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Torch divides San Francisco's Chinese community

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco’s large Chinese American community is divided about the Olympic torch’s passage through their city on Wednesday, with some saying protesting the symbol headed to their ancestral home could prove an embarrassing distraction.

“A majority of Chinese Americans are proud of China in the way they have raised the standard of living,” said Rolland Lowe, who practiced as a doctor in the city’s Chinatown for 43 years before retiring two years ago.

“China used to be called the sick man of Asia and for them to be hosting the Olympics is something they take pride in,” he continued. But then he mentioned the controversy over China’s control of Tibet. “They put more money in Tibet than they take out. It’s not like Tibet is full of oil.”

China’s crackdown on anti-government protests in Tibet last month has drawn sharp international criticism and clouded preparations for the Olympics.

San Francisco is the most Chinese of any large American city, with nearly 20 percent of its population of Chinese descent, and thus a logical choice to host the only U.S. torch stop en route to the Beijing Olympics which start in August.

Yet famously liberal San Francisco has long been a hotbed of political protest, from the Vietnam War in the 1960s to the Iraq War in recent years. Groups concerned about Tibet as well as those focused on Darfur, Africa, say the San Francisco torch run is perfect place to complain about Chinese policies.

“I think the Olympic torch now provides an ideal opportunity for global civil society to mobilize support for their causes and appeals,” said Xiao Qiang, a human rights activist and adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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“What’s happening in Tibet only makes this fact even more intensified and focused,” he continued. “It is inevitable that this event, the Olympic torch, becomes a focus for all kinds of protesters to deliver their messages to Chinese government as well.”


Local groups have already staged a series of demonstrations, most dramatically on Monday when Tibetan activists scaled the cables of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge to hang “Free Tibet” banners.

“We know this is highly distressing to the Chinese government,” said Tsering Lama, 23, a Tibetan protest supporter visiting from Toronto. “Until they resolve the issue in Tibet, they will continuously be judged.”

Actor Richard Gere will address a pro-Tibet vigil on Tuesday evening just hours before the torch arrives, and Tibet organizers hope that thousands opposed to Chinese rule in Tibet will take to the streets on Wednesday.

In recent days thousands of protesters have already marred the torch runs in Paris and London, even succeeding in briefly extinguishing the symbolic flame.

Many Chinese-Americans hope such chaos does not occur in San Francisco. Chark Lui, an adviser to San Francisco’s Chinese American Association of Commerce, said he expected 10,000 Chinese Americans on the city’s streets supporting the event.

“The torch run is an Olympic event - it should not be political,” he said. “This is a joyous event.”

Additional reporting by Jim Christie, editing by Philip Barbara