters of the Chinese government.
Members of the UC Irvine Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) quickly organized a counter-protest, in which they sang the Chinese national anthem and stood silent, holding the Chinese flag, while their opponents furiously criticized the Chinese government. One China-supporter began a heated vocal argument with the protesters, which drew the attention of passers-by and the cameras of the local news crews that had arrived on the scene.
Yuan Feng, a graduate student in chemistry and member of CSSA, was among these protesters.
“We’re proud of the Olympic games in China,” Feng said. “We don’t think anyone here should use the Olympic games for political reasons.”
The event quickly drew the attention of both those passing by as well as security. Although the New University approached Sgt. Arnold of the UCI Police Department for comment, he stated that he was told to refer all press inquiries to the director of UCI media relations, Cathy Lawhon.
“I think as a university, we always welcome free speech,” Lawhon said. “This program is intended to share cultural understanding. The university strongly supports students from UCI and Beijing expressing their differences of opinion. … Art is one way to express oneself and [the protesters] are choosing another.”
Carol Zhang, a member of Falun Gong and Irvine resident, stressed that her group was protesting first and foremost to raise awareness about China’s human-rights violations.
“The reason that I’m here today is that China has been promising to improve human rights. … They use the [Olympics] as propaganda,” Zhang said.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa or Dafa, is a form of gentle exercise and meditation that started about a decade ago. By 1999, over 70 million people in China practiced Falun Gong. That same year, the government of the People’s Republic of China banned Falun Gong and other “heterodox religion.”
Subsequently in July 1999, a former Chinese Communist leader, Jiang Zemin, began persecuting those who practiced Falun Gong.
A current Falun Gong practitioner, Hue Ly, 53, of Fountain Valley, stood outside the Barclay Theater to bring this information to light. Ly expressed that China should free its practitioners and allow people to practice what is good for their mind, body and spirit.
“[Falun Gong] is wonderful,” Ly said. “I see no harm because people just want to improve themselves, that’s all. We don’t do anything with politics. We just want to improve the mind, body and spirit through exercise. That is all I want to tell the people.”
Ly felt that the reason for the Chinese government’s rejection of the spiritual practice was due to its fear of free thought and individuality.
“The government is so afraid,” Ly explained. “Once your body is healthy, your mind is improved and the government is afraid of you. I lived in Vietnam, too, so I know communism.”
John Li, 46, of Pasadena and coordinator of the Pasadena Coalition for Human Rights in China, said that he used to be an avid follower of the Chinese communist party until 1999 when he discovered that Falun Gong practitioners were being persecuted.
“I self-evaluated myself,” Li said. “Our Chinese people deserve the freedom, the basic human rights we were born with. We have no right to take that away.”
However, some students believed that China’s human-rights issues should not be involved in the Olympics and openly condemned the actions of the protestors.
Wei Li, a second-year graduate student from the planning, policy and design department, criticized the human-rights activists for protesting at a celebration of the arts by Beijing student artists. Li said he came to support the students in their journey to introduce the Olympics.
“[The protestors] are disturbing. They’re trying to … bring shame on China,” Li said. “Olympics should be a divine platform for people to practice spirits of being higher, stronger and swifter, and 1.3 billion Chinese people are behind me on this. The Chinese government is working hard to organize such a great event to make friends and to open doors all over the world.”
Li is studying at UCI for another three years, after which he plans to return to China to work on remedying China’s urban problems.
“These people are anti-Chinese. I know what’s happening in China, my family is from China and they are living a happy life. I trust the Chinese government. China has friends all over the world,” Li said.
Another student shared Li’s views that the performance was a celebration rather than a platform to bring up China’s internal issues.
Brian Wang, a third-year mechanical engineering major, shared similar views with Li, expressing his disappointment in the protestors’ judgment of showing up to the event.
“Instead of being happy, the protestors made a distinction between an ‘us’ and ‘them,'” Wang said. “It’s a peaceful protest but not out of mutual respect. … They’re still my people.”
Wang clarified that he believed human rights are important. “There are issues of human rights in every country and China can deal with its own. What belongs here is unity.”
Protester Andy Duong, a resident of Irvine, expressed that while he did not dislike the people of China personally he felt disdain for their government.
“I’m not against China. I love the people of China, but I go against communism,” Duong said.
While political representation was present both for and against China, some attendees went to the event with no political intentions. One such individual was Chantry Davis, a second-year environmental engineering major.
“Its interesting. … I think there’s probably two valid opinions, but I’m not really aware of either of them to make an opinion,” Davis said.
Other onlookers found the protest less impressive, such as Michael Mao, a first-year computer science and engineering major.
“The rhetoric is not convincing on either side,” Mao said.
Onlookers watched the protest while ABC7 News and KTLA5 cameras covered the event. Madeline Mullens, a fourth-year art history major, expressed her unhappiness towards the media coverage.
“It’s not like the news is going to highlight the beauty of the event. It’s going to be all about the protest. [The performance] is supposed to be happy and beautiful,” Mullens said.
Inside the Barclay Theater, most of the Chinese performers were unaware of the demonstration that had occurred before the show. Yu Han Jun, a student from the Academy of Chinese Traditional Opera, said that he only thought about his character while he was performing and did not know about the protest.
“It’s my first time in America, Han Jun said. “I’m excited to be in California. We’re here for 13 days, traveling to different cities: San Diego, San Francisco and Berkley. Tomorrow we’re going to Disneyland.”
Dancer Baiwan Lu, 19, said she was happy to come to UCI to perform. “We’re happy to bring the Olympic spirit to the world and the U.S. … We’re very happy to bring culture of Chinese … and hopefully everyone can come together and cheer for the Olympics.”
According to Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Manuel Gomez, who helped organize the event, the Beijing students’ visit was an educational opportunity for UCI students.
“We believe very much in introducing students to know about the world