Photo by Joe Piasecki
Bill Bogaard just had to look. About 90 minutes before activists officially unveiled a billboard decrying human rights abuses in China, Pasadena’s mayor on Monday was heading to a meeting in Los Angeles, but instead turned north on Arroyo Parkway, he said, to be among the first to catch a glimpse.
The billboard, a depiction of the iconic interlocking Olympic rings as handcuffs with the words “Beijing 08” in big and red letters underneath, was designed by Reporters Without Borders, a group critical of China’s suppression of journalists and Internet users as well as plans for the Rose Parade to include a float representing that country and its role as host of the coming Summer Games — a float that Bogaard personally helped get into the parade.
“Today, China is the world’s biggest prison for journalists and cyber dissidents. Censorship is widespread,” said Lucie Morillon, who is in charge of the press freedom group’s US affairs and flew in for the unveiling of the billboard.
“The Olympic Games are not just a sports event, but a celebration of freedom — and too many dissidents are not going to be able to take part in this celebration because they are in jail in China,” she continued. “Reporters Without Borders does not condone the presence of the Beijing 2008 float at the Rose Parade because we understand it could be used as a propaganda tool by the Chinese regime, and we’re not comfortable with that.”
Bogaard, however, is perhaps the float’s highest-profile supporter. Although it has made him a target for criticism from a coalition of religious and political activists, Bogaard — who was not expected to attend the billboard’s unveiling — defends his position as a difference of opinion over the meaning of the controversial float and the role of city officials in what he describes as international affairs.
“I understand those who criticize me because of supporting the float, but I’m on a different track because I say the float is to celebrate the Olympics, which the Rose Parade has a long tradition
of doing, and not intended to validate or approve the country of China … or any conduct we would all recognize as inappropriate,” said Bogaard.
One of his critics is Yaning Liu, an area woman who asked Bogaard to personally send a letter to Chinese officials advocating the release of her 64-year-old mother from a labor camp where she is being held for illegal religious practices. It was a request Bogaard recently declined.
“It’s been a difficult time,” said Bogaard of the float controversy, “because my fundamental thinking is that neither I nor the city have the competence to engage in international diplomacy at the level and with the impact that [activists] want.”
Since the Tournament of Roses announced this summer that American business interests including the Pasadena-based Avery Dennison Corp. would be sponsoring a float celebrating the Beijing Olympics, Bogaard and the council have been pressed to speak out against the imprisonment and torture of those in China whose religious and political activities are deemed illegal by the country’s communist government.
Starting with protests by local practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement suppressed by Chinese officials, a coalition of local anti-float activists has grown over the past six months to include Tibetan and Burmese Americans, the Visual Artists Guild, former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian, labor activist Bob McCloskey and even a local Catholic priest.
“I’m here really as a voice for the voiceless, for those people who suffer on a daily basis just to practice their faith in freedom like we do here in Pasadena,” said the Rev. Gerard O’Brien, pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on Orange Grove Boulevard, who spoke Monday in front of the billboard.
In China, Catholics who are loyal to the Vatican have been imprisoned and allegedly even killed for practicing outside of the government-sanctioned church.
Photos of several jailed Catholic bishops, activists and reporters will be featured Saturday in a human rights exhibit at the Jackie Robinson Center being prepared by the Visual Artists Guild, which is asking parade viewers to turn their backs to the float as it passes.
The exhibit also loosely marks the 59th anniversary on Dec. 10 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document introduced by Bogaard and adopted by Pasadena City Council members last month as a response to activists but criticized for stopping short of a direct rebuke of China.
On Nov. 28, Bogaard mailed a copy of that declaration to Pasadena sister cities, including one in China, with a letter describing council actions as the outcome of people “expressing concerns that the presence of a float celebrating the Beijing Olympics 2008 would potentially embarrass Pasadena because of the frequent allegations of human rights violations in China.”
More telling at a personal level was the letter Bogaard sent to Liu, who like her mother practices Falun Gong.
“Some causes — like yours — cry out for correction. One is inclined to join in demanding change,” wrote Bogaard, but “… In the case of your mother, I have no reason to believe that my communication will have any impact on the recipient.”
In the letter, Bogaard reiterates his belief that he was not elected to deal with international affairs. He also resolves to decline all similar requests in the future, believing he would be swamped with requests for an involvement in numerous matters that he’d find difficult to justify.
Liu said she felt Bogaard’s reluctance toward international activism contradicts his early support for efforts to bring the Beijing float to Pasadena, but was most disheartened by his other conclusion — that even if he did write the letter, it wouldn’t make a difference.
“How can you say there are too many lives to save?” she asked.