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Chinese New Year is a test of diplomacy for divided community

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014 - 2:55 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 - 9:09 am

The Chinese New Year celebration Saturday at Hiram Johnson High School was a test of diplomacy and perhaps a preview of a united China, whatever shape that takes.

Thousands gathered for the Year of the Horse event, drawing people with origins from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. The Chinese community, even in the United States, hasn’t forgotten about the bitter civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists and Mao Zedong’s communists. Fighting ended in 1949 with the communists seizing the mainland and Chiang’s battered Nationalist government taking refuge on the island of Taiwan.

Ever since the division, both sides – the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on the mainland – have been fighting for the hearts and minds of overseas Chinese. The event on Saturday was highly symbolic, showing that political differences could be put aside.

In opening remarks, organizer Daniel Chiang, president of the Chinese New Year Culture Association, emphasized the need for unity among Chinese.

“I hope both sides of the Taiwan Strait will be peaceful,” Daniel Chiang told the crowd in Mandarin, to loud applause.

His comments came against the backdrop of a historic meeting last week between the heads of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The gathering in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, the former capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s government, represented the first official government-to-government talks between the Cold War foes. Wang Yu-chi, chair of the Mainland Affairs Council, also paid respects to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China in 1912, at his tomb in Nanjing – the first such visit by a Taiwanese official in 65 years.

In an interview, Daniel Chiang called on all Chinese to stand up and unite, regardless of their political ideology or hometown.

“China has been bullied for more than 100 years,” he said, referring to the series of wars fought between the West and China during the 19th century. “If we don’t unite, we risk losing everything.”

At the culture association and in other Chinese American groups in Sacramento, community leaders take part in a delicate balancing act to ensure all parties are represented. For instance, the event organizers encompassed a variety of backgrounds, representing both Taiwan and China.

Before the daylong series of music and dance performances began Saturday, loud chatter in Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese could be heard throughout the audience. A parade of politicians eager to court this growing demographic showed up, including state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. Yee immigrated from China, while Pan’s parents hail from Taiwan. Both are running again for state office this year.

“We’re all related,” Yee said, as he presented Daniel Chiang with a proclamation from the Senate.

Pan was even more unequivocal: “It’s the year of the swift victory,” referring to a Chinese idiom that draws on the traits of a horse. “I hope you can help us bring swift victories to the Asian candidates running for office.”

Beverly Bossler, a Chinese history professor at UC Davis, said this type of unity is a reflection of the immigrant experience.

“If you’re Chinese in this country, whether you’re from Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland, you have certain similar experiences that could bind you together.”

Absent at Saturday’s event, however, were consular officials from Taiwan and China, along with their respective banners. Neither was invited, to keep the event strictly nonpartisan, organizers said. A mix-up in officials’ names several years ago resulted in the mainland delegation storming out in protest, according to Vicki Beaton, a founding member of the Chinese New Year Culture Association.

In recent years, ties between the two sides have significantly improved, owing to the 2008 election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who is considered to be pro-Beijing. However, the political relationship has been at a standstill over the framework of a unified China. Beijing’s best overture, so far, has been to apply the Hong Kong model – “One Country, Two Systems,” in which Taiwan would retain some form of a capitalist system under the mainland government.

But Taiwan has called that unacceptable. Despite a warming of relations, China continues to regard Taiwan as a renegade province that one day must be brought into the fold, by force if necessary.

In Sacramento and across the U.S., passions roll into high gear every October, as opposing banquets and celebrations are held to commemorate the national days of the mainland and Taiwan (Oct. 1 and Oct. 10, respectively).

But on Saturday, it was only about celebrating the Year of the Horse and China’s 5,000-year history.

“There is going to be a coming-together some day,” Bossler said. “How soon? I don’t know.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

Read more articles by Richard Chang

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