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Business in Vancouver

Inside Vancouver city hall’s Chinese flag flap

Ceremony for 67th national day stirred criticism of China’s human rights record

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2016, 2:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2016, 2:29pm

Officials at Vancouver city hall, Canada, wondered whether raising the Chinese flag to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the communist revolution would cause controversy if Taiwanese asked for equal treatment.

Documents obtained by Business in Vancouver under freedom of information laws also show that staff in the offices of the mayor and city manager were intimately involved, contrary to what the communications department indicated after the unpublicised Sept. 30 event for 300 Chinese government supporters.

In a September 1 email, protocol officer Paul Hendren mentioned that Emma Lee, Mayor Gregor Robertson’s community liaison, had been contacted by the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations to hold the event. The 2008-founded coalition is comprised of immigrants from mainland China and has held events praising Chairman Mao Zedong, who led the revolution and died in 1976. Mao has been blamed for more than 30 million deaths from famine and human rights abuses during his reign. 

Hendren wrote that standard approval would be required from the city manager’s office, but he also expressed concern. “Would agreeing to this event cause any political sensitivity?” Hendren asked assistant city manager Wendy Au.

“The People’s Republic of China is the officially recognised country in Canada and we have no reason to say no,” Au responded. “However, in the future if Taiwan asked to do the same thing and if we say Yes I am sure Chinese Consulate will object to that… If we have to say no then we will need to make sure that with our policy that Taiwan is not an officially recognised country and that their flag is not being flown in Ottawa! This can be tricky since our Mayor and councillors have relationships with both!”

October 1 is national day in China. Taiwan, which holds democratic elections but is considered a rebel province by China, celebrates its national day annually on October 10.

“We’re not federal level, we’re a city,” Meena Wong, the Beijing-born COPE mayoral candidate in 2014, said in an interview. “If you’re talking about inclusivity and multiculturalism, why not the Taiwanese community?”

On September 30, city hall spokesman Jag Sandhu said flag-raising ceremonies are requested through the protocol office, organised by a community group and the city only provides space.

The flag-raising on city hall’s ceremonial pole featured members of the CACA board, Chinese consul general Liu Fei, Vision Vancouver Councillors Kerry Jang and Geoff Meggs and Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido (Richmond-Steveston).

Still photos and video of the event showed Jang and Peschisolido wearing red scarves similar to the Young Pioneer scarves sported by Chinese schoolchildren as a symbol promoting communism. Jang labelled critics racist, while Peschisolido said he believed it to be a symbol of 5,000 years of Chinese history, but regretted wearing the scarf.

Wong and other members of the Vancouver Chinese community called for Jang to resign, because he showed loyalty to China.

“Why do we raise a country’s flag when a country has internal unrest and turmoil?” said Wong, who moved from China because of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Images of flag-raising ceremonies at a seat of power in Canada, regardless of the level of government, Wong said, could be used for propaganda purposes in China, to stifle dissent under the regime of president Xi Jinping.

“They show it to the people of China [to say] ’we’re being accepted around the world, who is going to fight in your corner?’” Wong said.

In an October 12 email to city hall protocol coordinator Pearl Zhang, CACA’s Zaixin Ma called the criticism of the flag raising and the wearing of the red scarves “forced analogies that confuse public opinion.”

Ma claimed CACA planned to make long, red scarves, but the provider misunderstood and supplied square red scarves. The scarves were supposed to be worn only by female members of CACA.

“This was due to shortcomings in our own organisational efforts, which created the mistaken impression of Young Pioneer red scarfs (sic), and we hereby offer our sincere apologies,” Ma wrote. “On the other hand, we totally reject the groundless criticism of communism and Great Cultural Revolution.”

After the event was over, city hall security operations supervisor Bruce Patton sent a reflective email to Zhang.

“The MLA (sic) from Richmond, first name Joe made a comment to Kerry Jang during the ceremony that maybe next year this event could be held in Richmond. I fully support that idea,” Patton wrote. “Kidding aside, it went very well. Thanks.”