Roundup: Talking About History

[Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs and cultural diplomacy. He works for BFM TV.]

The student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 felt that two nations in the world were beacons for their cause: the United States and France. That was a time when, arguably, the the People's Republic of China was not yet a daunting behemoth, and when Chinese civil society was still adolescent and the parental authority still benign. Confucius, as it were, had not been resurrected yet, and youthful political dreaming was possible while the Communist party was in flux.

The protestors had indeed constructed a goddess of democracy in the image of the Statue of Liberty, the famous statue which the French Republic commissioned the sculptor Bartholdi to build as a gift for the Centenary of the United States. This Franco-American symbolism may have been marginal to the protestors; not so the reputation of France as "the nation of Laws" (Fa Guo meaning "F" country in Mandarin: in other words, the first initial of the country, and also the other meaning of the character for F: law). This coincidence of meaning is telling: for so many students at Tienanmen Square, France was an imaginary model of human rights and democracy almost as much as the United States. Laws, after all, are products of democracy and freedom

Feeling for the Dissidents: The Epitome of Leftist Cool

In the aftermath of the Tienanmen repression, the students not yet arrested, or initially released, secretly sought contact with foreign consulates as a means of obtaining political refugee status. Of course, the consulates could only materially help a few individuals by whisking them out of China. The French consular authorities also helped many dissidents who made it to British Hong Kong: passage to France was easily granted. The Socialist government of President François Mitterrand, his Prime Minister Michel Rocard, and the Socialist party as a whole, supported the granting of political asylum to hundreds of these students. Most of them stayed in France long enough to arrange their next move to the United States. The most media-famous dissident, Wuer Kaixi, transited to France before ending up in Taiwan. An ironic choice of destination: in 1989 Taiwan was still under the single party rule of the Kuo Min Tang.

Many of these dissidents did however stay in France. A group of French sympathizers from the start gave them moral and material support. Such is the case of Marie Holzman, a China specialist who had studied in China right after the Cultural Revolution and who attended the first political trial against a dissident many years before the Tienanmen. Her curiosity earned her a permanent expulsion from the People's Republic. She has appeared at every dissidents' meeting, and keeps the cause alive, out of love for the Chinese people.

Back to 1989: the welcoming attitude of François Mitterrand and the Socialist Party meant that the United States and Canada did not become the sole beacons of democracy. ...

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