Written by Diane Gatterdam
Twenty-three years ago on this day Tuesday May 30th 1989, as the sun rose over Tiananmen Square, there she was, a beautiful white foam and plaster Goddess 37 feet high, shrouded in scaffolding, one arm held high in the air baring a touch of freedom, directly in front of Tiananmen Gate.
It was on the great axis, heavy with symbolism both cosmological and political, that extended from the main entrance of the Forbidden City (which in imperial times was thought to be the center of the earth) with the huge portrait of Mao Zedong over it.
The Goddess confronted the “Great Leader” FACE TO FACE.
When it came to the unveiling of the goddess a man and woman were chosen from the crowed to come forward and pull the ropes that uncovered a shroud over the statue’s head. As the veils fell, the crowd burst in to cheers and there were shouts of:
“Long live democracy!”
“The statue of the Goddess is made of plaster, and of course cannot stand forever” explained a statement read out over the PA system in the Square. “But as the symbol of the people’s hearts, she is divine and inviolate. Let those who would hurt her beware: the people will not permit this!”
The sight of this pristine white statue being erected to the accompaniment of the Western song “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, allowed the Chinese people to hope that their country was at last breaking out of Communism and merging with a cosmopolitan political current that would bring more openness, tolerance and democracy.
For older intellectuals who had been trained abroad before 1949, it had been a long and agonizing wait. When the shroud fell, some openly wept.
Enormous crowds immediately gathered to gaze up at the towering Goddess and to enjoy the nonstop carnival on musicians, Martial-arts experts, storytellers, comedy teams, dancers, and dramatic troupes that began performing at her base.
For a moment it seemed like the first days of the hunger strike had returned.
Some foreign reporters began to write about signs of a “deadlock” in the confrontation, as if the government has been permanently paralyzed. In fact the foreign press treated the unveiling of the Goddess as a kind of coronation ceremony, for what most were now calling the “Chinese Democracy Movement.” For Americans in particular, the Goddess’s striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty made it a TV image with which everyone could instantly identity.
In a devastatingly simple visual way, the Goddess again challenged the Party’s claim of being rightful heir to the Square. Facing Tiananmen Gate, the Goddess looked almost as if at any moment she might swing her touch of freedom like a club and strike out at Mao’s portrait.
Understandingly, Party hard-liners found everything about the statue an abomination.
As the presence of the Goddess in the Square fanned the protest movement back to life.
Party propagandists mobilized to nullify its influence. “Your movement is bound to fail! It is foreign. This is China, not the United States,” a voice boomed out over the loud-speakers in the Square. “All citizens have the duty to cherish and protecting our motherland and our nation,” fumed the People’s Daily.
“The Square is sacred. No one should have the right to add any permanent memorial or to remove anything from the Square.”
Because again the students had successfully occupied the Square with their powerful visual symbols, the Party propagandists were forced to create their own images.
A massive banner proclaiming “Oppose Bourgeois Liberalization” was unfurled down the side of the state-owned Beijing Hotel at the northeast corner of the Square.
At 9:00am Jiang Zemin was presiding over a meeting of the Shanghai Party Committee to discuss the guidelines set out by Party Central and the State Council on safeguarding social stability against turmoil. Suddenly he received an emergency call from the General Office of the Central Committee summoning him to Beijing. He boarded a special jet and arrived in Beijing that afternoon.
At 10:00 am the headquarters of the student movement held a news conference at the Square to announce that Chai Ling and Wang Dan were to be replaced by Feng Congde and Li Lu as student leaders.
At 1:30 Shen Yinhan a member of the BWAF standing committee cycled past to take a look at the Goddess. When he got as far as the Beijing Hotel, several men leaped out of a jeep, grabbed Shen, and threw him inside. Shen had the presence of mind to drop two notebooks on the ground. A passerby picked them up and wrote down the jeeps license plate number as it sped away.
At the BWAF headquarters Han Dongfang was getting word of many of his members being picked up by police and being arrested.
The arrests were like the first drops of rain that announce a coming storm.
Han Dongfang led a group of two dozen BWAF activists to the offices of the Beijing Public Security Bureau on Qianmen Street just off the Square. A line of police blocked the entrance. Some of them taped the BWAF delegation with video cameras. Behind the police line, the PSB building itself was blocked off by a customary wide screen wall with its gold inscription “ Serve the People!” – in the slanting calligraphy of Mao Zedong.
The crowd swelled as hundreds of student rushed over from the square in a rare display of solidarity with the workers.
The crowd went wild; police with bullhorns ordered the crowd to disperse. The workers and students sat down instead, holding up placards that read “ Secret arrests! show you true face” and “ If we don’t dare to descend into the jaws of hell, who will?”
Eventually the police allowed Han dongfang, Li Jinjin ( his legal adviser) and 3 bodyguards to enter.
“I am the legal adviser to the BWAF, can you confirm the arrest of our members, were these arrests carried out in due legal fashion, and what are the grounds for their detention?”
The PSB official looked at Li as if he had descended from another planet.
“By coming to quibble with us on these matters, you are in violation of martial law. You must leave right away.”
Li pressed on with no avail and the 5 returned to the crowd outside.
Han took the microphone and proposed to the crowd a compromise. Since the authorities would not respond to their demands, the workers should move to the nearby Ministry of Public Security and maintain a token sit-in until all the workers were released.
The crowd had been there for 7 or 8 hours. Han had not raised his voice once, but the incident marked him in the minds of the authorities as the “workers’ ringleader.”
Amid the celebration and festivity that accompanied the unveiling of the Goddess of Democracy, the students never noticed the scruffy table and chairs that were installed that afternoon in the newly-roped off area in the far northwest corner of the square. The workers had now moved their headquarters to the Square.
Later that day Han tried to hold a press conference on the steps of the monument to report the arrests of the workers, the students agreed to it but later were upset that the workers were in their space.
On the evening of May 30th Wang Dan broadcast a call for society to organize itself in intellectuals associations, trade unions, and farmers associations.
He called to the emergence of a Walesa-like personality to lead civil society.
When word arrived that police had arrested autonomous labor organizer Shen Yinhan, some 300 students headed off into the night to demonstrate for his release.
*Personal Note: For me, as the Goddess rose on that square 23 years ago it became one of the most inspiring in the 50 days of revolt. This action still inspires me every day to believe whole-heartily that both China and Tibet will be free. Freedom still rings in that square underneath all the Party’s rhetoric and is only lying dormant waiting for the next Goddess to be placed there.