City rebuffs consulate’s request to force removal of controversial painting
Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.
But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.
Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song painted the 10-foot-by-100-foot mural last month on the side of the old Corvallis MicroTechnology building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue. The work was commissioned by property owner David Lin, who is renovating the space for a restaurant and has rechristened the building Tibet House.
In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.
In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.
“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”
China invaded Tibet in 1950 and has repeatedly stated its claim to the island of Taiwan. Beijing considers both countries breakaway provinces.
The letter goes on to note the strong economic and cultural ties between China and Oregon and suggests that Corvallis would benefit from cooperating with the consulate’s request.
“To avoid our precious friendship from being tainted by so-called ‘Tibet independence’ and ‘Taiwan independence,’ we sincerely hope you can understand our concerns and adopt effective measures to stop the activities advocating ‘Tibet independence’ and ‘Taiwan independence’ in Corvallis,” the letter states.
In a response dated Aug. 20, Manning expressed regret that the mural had caused concern but noted that local government has no authority to regulate art.
“As you are aware,” Manning’s letter reads, ‘the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in this country, and this includes freedom of artistic expression.”
Two Chinese officials, Vice Consul Zhang Hao and Deputy Consul General Song Ruan, flew to Oregon this week to make their case in person. The two men met Tuesday in Corvallis with Manning and City Manager Jim Patterson.
“They expressed their concern and the concern of the Chinese government about the mural on Mr. Lin’s building,” Patterson said. “They viewed the message as political propaganda.”
Patterson said he and Manning agreed to convey those concerns to Lin but made it clear to the consular officials that the city could not and would not order the painting’s removal.
“We also had a conversation with them about the U.S. Constitution,” Patterson added.
Neither Hao nor Ruan could be reached for comment on Friday.
Lin said he has not been contacted directly by any representative of the Chinese government.
But he is feeling the heat from friends and family, who warn that he or his loved ones could face some form of retaliation, including the possibility of arrest if they travel to China. Even Chao, the artist who created the painting, had a change of heart when criticism of the mural began to mount, Lin said.
“I am under a lot of pressure to take down the mural,” Lin said.
But he has no plans to do anything of the sort.
Lin, who grew up in Taiwan before coming to America as a young man in the 1970s, is a strong advocate of a free Tibet and an independent Taiwan. He intends to leave the mural in place, no matter how much the Chinese government might want it to come down.
“I’ll just keep it the same,” Lin said. “I’ve got to live my life, that’s all.”
DeFazio blasts China in mural flap
Springfield Democrat criticizes Chinese diplomats on House floor Wednesday (Sept. 12, 2012)
Rep. Peter DeFazio lambasted Chinese diplomats on the floor of the House on Wednesday for trying to strong-arm the mayor of Corvallis into forcing a local business owner to take down a mural advocating independence for Tibet and Taiwan.
The Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco complained about the mural in a letter to Mayor Julie Manning last month, then sent two high-ranking officials to Corvallis to press their case in person.
Manning and City Manager Jim Patterson told the Chinese diplomats the city had no authority to regulate art and that freedom of expression is protected under American law.
“We always welcome visitors, but under these circumstances we have some concerns,” DeFazio said in a brief speech Wednesday afternoon. The Springfield Democrat’s Fourth Congressional District includes Corvallis.
“We are shocked and appalled that apparently Chinese professional diplomats have failed to read the Constitution of the United States of America before traveling here to represent their country,” DeFazio went on, waving a copy of the founding document.
“This represents the basis of our representative democracy, our freedom of speech and our rights, and it will not be bullied by China or any other overseas interest.”
The diplomatic dustup, first reported Saturday by the Corvallis Gazette-Times, comes in response to a mural commissioned by Taiwanese-American businessman David Lin for his downtown building.
Painted by Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song, the 10-by-100-foot mural depicts violent repression of Tibetan protesters by Chinese riot police and defiant images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.
China considers both regions part of its territory.
Jeff Merkley, Oregon’s junior senator, also waded into the fray, issuing a statement applauding the mayor’s actions and chiding China for playing the role of international art critic.
“Cheers to Mayor Manning for vigorously defending owner David Lin’s right to express his views on Tibet and Taiwan through a mural on his building,” Merkley said. “That’s the heart of the First Amendment, and it’s one of the great contributions of our Constitution to freedom. If folks disagree, they are welcome to put up their own mural.”
The story has drawn worldwide interest and sparked calls from pro-Taiwan organizations for the U.S. government to lodge a formal protest with China.
In a telephone interview with the Gazette-Times on Wednesday, DeFazio said the Chinese officials were “way out of line” and that he would contact State Department officials to discuss possible options for a diplomatic response.
“I think it’s extraordinary,” DeFazio said.
“If U.S. officials were to go to a local mayor in China objecting to some sort of depiction or protest about the United States, they might end up in jail if they didn’t have diplomatic immunity.”
Gerrit van der Weese of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes Taiwanese interests, said his organization was urging Oregon’s congressional delegation to formally protest the Chinese officials’ actions.
“They are quite successful in their own country in terms of suppressing this kind of expression,” he said, “but the thing is, now they are trying to do the same thing in this country, on foreign soil.”
Brock Freeman of the Seattle-based American Citizens for Taiwan said his group also was drafting a letter to Oregon’s representatives in Congress.
“The Chinese government got very bold in this case, and we like what the mayor did,” Freeman said, adding that the publicity surrounding the incident was drawing global attention to China’s efforts to quash political dissent.
“That’s the ironic thing here,” Freeman said. “Had they just left this alone, this mural would have been something that locals knew about, that members of the Tibetan or Taiwanese community knew about, but that would have been it.
“Now, because of what they did, this is exploding.”