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 Leadership.

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 tyrannical rule.

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 alive.

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 given up."



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