Tiananmen Square

The Chinese Revolution


For the last hundred years, the Statue of Liberty has stood as "Mother of Exiles," the name Emma Lazarus gave her. Throughout this century of tyranny and holocausts, Liberty has signalled safe haven. On these shores, she promises, individuals can breathe free.

It is a noble ideal, one worth waging a long, twilight struggle to preserve. But it is not a very heartening one, this notion of an island of freedom amid a world of oppression.

Nor was the Lady originally intended to mark a place of exile. Her builders were far more optimistic. They gave her a name harkening back to an earlier, more revolutionary ideal. It is "Liberty Enlightening the World."

That ideal was reborn in Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese students who carried models of the Statue of Liberty and erected their own Goddess of Liberty and Democracy in her image did not want to move to America. Their Goddess was Chinese. They claimed liberty not as something Western or American but as the common heritage of all people.

And though they were silenced by guns and tanks, they made a revolution. They changed the way the free world thinks about China, about communism, and about itself.

To Westerners, China has always seemed exceptionally foreign, the exotic East. But the young people in Tiananmen Square overthrew that assumption. On a purely superficial level, they all looked like Californians—no more exotic than Michael Chang, who on becoming the first American to win the French Open in 34 years, declared, "God bless everybody, especially the people of China."

The protesters drew on a network of supporters not only in Asia but throughout the United States and, indeed, the world. And, it cannot be said often enough, they asked for the same freedoms the West holds dear—a free press, an independent judiciary, a government of laws not men, checks on the power of the state.

In life and especially in death the students smashed once and for all the idea, much beloved among intellectuals, that communism represents the rule of the people, that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a meaningful concept. "The People's Army must not fire on the people," was a futile plea. The People's Republic proved an enemy of its people.

The Chinese students also challenged the notion, to which the right sometimes falls prey, that free markets can long endure without free minds. With commerce come ideas—and, in our day, phone lines and fax machines. Marco Polo's journey to the East changed European history. Trade with the West has changed China, though how radically we will not know for decades.

In an unexpected and unintended way, the Chinese students redeemed America. Americans have gotten cynical over the last 200 years, especially over the last 20. We have grown embarrassed by or ignorant of our own message. We dread being thought earnest. We confuse conviction with cultural imperialism. We suspect that history, and perhaps justice, is on the side of those who promise bread in exchange for freedom.

But the young people of Tiananmen Square did not suffer from our malaise. They heard the revolutionary message in the speeches of Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln and melded it with their own, tragically innocent, concept of a People's Republic. In their calls for democracy, they echoed the words Americans too often read without understanding:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." It is a pity that George Bush finds such ideas unfit for public discussion.

Claiming the right to alter their government cost many students their lives. Others will undoubtedly disappear into Chinese prisons, as have dissidents before them.

But their actions were those of free people, who chose to act knowing the consequences they might face. In an age accustomed to mere victims, they are martyrs. They refute my college classmate's infamous picket sign, "Nothing is worth dying for."

Nor was courage confined to the Chinese protesters. Western reporters and especially camera crews braved bullets and threats of bullets to bear witness to what was happening. "Tell the world. Make sure the world knows," countless Chinese told countless journalists.

In a conflict that began with demands for a freer press, the journalists proved themselves worthy of the soaring claims so often made by and for their profession. They showed the world not only what was happening in China but why press freedom matters. Through their liberty, the world was enlightened. And in the dark days that have just begun, the life and liberty of many Chinese may depend on journalists who are willing to stay on the story, not to let the world forget and the prisoners disappear.

The need for refuge remains. The human spirit triumphed in Tiananmen Square, but the students did not. For the time being, Liberty must remain Mother of Exiles. Visas must be extended, the endangered offered protection.

The tragic deaths in Beijing may serve one immediate purpose: they may force Margaret Thatcher's government to offer the citizens of Hong Kong a way out after 1997. Only since the massacre has she agreed to even consider giving the British residents of Hong Kong—3.5 million of the city's 6 million residents—passports that would let them leave the island after China takes over. Thatcher, who talks like Winston Churchill and acts like Neville Chamberlain, may yet come to understand the inhumanity, and the resonance, of abandoning 6 million people to totalitarian rule.

The students' uprising offered hope, however, that democracy may yet come to China—possibly even before 1997. In Los Angeles, as in many cities around the country, an artist built a replica of the Goddess of Liberty and Democracy out of wood and foam. The artist, Tom Van Sant, plans to create a more-permanent monument.

"We'll make it out of Georgia white marble," he says. "And when they finally get democracy and personal freedoms, we'll give one to them."