As the world’s attention turns to Beijing for this summer’s Olympic Games, the New Haven Green played host to a face-off between supporters of the Chinese government and opponents of its human-rights record.
But after Yale stepped in, the protest — for one side, at least — became about more than just China.
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The pro-Chinese demonstration, which was a counter-protest aimed at the procession of the Human Rights Torch relay through New Haven, was originally approved by Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry to occur Saturday on Old Campus, according to e-mails obtained by the News. But Friday at 5 p.m., Assistant to the President Nina Glickson wrote the organizers to inform them that their permit had been revoked. The demonstrators were offered an alternate date and time to hold the rally on campus, but they instead chose to move their activities to the Green, organizers said.
The Human Rights Torch is a worldwide movement that started a year before the 2008 Games in response to the Chinese government’s rejection of the organization’s request to release Falun Gong practitioners and other dissidents.
With the demonstration relocated across College Street, the Yale Police Department beefed up their Old Campus presence and the gates remained locked Saturday morning past their usual hours.
University Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith, who is in charge of Yale’s security operations, could not be reached for comment Sunday night.
In a column in Monday’s News, Qin Han MUS ’09, one of the event’s organizers, said it was “unfortunate” that Yale “failed to commit itself” to “core [societal] values” of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The pro-Chinese protest, consigned to the Lower Green, consisted of about 400 people who convened for the counter-demonstration starting a half-hour later, organized by the Yale Initiative of Asian and International Relations and the Committee for Supporting Beijing Olympics at Yale. Volunteers clad in red and white gathered on the Green brandishing Chinese flags and signs that blasted critics of China.
Between 100 and 200 of those critics were gathered across Temple Street on the Upper Green on Saturday to protest China’s suppression of the Falun Gong movement, Tibetan policies and support for the Sudanese government. That crowd consisted mostly of area residents and six Yale students, according to Edwin Everhart ’09, a co-coordinator of Amnesty International, which originally sponsored the demonstration but withdrew its support after hearing the “hawkishness” of the speeches, he said.
The demonstrations remained peaceful, but tensions mounted when the human-rights demonstrators paraded a Human Rights Torch down Temple Street as a symbolic rebuttal to the Olympic flame’s global journey in recent weeks. The gesture drew jeers and shouts from the pro-China demonstrators clamoring behind a rank of city police officers.
The police blocked off the portion of Temple Street bisecting the Green and directed drivers down Elm Street. As the marchers passed the pro-China rally, some held signs depicting handcuffs in the pattern of the Olympic rings. The mood became frantic as cheers of “We Are China!” from the pro-China demonstrators fueled shouts and exchanges between the two groups.
“China is using the Olympic Games as an excuse to escalate persecution against minority groups,” said Min Deng, a postdoctoral associate at the School of Medicine who helped organize the protest, after the event.
Many of the pro-China demonstrators became visibly upset as the human-rights protestors walked by. A Yale graduate student who only identified himself as Bryan was near tears as he shouted at the marchers.
“We don’t know why someone wants to split up our home country,” he said after the protesters had passed. “Who are we bothering? We are having a peaceful celebration of our Olympic games. We Chinese want to be a part of the international community.”
Such aggressive tactics on the part of the human-rights demonstrators also upset Everhart, he said. The speeches — some of which advocated for regime change in China, or compared the Beijing Olympics to the so-called Nazi Olympics in Berlin in 1936 — did not reflect Amnesty International’s position, he said.
“The organizers of the event took a tone that was not conciliatory and, from our perspective, not productive, not useful and altogether too extreme,” he said.
Everhart said he was pushed over the edge by a speech from John Kusumi, director of the China Support Network, which referenced an “interim government” that would presumably replace the Communist Party after its overthrow. Everhart said he thought he could clarify Amnesty International’s position in his own remarks, but he then was informed that his speech would be cancelled. At that point, he and the other Amnesty representative decided to pack up their table and withdraw their support.
“I wish we had told them why,” Everhart said Sunday night. “We basically lied to them about why we were leaving — I wish we had stood our ground and booed the guy.”
Kusumi could not be reached for comment Sunday night. But Zhen Yu Sun, a member of the Committee to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China, which organized the demonstration, said the opinions expressed in the speeches do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizers.
“We can’t control people’s speeches,” she said. “This protest is about human rights — we don’t have the right to examine their script.”
The pro-China gathering was intended as a celebration of China and the Olympics in light of such criticism, said Jie Chen GRD ’08, one of the event’s organizers.
“The theme today is to support the Olympics,” Chen said. “It is really a celebration for the entire Chinese community in New Haven.”
The demonstrators began the rally by walking laps around the Green, holding up signs reading “Keep Politics out of Olympics” and “Say No to the U.S. CIA Campaign against China.” Children, some dressed in traditional dance clothing and others in white-and-red T-shirts, waved miniature Chinese flags. A group of women clad in lotus-flower dresses practiced a dance routine.
“Beijing is putting on a huge effort to open these Olympics for everyone to see how great China is,” said Xi Luo GRD ’09, one of the demonstrators.
Many of the pro-China demonstrators interviewed said politics should be kept separate from the Olympics. Qian Sun GRD ’11, an engineering student in the graduate school who originally hails from Shanghai, attended the rally with his wife, Bing Hu. Hu held a large cardboard sign that read “The Greeks even halted wars during their Olympics. Why not us?” and waved a Chinese flag.
“We have volunteered to come here to show our support,” Sun said. “It is the Olympics, not Olympolitics.” Pointing to the sign, he said, “All the nations in history have come together for these Games, we are ashamed that we cannot do the same today.”
The Human Rights Torch Relay will eventually reach 40 U.S. cities before leaving the country next month. In a proclamation issued Saturday, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. declared April to be Human Rights Torch Relay Month.