Memories of a Goddess

Even 20 years later, I can still vividly remember the scene -- Beijing citizens desperately trying to get as close as they could to a white, paper mache statue that had come to symbolize their cause.

The statue was the Goddess of Democracy.

Some tried to touch it, some cried.

It all began on a late hot afternoon as I was leaving Tiananmen Square after another long day of covering the pro-democracy protests.

In the rear of the vast square I noticed some unusual activity. I strained to see what it was but couldn't quite make it out, so I quickly walked over to see what was happening.

When I got there, there were a number of protesters, mostly men in their early 20's, hammering pieces of metal scaffolding together. I inquired what they were doing was told the students had decided to construct a "Chinese Statue of Liberty."

Tiananmen Square is directly in front across the street from the entrance to the Forbidden City on which hangs the famous, imposing, giant picture of Mao Zedong. It was in front of that entrance, in fact, that Mao declared the birth of the People's Republic of China.

And here, only a few hundred yards away from this sacred spot, the young protesters had decided to construct their statue.

It was yet another in a long series of acts of defiance in which the student protesters challenged the Communist government.

The government had already watched the students spit in the face of martial law by disrupting the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and conduct massive sit-ins and demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square. And now the students were putting up a "Chinese Statue of Liberty."

Slowly, as the scaffolding was erected under the late afternoon sun and word began to spread, hundreds of people encamped in the front of the square gradually began to walk over to the opposite site where the statue was being constructed.

Every successful cause or movement must have a symbol, and the Goddess of Democracy was designed to be that symbol -- a symbol that would be seen throughout the world.

As the building of the scaffolding was being completed and the sun was beginning to set, one of the students brought a straw basket filled with paper flowers. The basket was attached to the top of the metal skeleton.

Suddenly the wind whipped through the square and a red paper flower fell to the ground, not far from me. I quickly moved over, picked it up and put it in my shirt pocket.

The sky grew dark and the street lamps in the square became the only source of light.

The number of onlookers surrounding the scaffolding continued to grow and the whole event seemed to take on the feeling of a sixties celebration -- a happening.

It was going to take the entire evening to construct this newest affront of the ruling Chinese regime and thousands of people were going to spend the night watching.

I've often wondered what it would have been like to witness some of the romanticized moments in history -- the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the taking of the Bastille. Now, I was watching an event that would possibly be written about in history books.

With the scaffolding now complete, the pieces of the statue were brought to the square on flat bed carts pushed by the young protesters.

It was like a Chinese version of the a Fourth of July Parade down Main Street, USA, as the four pieces of the Goddess of Democracy were rolled down Beijing's Main Street, Chang'an Avenue (Avenue of Eternal Peace).

When the pieces finally arrived at Tiananmen Square, a huge roar went up from the ever growing crowd. It was a surrealistic scene as the powerful television lights from the numerous camera crews lit up the nighttime scene.

Throughout the night the workers, most of them from the Beijing Central Academy of Fine arts, put the pieces together.

It was a slow, arduous process, yet virtually no one left the square so enraptured were they by the power if this paper-mache Goddess.

The crowd cheered each time a new section was put in place.

By the time dawn arrived the Goddess had taken form -- her head, her outstretched arms holding the torch, and most of her body.

Finally at about 7 o'clock the next morning the statue was completed and the scaffolding began to be removed.,

The students had their symbol.

The impact was immediate and enormous.

That night tens of thousands of ordinary Beijing citizens, people who had played no active role in the protests, came to the square to see it firsthand.

There seemed to be a sense of urgency as many had their pictures taken with the Goddess in the background. It was as if they didn't expect the statue to stand very long.

Ironically the way the statue was positioned, the Goddess's face was looking in the direction of Mao Zedong.

It was a short lived stare.

A few days later, Chinese government troops savagely took control of the square, effectively bringing to an end this show of public protest and discontent. Some believe the statue played a role in convincing the Chinese leaders that the time had come to crack down.

It stood for one week, but 20 years after its birth and death, the Goddess of Democracy endures as a lasting symbol.

The power of the statue was so strong that when Chinese troops toppled it, the government felt compelled to broadcast it repeatedly on Chinese television.

I still have that red paper flower. And I feel certain, if real political freedom ever takes places in China, a new Goddess of Democracy will be built. If that day comes I hope to back there with my red paper flower.