Despite Chinese pressure, NJ township raises Tibetan flag for Tibetan New Year

Belleville township Mayor Michael Melham says he expects the flag hoisting to be an annual event.
By Tenzin Pema and Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan
2024.02.13
Despite Chinese pressure, NJ township raises Tibetan flag for Tibetan New Year Tibetan community members stand with Mayor Michael Melham after the Tibetan flag-hoisting ceremony to commemorate the Tibetan New Year in Belleville, N.J., Feb. 9, 2024.
Courtesy of Township of Belleville, N.J.

When the mayor of a New Jersey township accepted a request from a resident to fly the Tibetan flag on the eve of the Tibetan New Year, he had no inkling it would attract the attention of the Chinese government.

Nor did he anticipate that Belleville township – population of about 40,000 – would suddenly become the subject of international news.

But that’s exactly what unfolded, Mayor Michael Melham told Radio Free Asia after he rejected an emailed request by Ambassador Huang Ping, consul general of the People’s Republic of China in New York, to cancel the Tibetan flag-hoisting ceremony scheduled for Feb. 9.

Despite Chinese pressure, Melham raised the Tibetan flag for the first time in Belleville history at the behest of Tibetan resident Dorjee Nodong, who submitted a request at least 30 days in advance to hoist the Tibetan flag at the Town Hall to commemorate Losar, the Tibetan New Year. A recording of the Tibetan national anthem played in the background during the event. 

“We have often seen our town embrace diversity and inclusivity by hoisting flags representing different nationalities in front of the mayor’s office, so my son reached out to the mayor’s office,  and they agreed to do it,” Yangchen Nodong, 74, the mother of Dorjee who placed the request, told RFA by phone from her home in New Jersey.

The incident illustrates how far Chinese officials will go to try to exert control over members of Tibetan diaspora communities abroad, especially during politically sensitive anniversaries and holidays, such as Losar, which began this year on Feb. 10.

Diversity program

The township of Belleville, which organizes flag raisings on Fridays at noon, approved the Tibetan flag-raising event as part of an ongoing initiative to promote the township’s diversity. As part of the program, any resident or Belleville organization can place a request for a flag raising for a specific country, following which the township purchases the flag and schedules the event.   

Mayor Michael Melham raises the Tibetan flag outside Belleville Town Hall in honor of the Tibetan New Year, in Belleville, N.J., Feb. 9, 2024. (Courtesy of Township of Belleville, N.J.)
Mayor Michael Melham raises the Tibetan flag outside Belleville Town Hall in honor of the Tibetan New Year, in Belleville, N.J., Feb. 9, 2024. (Courtesy of Township of Belleville, N.J.)

“It sounds like the raising of the Tibetan flag in our town has sparked significant attention and discussion on social media, even if it may not have been immediately noticeable to everyone in my town,” said Nodong, whose family is among a handful of Tibetan families living in Belleville.

Belleville is home to one of the first Chinatowns on the U.S. eastern seaboard and the place where the first Chinese New Year was celebrated on the East Coast. It is predominantly made up of Hispanics and has a small Asian population, Melham told RFA. 

“As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how big or small of a community you are,” Melham said. “If there's a request that comes in, we’re going to honor that.”

“Here in Belleville, we’re proud of our culture and our history, and I know Tibetan people are, too,” he said. “But increasingly, their language, spirituality or their religion is trying to be silenced in China. That’s something that we can’t accept. ... We want to make sure that history will always tell their story...so, the best way to do it is to do things like this where we stand up and stand firm.”

Nodong said he was devastated upon hearing that the Chinese consul tried to stop the event. 

“This situation stirred emotions related to the ongoing tensions inside Tibet, but I felt a great sense of happiness and satisfaction knowing that despite the Chinese government’s intervention, the mayor still chose to hoist the Tibetan flag in our town,” he said.

Undated letter

Chinese Consul General Huang Ping’s undated letter to Melham asked for his “... reconsideration of the township’s participation for this ‘flag-raising’ event, as a measure to fulfill the commitment of the United States and to facilitate the sound development of China-U.S. relations.” 

“I was kind of taken aback by their request, especially the fact that they mentioned that the [Tibetan] flag is a symbol that China doesn’t accept,” Melham said. “I was really taken aback by that and the fact that the Chinese government being housed in New York is going to try to muscle in on a New Jersey municipality and try and influence their mayor or their governing body or their township as a whole as to what they can or cannot do.”

The letter Chinese Consul General Huang Ping sent to Michael Melham, mayor of Belleville, N.J., asking him to cancel the Tibetan flag-raising ceremony scheduled for Feb. 9, 2024. (Courtesy Township of Belleville, N.J.)
The letter Chinese Consul General Huang Ping sent to Michael Melham, mayor of Belleville, N.J., asking him to cancel the Tibetan flag-raising ceremony scheduled for Feb. 9, 2024. (Courtesy Township of Belleville, N.J.)

The letter, typed on the letterhead of the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York, was attached as a PDF file to the email sent to Melham, which was signed by Vice Consul Kailiang Zhou.

In response to the letter, Melham wrote to Huang that people in Belleville prided themselves on creating an environment of inclusivity and acceptance, regardless of nationality or territorial affiliation. 

“I understand your concerns regarding the raising of the Tibetan flag,” he wrote. “However, it’s essential to clarify that our intentions are not aimed at challenging the sovereignty of any nation. Instead, our gesture symbolizes solidarity with the Tibetan people and their aspirations for freedom and self-determination.”

An outpouring of support

There has been no communication from the Chinese government since Feb. 12, Melham said. 

The consulate did not immediately respond to RFA’s request for comment.

Following the Tibetan flag-hoisting ceremony, Melham has received an outpouring of messages in solidarity with his move from all over the United States and Canada.

I've received messages from all over with people saying, what a great thing that we did and encouraging me as a mayor to make sure that we stand firm,” he told RFA. “So, I’m going to venture to guess this is not going to be a one-time occurrence.”

Additional reporting by Yangdon Demo and Nyima Namseling for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Matt Reed.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.

COMMENTS

Wangchuk
Feb 15, 2024 12:21 PM

As a NJ resident, I thank the mayor of Belleville NJ for raising the Tibetan national flag in honor of Losar (Tibetan New Year). I'm glad the mayor didn't kowtow to China's heavy-handed political pressure to preclude any recognition of Tibetan culture in his town. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, the Tibetan snow lion flag is banned & Tibetans will go to jail for merely possessing this flag or a picture of HH the Dalai Lama. That is how little freedom there is in Tibet under China's thumb. Imagine if Puerto Ricans were banned from flying their flag or any ethnic group in America was banned from celebrating their true cultural heritage or revering their own religious leaders. That is what China is doing in Tibet.