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.
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“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.”