Oregon Mural Draws The Ire Of Chinese Government

Sep 12, 2012

The Chinese government is playing the role of art critic in one Oregon community. The criticism comes in response to a new mural commissioned by a Taiwanese-born businessman in Corvallis. The painting depicts a Tibetan monk setting himself on fire. But local officials are defending David Lin's right to express his views.

The mural in downtown Corvallis is big: ten feet high, 100 feet long. One side shows a peaceful countryside setting in rural Taiwan. The other shows police beating protesters in Tibet, and a Buddhist monk setting himself ablaze in protest. Human rights groups say more than 50 monks have self-immolated over the past three years.

Corvallis businessman David Lin feels strongly that their message should not be overlooked. "That's the strongest protest you can ever happen, right? You burn yourself to death. Painful. And we cannot ignore that," Lin says.

But the Chinese government is not ignoring Lin's attempt to promote political independence for Tibet and his native Taiwan. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco sent a letter to the City of Corvallis asking local officials to have the mural removed in order to, quote, "avoid our precious friendship from being tainted."

Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning would have none of it. She wrote the consulate back. "The mural reflects protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that I really didn't see that there was a role for local government in some sort of intervention," Manning says.

Consular officials even paid Manning a personal visit. She calls the meeting "cordial" but said she still won't and can't order the painting destroyed. Chinese consulate officials in San Francisco didn't respond to requests for comment.

But Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a recent press briefing in Beijing that the international community should not provide a platform for people who advocate for Taiwan or Tibet.  "China's position on Taiwan and Tibet related issues have been consistent and clear. We oppose anyone abroad using any method to engage in Taiwan's or Tibet's separatist independence activities," Lei says.

The mural has spurred a lot of discussion among the roughly 900 Chinese students at Oregon State University in Corvallis. That's according to Cheng Li, head of the OSU Chinese Student Association. He says the painting doesn't bother him. But he believes "this mural or this wall painting will actually hurt some Chinese people's feelings."

As for the Chinese government attempting to have the mural removed, Cheng says he's scratching his head. "Obviously they kind of misunderstand how things work in the United States," Li says.

As for David Lin, he says he's not backing down. "I will not tear this mural down under any circumstances," he says.

And he says the support he's received from the local community has bolstered his resolve. "That kind of support is unbelievable. And I feel very strongly about this. I (have) gratitude (for) people's support. And that makes me even stronger, stronger to stand on my own feet," Lin says.

But Lin isn't taking anything for granted. He says he's scared for his safety and the safety of the Taiwanese artist who painted the mural. At his desk in the building he hopes to open as a restaurant, a handgun sits within his reach.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network