Political prisoners

Sep 252013


This op-ed by Ed Riffle was published in the San Jose Mercury News.  Harry Wu (right) is a famed Chinese human rights activist.  I remember campaigning for his freedom back in the 90’s.  Repression of human rights activists has only intensified since then.  Marga

In September 1999, for the 50th anniversary of the communist takeover of China, with great ceremony and with Chinese diplomats in attendance, the flag of the People’s Republic of China was raised next to the American flag in front of the old Milpitas City Hall. The PRC flag that was used for the ceremony was considerably larger than the American flag, appeared to be raised higher than the American flag and both flags remained locked in place for an entire weekend. Myself and several others had tried to stop this whole event from ever happening but were unsuccessful. A city council majority approved it on the mayor’s recommendation. When it finally happened people became furious.

Because I had written to the Milpitas Post and had spoken out at the city council against this event, I found myself at the center of the controversy. Many people contacted me and told me stories of their families’ experiences with the communists in China. In tears, one local restaurant owner told me of his grandmother’s decision to commit suicide rather than submit to the communist thugs. A neighbor told me of she and her mother’s seven-year long and very dangerous journey to flee China. Others told me of the retribution that the communists inflicted on U.S. citizens for offenses committed by their family members in China and vice versa. Through these people I received a rather vivid impression of the brutality represented by that flag.

While (for obvious reasons) these people were not comfortable speaking or writing in opposition to the PRC flag raising they continued encouraging me to do so. This was not a short-lived controversy. It continued for many months. Eventually, the size and placement of flagpoles at the new city hall were all as a result of the citizens’ desires to never give their politicians the ability to hold such a ceremony ever again.

What I did not know at the time of the “flag incident” was why the PRC flag was raised in Milpitas in the first place.ÊAs it turned out, in 1995 the government of the PRC had arrested a nationalized American citizen by the name of Harry Wu for “spying” but had been forced to release him under the threat that Hillary Clinton would boycott a United Nations Women’s Conference to be held in Beijing.

Releasing Wu was a major embarrassment to the PRC government. And, where in the world did Wu live? You guessed it: Milpitas. In fact, a very big deal was made to welcome Harry Wu home to Milpitas when he returned to the United States. You’ve perhaps heard the term, “saving face”? Flying that flag in Wu’s hometown was simply a little symbolic retaliation by the communists.

Wu’s two books, “Laogai: The Chinese Gulag” and “Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in a Chinese Gulag” detail the brutality of the communist regime in China. He moved out of Milpitas to the Washington, D.C. area in the fall of 2000.

Recently, San Leandro City Council voted to raise the PRC flag in front of their city hall. Their mayor had the good sense to suspend the implementation of their vote.

* * *

Ed Riffle ran for mayor of Milpitas in 2000 and was active in politics here before moving to Sunnyvale.


Benny LeeThis post comes to you thanks to San Leandro Council Member Benny Lee