The crowd in Tiananmen Square was losing hope. Their mass protest had drawn throngs of students at first, but as the summer of 1989 approached, their numbers were dwindling, their leaders were resigning, and the square itself, according to one historian of China’s democracy movement, "had degenerated into a shantytown, strewn with litter and permeated by the stench of garbage and overflowing portable toilets."
The democracy movement seemed to be dying, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
This was before most of us in the West had ever heard of Tiananmen Square. What turned the protest around? Why did hundreds of thousands of supporters pack the square in the final days of May? What made the government, which had been ignoring the protest and refusing to offer any reforms, suddenly sit up and take notice—and send in tanks?
A lady with a torch.
To American eyes, she looked like a Chinese version of the Statue of Liberty, her torch of freedom held aloft over Tiananmen’s huddled masses. The art students who had quickly assembled the foam statue over a bamboo scaffolding had deliberately avoided creating something that seemed "too openly pro-American"—even basing the style on the Cold War art of the Soviet socialist realists—but even with her Chinese features and a two-handed grip on the torch, the comparison with Lady Liberty was unavoidable.
But while the statue in New York Harbor represents Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, the protestors in Tiananmen Square were worshipping a different deity. They called their statue the Goddess of Democracy.
The tanks rolled in and crushed the goddess beneath their treads, but her symbolic power remains, and her likeness now appears in the form of commemorative statues throughout the world.
The authoritarian state may have won the battle, but the war for freedom lasts longer than our history textbooks would have us believe. In England and America, we had more than a century of struggles between liberty and power before anything like a victory could be declared for our cause. It took more than a piece of paper—more than the Declaration of Independence or the Treaty of Paris. And for years the words and symbols of liberty and independence inspired generations of freedom fighters, not just the ones we call the Founding Fathers.
But did the symbols ever unite us? Americans may look at the unifying force of the Goddess of Democracy and long for a time when our own symbols had the power to inspire our passion and our courage, but colonial America was never united on the cause of independence. About a fifth of the white population was loyal to the British Crown, with twice as many keeping their heads down and avoiding any openly held position on the question of independence. That puts the American Revolutionaries in the minority. And even among those who actively supported America’s secession from the empire, there was a deep philosophical divide about the goals of such a fight.
We call the American Revolution the War of Independence, but whose independence are we referring to? For the rank and file of the resistance, independence would mean freedom from coercive government—independence for themselves, individually. For the elite, it meant putting themselves in charge in place of their former imperial masters: an American government independent of the British Empire.
A similar equivocation was at work in China’s democracy movement. Another name for Tiananmen's Goddess of Democracy, one that wasn't used as widely, was the Goddess of Liberty. But democracy and liberty are hardly the same thing. The words are too often used interchangeably in the modern West, too, but we know that a democratic majority can impose horrendous violations on the outvoted minority. It was, after all, the democratic process that first brought Hitler to power in Germany.
Some try to avoid the problem with a qualifier: they advocate "liberal democracy," by which they mean a system with the constitutional protection of certain rights. But what virtues are captured by the term liberal democracy that aren’t more clearly given in the single word "liberty"?
Did the Chinese want what we have here in the United States? Our political process produced the USA PATRIOT Act. The recent PRISM scandal may have uncovered illiberal, illegal, and perhaps even anti-democratic activities on the part of the NSA, but it was the legal political process of the world’s leading liberal democracy that created the NSA, gave them a huge clandestine budget, and put them beyond the reach of public oversight.
Even if democracy worked according to the ideals we were taught in middle-school civics—even if the qualifying modifier in "liberal democracy" were accurate (according to the older, now less-well-understood meaning of the word "liberal")—I find it hard to believe that the passions and courage on display 24 summers ago in Tiananmen Square were about the mechanics of voting. Those people wanted freedom.
And yet I also recall American news coverage after the government tanks rolled in. In their post mortem of the movement, analysts explained that the Chinese students had no real experience of democracy and didn’t understand what they were fighting for. Many within the movement, for example, conflated democracy with consensus, paralyzing all decision-making until they could achieve unanimity on everything.
I don’t think the movement would have succeeded with a different name for the uniting symbol constructed in the square. Tank treads would have pulverized a Goddess of Liberty as effectively as they turned the Goddess of Democracy to rubble. But I do wonder about the effects that that unifying symbol has on the hearts of the Chinese masses, still yearning to be free.
Under the nominal Communists, the Chinese people are now discovering the blessings of markets and widespread wealth. Do they understand the relevance of the Goddess of Liberty? When they finally throw off the yoke of the totalitarian state, will they vote themselves into submission? I almost hope they maintain their confusion about democracy and consensus. A paralyzed government might allow liberty to flourish a while longer.