Art@Site Weiming Chen Goddess of Democracy

Weiming Chen


Goddess of Democracy

Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong's Goddess of Democracy was inspired by the original 10-metre tall Goddess of Democracy erected by the Chinese pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square during May–June 1989. Three successive political controversies surrounded the 6.4-metre bronze replica sculpted by Chen Weiming in 2010 in the backdrop to the twenty-first anniversary of the suppression of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement – firstly, it was seized by the Hong Kong police at a street rally at the public open space in Times Square, Causeway Bay on the grounds that the display violated safety regulations; secondly, the sculptor, who came to Hong Kong to examine the sculpture for possible damage whilst in police custody, was denied entry into Hong Kong on 2 June. Thirdly, the erection of the statue on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) was denied by university authorities, to the ire of the student leadership. The various controversies surrounding the statue reportedly increased the number of people attending the annual 4 June vigil in Hong Kong to historical highs. Since the record turnout for the anniversary vigil, and under pressure from students, the university authorities acquiesced in allowing the statue a 'temporary home'.
The original Goddess of Democracy statue has become an icon of liberty and a symbol of the free speech and democracy movements. The Chinese government has tried to distance itself from any discussions about the original statue or about the Tiananmen Square protests, and in the case of the Victims of Communism Memorial it called the building of a replica an"attempt to defame China." Several replicas of the statue have been erected worldwide to commemorate the events of 1989. As no discussion about or mention of the 1989 protests is tolerated in mainland China, and because China has publicly embraced the one country, two systems model of governance for Hong Kong, the annual 4 June observance – a tradition since 1989 – has continued after the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China. Also, this 6.4-metre statue sculpted by US-resident Chen Weiming is the only 'Goddess of Democracy' to find a home on Chinese soil. The statue was sculpted of an imitated copper material, has been exhibited in the front of the United States Congress in the American capital after its completion in 2008. Another work of the sculptor, a relief measuring 6.4 m wide by 3.2 m high entitled Tiananmen Massacre completed in June 2009, joined the statue in Hong Kong in 2010.
In the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, I have often been asked my views on Hong Kong’s future. This article, written in 1991, was my response. The 'Goddess of Democracy' is an extraordinarily powerful political symbol — which continues to live. For example, China fought, for two years, a plan to erect a replica of the 'Goddess of Democracy' at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Symbols can have extraordinary power in human consciousness, as anyone familiar with Carl Gustav Jung’s work with archetypes (a type of symbol) will know. A symbol, according to my dictionary, is 'a material object representing something, often something immaterial.' This definition is rather vague — a major aspect of a symbol which, in part, gives it so much of its power. However, 'something immaterial' is usually an idea, or set of ideas. Symbols exist all around us — politics and elsewhere. Take, for example, the swastika; or the hammer and sickle. They are symbols; they elicit, in you, certain reactions (but how many people can define exactly what they stand for?). And depending on your own values, your reaction to each symbol will be positive or negative. Also, I suggest, your positive or negative reaction will be automatic: that is emotional in nature. As one example of the power of a symbol, consider the white supremacist or separatist movement in South Africa, led by Eugene Terre’blanche. The symbol they chose, consciously or otherwise, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Nazi swastika. Many people — including Hong Kong 'analysts' in the press — reacted emotionally to the similarity in the symbols, without comparing expressed or implicit ideas, beyond the obvious racism of both. Or consider religious symbols: The Cross of Christianity, with its theme of suffering; compared to the message of the laughing Buddha. It’s easy to see how people raised under these two symbols would come to have divergent attitudes on life...the messages of a symbol don’t have to be made explicit to be absorbed.
Pro-democracy activists argue that the rule of law is being undermined in an incremental and pernicious way in Hong Kong, so that if and when democratic reforms are implemented the chances of"liberal democracy" will be diminished. Martin Lee uses the analogy of a frog in hot water to make the point: if you throw a frog into a boiling pot, it will leap straight out, but a frog will sit still in lukewarm water that is slowly raised to boiling point. Hong Kong looks the same on the surface, but its foundations are gradually being corroded. Outside observers of Hong Kong tend to assume that, this time, the same combination of"benign authoritarianism" and recurring street protests will yield a different outcome that it did in the past, when liberal democracy was kept at bay by fears of socialism, anarchy or something worse. But why should this be so? Many of the arguments used by the British to postpone democracy still have as much plausibility today as they did back then: it is too restless and mobile for meaningful geographic constituencies (as Patten puts it, "a refugee community - not rootless, but conspicuously able to dig up and put down roots at high speed"); further improvements should be made to the existing system before radical change (including the vast machinery of boards and committees used to consult public opinion); the mass of social problems should be solved first, or else the poor will vote for unsound economic policies resulting in either civil disorder or pre-emptive and explicit intervention by the PRC. To my mind, arguments about the democratising power of new technologies seem to cut both ways - they might allow more people to connect with other likeminded people, but the same speed and ease they lend to organisation may also make it harder to build the deep bonds of trust that make for durable and credible political movements, bonds which arise out of commitment and sacrifice.