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Friday, May 30, 2014

Chairman Mao and the Goddess

-- by Tom Phillips

Twenty-five years ago this May, I went with CBS News to cover what turned out to be historic events in Beijing.  We were the only crew from a major U.S. network on the scene, but it wasn’t because we knew what was going to happen.  We were planning to cover the meeting of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and China’s communist party leaders – a summit conference that became just a footnote to the tumult in Tiananmen Square, and throughout China

The pro-democracy protests that swept China in 1989 had been building up for weeks, and climaxed in mid-May with a huge demonstration that filled Tiananmen Square with more than a million people.  Protests were also reported in hundreds of other Chinese cities.  It came about because of a confluence of factors – mourning for the death of a leading party reformer in April, spring weather and spring fever, the presence of foreign reporters and loosening of press restrictions for the Gorbachev visit.   But it also had to do with the global atmosphere – Gorbachev’s reforms, the implosion of the Soviet empire in Europe, the rise of democratic aspirations everywhere.  It felt like an unstoppable movement – democracy was coming to the People’s Republic, for a billion people in the world’s largest civilization.    

America, or the idea of America, was the ultimate inspiration.  The students tried to build a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty, but the torch sagged when held with just one arm, so they rebuilt it with the other hand holding the wrist for support.  They called it the “Goddess of Democracy,” and installed it in the square, facing the huge portrait of Mao Zedong.  This reportedly enraged the communist party hard-liners. 

Demanding democracy, the student leaders set up their own little democracy in the square.  Everything had to be voted on.  We discovered this when producer Susan Zirinsky and I, rushing back to the hotel, took a shortcut across the square.  When we arrived at the edge a security fence was in the way, right next to one of the student command posts.  Zirinsky, never one to be denied, was not about to turn back.  She pleaded with the students, dropping the names of their leaders, saying all we were trying to do was get their story out.  They huddled and voted, all their hands shooting up simultaneously.  We won, and jumped the fence.