Last month I watched history in the making.
No, I was not in Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. I was in a bare-bones meeting room at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC, watching a Tiananmen Square hero dance.
In 1989, Fang Zheng was a handsome young student at the Beijing College of Physical Science, a star sprinter and an Olympic hopeful. Fang was a member of the Communist Party, but like thousands of other students who were gathered in Tiananmen Square, he had hopes for a new era of freedom and democracy in China. That dream, as well as the dream of Olympic glory, was killed at Tiananmen Square.
On the morning of June 4, 1989 the Chinese Communists rolled in their monstrous response to the students’ peaceful protest. As the demonstrators frantically fled, Fang risked his own life to push a girl out of the path of an oncoming tank. The tank hit him, and caught in the treads, he went under. Miraculously, he survived, but both legs were crushed and had to be amputated.
When he recovered from a double amputation, Fang began training in discus and javelin throwing. In 1992 he won two gold medals and broke two regional records in the All-China Disabled Athletic Games. But the Chinese Government feared his success would call attention to a massacre that they denied had even taken place. They banned Fang from further competitions and attempted to pressure him to “admit” that his injuries were from a road accident, not the legacy of violence at Tiananmen Square. When Fang refused, he was denied his college degree, severely limiting his ability to find work. Even then, he determined to be a living witness to the oppression of the Communist system.
Although Fang was barred from attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an intrepid German journalist found a way to contact him for an interview. But before the interview could take place, the Chinese government notified Fang that he and his family would be allowed to leave China for the first time if he gave up the interview opportunity. Fang, Zhu Jin, and their little girl, Grace, traveled to the United States in February 2009. Ironically, the government’s attempts to isolate Fang from the outside world provided the greatest opportunity he has ever had to speak out, and to once again stand.
I first met Fang and his family in June 2009. They were the guests of honor at a reception to honor Chinese dissidents and commemorate Tiananmen at the home of Michael Horowitz and his wife, Dr. Devra Marcus. Horowitz, a fiery advocate for human rights and religious freedom, has been working with Chinese activists and house church leaders for years.
Although Chinese doctors and even specialists at M.I.T. had told Fang that he was not a candidate for prostheses, Dr. Marcus was determined that he should walk again. And always one to push the envelope of the possible, Horowitz said, “he will not just walk – he will dance!” They had consulted specialists who work with the troops at Walter Reed Hospital. And sure enough, by that evening in June, they had already found the doctors, therapists, and prosthetics creators who could make it happen. That night in his living room, Horowitz promised that we all would be invited to watch Fang Zheng and Zhu Jin dance.
Four months later, some 150 friends, fellow Chinese dissidents, and members of Congress and the media, we watched Fang Zheng twirl Zhu Jin around the impromptu dance floor as if he had been doing it all his life.
Dancing again: Fang Zheng with his new legs.
And more than that, we watched history in the making. We witnessed the healing of yet one more wound inflicted by Communist oppression. We rejoiced with the Chinese dissidents, the hope of democracy in China. We blessed the handiwork of American doctors and therapists who had so generously donated their time and their very considerable talent to helping Fang to walk again. We marveled at the state-of-the-art computerized hundred-thousand dollar legs, also generously donated to Fang. And we heard something that seems to be in short supply around Washington, DC these days – praise for America.
Over and over, Fang Zheng and the other Chinese former dissidents thanked America and the American people. Fang said that he was full of gratitude for “the greatness and goodness of America” and the American people who had helped him and his family through his journey to that moment. And Dr. Yang Jianli, one of Fang’s fellow dissidents and a former prisoner of the Chinese laogai, said that Fang Zheng’s newfound freedom was “a celebration of American values – values we treasure even more than you do.”
It was a nice change from the normal leftist lambasts and apologies for America’s greedy ways to hear expressions of gratitude for an America I actually recognize – full of good and generous people, bolstered by freedom and democracy. Chinese dissidents presented awards to all of those whose generosity had enabled Fang to stand: David McGill and Shane Namack from the Ossur Corporation, manufacturer of orthotics and prosthetic limbs for the United States’ armed forces; Michael Corcoran and Mark McVicker, directors of Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics; and Dr. Terrence Sheehan, Chief Medical Officer at Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital.
Another leader of the Tiananmen Square student movement, Dr. Feng Congde, compared Fang Zheng’s triumph over adversity to the words of Chairman Mao sixty years ago when he commanded, “Chinese people, stand up.” In spite of what the disciples of Mao did to him at Tiananmen Square, “Fang Zheng is standing up now,” said Feng.
But by Fang Zheng’s triumph, he seems to also be responding to another quote from Chairman Mao, recently espoused by White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, who called Mao one of her “favorite political philosophers.”
“You fight your war, Mao, repressing freedom and democracy, crushing the hopes and spirits of the Chinese people, and imposing State control on every aspect of people’s lives, and I’ll fight mine, overcoming the effects of your evil on my own body, with the help of those who love and honor freedom,” Fang seems to say, as the sounds of freedom reverberate under the U.S. Capitol.
Fang Zheng and his fellow dissidents, courageous fighters for freedom and human rights, are not only winning the war, they are changing history.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).