NEW YORK-Employees from Human Rights in China were surprised to find that tonight their office building will devote itself to a display celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. The HRIC offices are housed in the Empire State Building, and tonight the 1,454-foot-tall New York City icon will light up red and yellow to honor 60 years of Communist rule in the organization's home country.
The lighting ignited controversy when the news first came out, and this morning at the ceremonial lighting with Consul General Peng Keyu, Tibetan students and other protesters held Tibetan flags and waved signs that read, "Mao's Empire State Building?" In a play off the ubiquitous "I Heart NY" slogan, a sign read "NY Hearts Liberty. Shame on ESB."
The Empire State Building lights up each night to commemorate organizations, events, or celebrations. Its website says, "All special lighting requests are considered based on the merit of their cause, the benefit of their use of the special lighting, and their treatment of the Empire State Building's iconic image for the event and on an ongoing basis."
But the Empire State Building lights up for just about everything. On April 23 this year it glowed green for the 25th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It lights up for religious holidays-for Christmas and for Eid-al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. In May it lit up blue and white for the Israel parade, and in June it glowed lavender for the gay pride parade. Once it lit purple, pink, and white in tribute to Mariah Carey.
Just last week, there was another political dispute over the building's colors. Iranian protesters requested green-the Green Movement's signature color-to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the United Nations General Assembly. The Empire State Building refused the Iranians but, to the protester's joy, planned to light up green anyway to commemorate the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz on September 24. But contrary to schedule, the Empire State Building lit up red instead. In response to one blog wanting to know why, the building's PR firm replied, "The Empire State Building does not use its iconic tower lights to make political statements or support protests of any kind."
According to Lhadon Tethong, executive director for Students for a Free Tibet, today's protesters were mobilized on a night's notice. "We were there to express our outrage and the outrage that so many Americans and people around the world feel about this iconic building being used to support the totalitarian regime that rules Beijing," said Tethong. "For us, 60 years of the People's Republic of China means 60 years of occupation, repression. . . . It's a horrific thought to think that this beautiful iconic building is kowtowing, bowing to this same system that rules China."
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said the Empire State Building lighting is "part of a very systematic strategy on the part of China's authorities to exert a kind of cultural soft power." The 60th anniversary celebration is lavish in China, where the government is spending a reported $44 million on a military parade. China Daily reported that over 40 million potted flowers and 2 million national flags would decorate the streets of Beijing for the anniversary.
But China is trying to extend the celebration internationally, said Hom, partly through an October 11 through November 24 culture festival called "Ancient Paths, Modern Voices"-displayed in Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, and the United Nations. "This kind of rich cultural festival, it really runs the risk of making it . . . convenient just to look aside that today in China there were many censored and silent voices," said Hom.
Hom said an Empire State Building employee-speaking anonymously and not as official spokesman-told her it was a cultural celebration: "I said 'Culture? No, no, no. This is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. . . . This is a political event.'"