By Brian McCracken
On the main campus of Hong Kong University (HKU), there is a peculiar orange monument that looks very much like a large termite mound, the kind you would see on the African savannah. From a distance, the several stories-tall column seems to be just another piece of ambiguous modern art. Indeed, when I first saw it nearly a year ago while studying at HKU, that’s all I thought it was, until I got closer.Upon further inspection, the orange termite mound takes another, more terrible form. You see, what at first appears to be natural clumps of earthy clay soon mold into human faces, crying out in pain and suffering. What material remains of the mound then takes the form of their hands, some supporting themselves upon the bodies beneath them, some reaching out for relief and something even greater.
It would only be after reading the words at the base of the monument, known as the “Pillar of Shame,” that I learned what terrible event sparked its construction. On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang, a progressive reformer in the Communist Party of China (CPC), died of a heart attack only after being demoted in the party for his connections to recent political and economic protests. Little did anyone in the Politburo know, however, that Hu’s death would spark a much wider protest, largely driven by students living in and around Beijing. For the next month and a half, the Tiananmen Square Protests would capture the world’s attention, at times involving more than 100,000 people calling for political rights to match the economic rights recently granted to them by legendary leader Deng Xiaoping. Chants were sung, a hunger strike was undertaken, and a large makeshift statue entitled The Goddess of Democracy was raised in only four days.
And yet, all of this would seemingly be for naught. On the night of June 3, 1989, perceivably on orders from Deng Xiaoping and other leaders in the CPC, military personnel violently cleared Tiananmen Square of any protesters, leading to the deaths of hundreds - possibly thousands - of Chinese civilians. Theirs are the faces that are now forever set in agony and despair. This terrible event, this crushing of the most basic of human rights, is what the Pillar of Shame commemorates.
Fast forward to July 27, 2015. The Shanghai Composite Index takes a historic plunge, marking ever increasing worries over growth in the Chinese economy and its potential for investment. What has for years been the world’s fastest growing large economy is now starting to show signs of weakness as it transitions to consumption-based growth, and cheap manufacturing jobs that it’s relied on for the past three decades leave for greener pastures. This is certainly not the first time a country has faced such a change, and it is unquestioned that with each such change comes what Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) described as a “reappraisal of values” in any given society. FDR, speaking to an economically exhausted America that had long respected the right to freedom of expression, reaffirmed his country’s commitments to both a right to economic property as well as a right to life itself.
The US in 1932 and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2015 certainly have their socioeconomic differences, but there’s something to be said for the fact that the US eventually responded to negative economic conditions with the largest growth in governmental involvement it’s ever seen, taking the form of the New Deal. Indeed, China seems to be on the opposite end of the political spectrum today when compared with the pre-New Deal US. As opposed to a government that supported laissez-faire principles in both politics and economics, China has for the past half-decade been making a transition from what was once a totalitarian regime. While the reforms of Deng Xiaoping brought a respect for capitalism and economic property rights, the country has long been sorely lacking a respect for political, human rights. Nowhere is this better symbolized in recent history than by the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event that the people of Hong Kong and the world in general have not forgotten.
In the end, many would say that FDR had to respond to the Great Depression with some form of governmental action, lest the United States fall to the global totalitarian pressures that would swallow Germany and Japan. True, we are thankfully not yet in the throes of another Great Depression, but as opposed to 1932, the pressures that would most likely affect an economically struggling China would not be totalitarian. No, as long as the world order that has been in place since 1945 continues to thrive, those pressures would lean towards the recognition of political, human rights in the PRC.
Until that day of reckoning comes, until China reappraises its own values and accepts the terrible mistakes of its past, the Pillar of Shame will continue to stand. Indeed, it should stand forever.
Brian McCracken is a South Carolina native and graduate of Wofford College with a BA in Government and Economics and a minor in Religion. He was also a Rhodes Scholar and a Fulbright finalist. He is currently pursing a dual degree in International and Comparative Law at Duke University. Proverb: A Story of the Second Civil War is his debut novel. For more information visit: www.brianmccracken.net.