Lit by the Courage of Others
Student Leader Li Lu Discusses Tiananmen Square
by Amiel Handelsman, MBA1
"We all have the capacity to be lit by the courage of others."
This was the central message imparted on Sunday, October 29 by Li Lu, a key
student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen
Square. Lu spoke at the Michigan Union as part of a leadership conference
conducted by the University of Michigan's Office of Student Activities and
Now studying at Columbia University, Lu shared with the 100-person crowd the
stories of how he became politically involved, what he learned from the
examples set by his parents and grandparents, and why he refuses to give up
hope for the future.
Born in 1966 amidst the Chinese Cultural Revolution to parents sent to labor
camps for their political views, Lu spent the first two years of his life in an
orphanage and the next eight in twelve successive foster families. In the
mid-1980s, he learned the identity of his natural parents and subsequently
conducted a systematic inquiry into their lives and the lives of his
grandparents. What he found was a tradition of courageously challenging
Lu learned that his grandfather had been a distinguished scholar who, in
mid-career, had come to the United States and studied the writings of the
American democratic thinker John Dewey. Dewey's critique of "fashionable
`-isms' and the ideology of violent revolution had led Lu's grandfather to see
China in a new light. After returning to China, he had become a prominent
critic of Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung and consequently had been jailed during
the 1949 Communist Revolution.
Lu also learned that his grandmother, a pioneer educator, his father, a
respected scientist, and his mother had all in their time sacrificed their
freedom and social standing by expressing their opposition to the tyrannical
practices of the Chinese government.
How did Lu become involved in the student movement that culminated in the
Tiananmen Square demonstrations? His evolution into an activist began early in
life, in July 1976, after a massive earthquake struck his hometown Tangshan and
took 242,000 lives. "The people at the bottom suffered," he remembered. "I
lost all of my adopted family. By an accident, I survived. The government did
nothing to help the town. `Why?' I asked myself." Lu had speculated that the
government did not value Chinese lives and had wondered "why should we continue
to support this regime?"
Two months after the earthquake, Mao Tse-Tung died and a coup d'etat ensued.
Deng Xiaoping eventually came to power and instituted an Open Door policy that
allowed Chinese citizens to learn about the West. It was through the Open Door
that Lu realized that the feelings he had experienced after the earthquake were
not unique to him. "Many in my generation experienced similar [things]. We
were all born in the darkest age in China, the Cultural Revolution. We all
were learning about the West from the Open Door. We began to compare our past
and present with other countries', and to look toward the future. What life
could be. What it should be."
This questioning, which grew over the next decade, served as the catalyst for
the 1989 Chinese student pro-democracy movement. Students began to demand
opportunities for public debate and open criticism of the government. According
to Lu, the movement "started with twelve people and grew overnight into a
hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million, ten million" all over China. "Our
whole request," he recalled, "was to open a dialogue with the government.
[But] it promised, it delayed, and it canceled." This experience of being
denied a public voice left Lu and his fellow organizers both frustrated and
determined. What the student leaders feared most, said Lu, was the possibility
of meeting the same fate as his grandparents, his parents, and countless other
dissenters who had been jailed and forgotten. "We decided that this time we're
going to do it differently. This time we're going to leave a mark."
The opportunity to leave a mark emerged with Mikhail Gorbachev's historic
first visit to Beijing in May 1989. The day before Gorbachev's arrival, the
student demonstrators - then numbering in the hundreds of thousands - seized
control of Tiananmen Square and declared a hunger strike. This forced Chinese
leaders to break from protocol and greet Gorbachev at the airport. It was, for
them, an international embarrassment. To Lu and his fellow organizers, the
hunger strike allowed the demonstrators "to show the country our willingness to
act with courage and sacrifice our lives" and thereby to mobilize other
citizens throughout China to take action.
Why did the student leaders believe that such a mobilization was possible? Lu
described the view of humanity that guided them: "Everyone is the same. We
all fear. We all hope. We all dream. But often those hopes and dreams get
forced into a coma." The organizers' goal was to reawaken these dreams in
their fellow citizens.
At one point during the strike, while giving a passionate speech to the huge
crowd of demonstrators, Lu noticed the large picture of Mao Tse-Tung in the
Square. He was immediately reminded of a passage in his grandfather's memoirs
that he had discovered a few years earlier. The passage, written in a prison
camp, spoke of "doing pushups" in the prison cell in order to become strong
enough to "compete with Chairman Mao." The first time Lu had read this, he had
concluded that his grandfather must have been a lunatic to imagine himself even
on the same level as Mao. But, now, from his new vantage point as one of the
leaders of a pro-democracy movement, Lu saw things differently.
"I realized then that what I was actually doing was reciting passages from my
grandfather's books. People were responding to my grandfather's views and
turning their backs from Mao. I realized then that my grandfather was not mad.
This realization sustained me through the worst of times."
Those times began swiftly and violently. On June 4, Army troops crushed the
demonstration, killing thousands and sending over a million others into hiding.
Lu was forced to flee China in order to avoid a certain fate of imprisonment or
death. At one point in his escape, Lu was forced out of a boat into the water
and asked to "wait" until the boat had returned. After swimming for what seemed
like an eternity -- trying simply to stay afloat -- Lu began to wonder whether
he might not prefer to die. The demonstrations had failed, the government was
still in power, and many of his friends and colleagues were now dead or
imprisoned. What reason did he have for living?
Then, just as he was on the verge of yielding to the elements, Lu thought of
his grandfather and the courage he had demonstrated forty years earlier. The
familial link, and the responsibility it imparted, again crystallized in Lu's
mind. "If he, 90 years old, can compete with Mao," Lu recollected himself
thinking, "I can compete with Xiaoping." This thought gave Lu the will to stay
Fortunately for Lu, the ship returned and picked him up. When Lu asked the
captain why he had turned around, he was told that the captain had been paid
only half of his commission up front and had not been scheduled to receive the
second half until he "had dropped off the corpse." In recounting this event, Lu
sighed at the irony behind his good fortune.
Arriving in the United States "with little clothing and no knowledge of
English," Lu took large strides quickly. He enrolled in Columbia University and
progressed quickly through several degree programs. By the end of the current
academic year, he will have earned BA, MBA and JD degrees.
Has Lu achieved success? He answered this question by referring not to his
recent academic achievements but to the larger struggle in which he believes he
is involved. He developed an understanding of this struggle from his family and
its collective experiences. "The measure of success is consistency. How
consistently do you pursue your goals throughout your life? Three generations
of my family tried to move a mountain. All tried. All failed. But we have not