Andrew Burd: “The Goddess of Democracy”

The days leading up to 4th June, the 21st anniversary of the shooting of prodemocracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, give pause to some sombre reflection in Hong Kong. Last year there was plentiful coverage of this time, particularly by the BBC.

This year something rather remarkable happened that appears to have gone unnoticed by much of the world’s media.  As in previous years a statue called “The Goddess of Democracy” was erected in Times Square, a public place on Hong Kong Island.  This year, however the police took the unprecedented move of confiscating the statue just days before 4th of June. 

There was a public outcry which must have surprised the authorities and the statue was returned to the owners.  Students from The Chinese University of Hong Kong proposed to erect the statue on the university campus as a culmination of the commemorative events on the actual evening of June 4th.  The university administration however refused them permission to do so.  A tense stand-off ensued with the university only relenting late in the evening of 4th June.  The statue was erected in the university station concourse in a peaceful and dignified ceremony.  The photo shows the statue in the early hours of June the 5th with the crowds dispersed.  The question now being discussed is what happens next?  The students would like the statue to remain but it is not robust and would be unlikely to survive the typhoon season.  There are suggestions that a copper model should be made for a permanent display.  Personally I think this would be an excellent idea but I do have some concern about the name and the concept of democracy.  It is interesting to reflect that it was a medical doctor, Dr. Sun Yat-sen who first raised the notion of democracy in China.

Sun Yat-sen is widely recognized as “The Father of the Republic” and is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the transition of the dynastic China to its modern day status. He was born in Mainland China in 1866.  He had an early exposure to the West as he moved to Hawaii at the age of 13.  He returned to China and subsequently had to seek exile in Hong Kong where he deepened his understanding of christianity and qualified in Medicine at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese (this college subsequently become The University of Hong Kong).  He become a revolutionary proclaiming the three principles of nationalism, democracy, and equalization.  Dr Sun Yat-sen is revered in Mainland China and it would be interesting to reflect on what he would think about what is happening in contemporary Hong Kong and its relationship to Mainland China.  There is no doubt that the China of Mao-Tse Tung has undergone tremendous changes at an incredible pace when compared to other leading nations.  The events that led up to the 4th June 1989 are indeed both complex and tragic.  One can but wonder what discussions went on amongst the Chinese leaders as they debated the best way to deal with the increasing protests from the students and workers.  The memory of the cultural revolution would have exerted some influence on the ultimate decision to seize control by military means.

The cultural revolution, and the activity of the red guards in particular, are a frightening illustration of the potential catastrophic nature of anarchy in youth.  The account of Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng presents a chilling scenario where reason and tolerance no longer had any meaning or value.  Times have moved on and China is very much more open to the world but to illustrate the difference between Mainland China and Hong Kong one of my Mainland friends used the following analogy:  In China the authorities know that they can ultimately control the population and will do so.  If they begin by saying No; they will continue to say no, much as a parent will say ‘No’ to a young child that makes an unreasonable request.  In Hong Kong, however, the people have a greater experience of freedom, of tolerance; they are more mature and although the government or authorities will begin by saying no they may relent if sufficient evidence is presented that such a change in position will not undermine their authority and respect; this is like the parent of the older child, the teenager.  So the University authorities have relented late in the day and a statue has been erected. 

What happens now is very much in the hands of another medical doctor.

Professor Joseph Sung is the Vice Chancellor designate and takes up official duties as the VC in just a few weeks.  Professor Sung received his medical degree from the University of Hong Kong, and gained international recognition for his work during SARS.  The University wants to maintain a position of neutrality at the same time balancing the pressures for control against those of freedom.  When I look at democracy in action and consider the reality of freedom in so called democratic systems I do wonder if it is such a noble goal.  Yes I would like to see a permanent statue erected on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to commemorate all those involved in the events of June 4th, 1989.  I would like to see students, staff, and administration celebrate such a statue but there is just one small point. I would like to change the name to reflect the complex world in which we live; I would like to see the statue called “The Goddess of Tolerance.”

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.