FREMONT — Cecilia Chang says she used to look the other way when people talked about “heavy stuff” — civil liberties, constitutional rights, discrimination.
Now she carries a stack of petitions, cajoling signatures from strangers to bolster a presidential pardon campaign for her friend Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-American scientist once suspected of spying against the United States. Two years ago on Friday — Sept. 13, 2000 — Lee was freed from nine months of solitary confinement as the investigation around him crumbled.
While convicted on a single count of copying sensitive nuclear weapons data, Lee received an apology from a federal judge for his treatment. The activism his case inspired continues to flourish in Chang, along with many other Asian-Americans who have no personal connection to Lee.
“It was really a watershed moment in terms of Asian-Americans coming of age,” said Karen Narasaki, president of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington. “For the first time, you had Asian-American professionals thinking about criminal justice and the issue of whether the government is always right.”
In Fremont, Chang has started a new group inspired by the Lee case, Justice for New Americans. In Sacramento, activist Ivy Lee created the Chinese American Political Action Committee, which has about 30 members. And in Detroit, Marie-Ange Weng formed the Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a coalition of organizations with about 1,000 members.
Weng helped create her group shortly after Lee was released.