Hong Kong CNN  — 

In preparation for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on Tuesday, a white statue of a woman has been relocated from a Hong Kong university to Victoria Park, the site of an annual candlelight vigil commemorating the incident. More than 500 miles away, in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, an almost identical sculpture has been installed inside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

In the West, meanwhile, from Washington, DC, to Toronto, the same figure stands – her hair caught motionless in the wind, her raised hands clutching a flaming torch.

This is the “Goddess of Democracy.” And 30 years ago, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the original was toppled and destroyed by the Chinese military in shocking scenes broadcast around the world.

Students artists apply finishing touches to the "Goddess of Democracy" statue in Tiananmen Square on May 30, 1989.

The statue had been hastily erected in the square by art students as part of the ill-fated 1989 pro-democracy protests. It stood for less than a week, from May 30 to June 4, before the tanks rolled in – another victim of a crackdown for which an official death toll has never been released (although estimates range from several hundred to thousands).

It was the nature of the artwork’s destruction, not its creation, that secured the Goddess’ place in history, said Perry Link, emeritus professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers.”

“When it was bulldozed over I think that it was one of the most moving symbols of the repression,” he said in a phone interview. “Of course number one would be the ‘Tank Man,’ but number two is probably going to be the (toppling) of the statue.”

‘The world was watching’

The “Goddess of Democracy” may now serve as a global symbol of defiance, but its beginnings were remarkably humble.

On May 27, 1989, after more than a month of demonstrations in the square, protest organizers tasked a group of Beijing art students with creating a statue. According to Tsao Hsingyuan, an associate of the artists who published a detailed account of the statue’s creation in the book “Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China,” the group consisted of around 15 students in their 20s. They have remained mostly anonymous, despite the prominence of their work.

Basing themselves at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the students were given 8,000 yuan (then around $2,000) for materials and expenses – and just three days to complete the 33-foot-tall sculpture, which was created off-site before being transported to the square for assembly.

Students assemble the statue, which was made from Styrofoam and plaster, in Tiananmen Square.

“I think everybody (the students) knew that the statue would be famous,” Tsao told CNN in an email interview. “Everyone knew that the world was watching – media from all over the world (had) gathered in Beijing to report Gorbachev’s visit,” she said, referring to the Soviet leader’s visit to China in the midst of the protests.

They needed a design that would resonate with protesters and the outside world alike, according to Tsao, who wrote that students worked in shifts throughout the night. They saved time by basing their design on a smaller model, already in their studio, of a man gripping a pole with both hands.

Tsao believes that the group’s design, which reimagined the figure as a female, was influenced by Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina. She also says in the book that the artists resisted the organizers’ call for the sculpture to resemble the Statue of Liberty, a replica of which had appeared at demonstrations in Shanghai earlier that month.

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But with the statue’s proud expression and flaming torch (albeit held with two hands, rather than one), it resembled the New York landmark to many onlookers – including American Perry Link, who was working at the National Academy of Science’s Beijing office in 1989, and who visited the square during the protests.

“To me, it definitely recalls the Statue of Liberty but, also, it definitely distinguished itself from it,” Link said. “I don’t know what was in the creators’ minds, but my sense is that they wanted to do both of those things: They wanted to (invoke) liberty – and the statue of liberty – but also say: ‘We’re not copying the US.’”

Unveiled in the square

Made primarily from Styrofoam and plaster, the huge figure was built as smaller blocks that could be easily moved from the school to the square. On the evening of May 29, in the midst of martial law, the students transported each piece on three-wheeled carts.

Tens of thousands of protesters awaited them. So too did a scaffold structure, set around a vertical metal pole upon which the pieces would be assembled, according to Tsao’s account. With the help of yet more plaster, the statue was erected that night.

Part of the statue being transported to Tiananmen Square.

By sunrise, the “Goddess of Democracy” was nearing completion. She towered over the square, directly facing off with Mao Zedong, whose portrait hung at the entrance of the adjacent Forbidden City.

This, in itself, was symbolic of protesters’ desire to reject China’s erstwhile leader and everything he stood for, according to Fang Zheng, a former student protester who lost both his legs during the subsequent crackdown, after a tank rolled over him.

“We wanted to use the spirit of democracy to oppose Mao Zedong’s communist authoritarian ideology,” he recalled during a conversation with CNN via Whatsapp.

The "Goddess of Democracy" faces off with a portrait of Mao Zedong hanging at the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Later that day, the statue was formally unveiled to onlookers and foreign journalists. An improvised inauguration ceremony was accompanied by musical performances and, according to Fang, great jubilation.

“It felt like some important holiday, like a party – there was a joyous atmosphere,” he said.

A ‘martyr’ for democracy

The merriment would prove short-lived.

Two days later, the statue was condemned by state media. “The square is sacred,” declared an op-ed in the People’s Daily newspaper. “No-one has the power to add any permanent memorial or to remove anything from the square. Such things must not be allowed to happen in China!”

The statue pictured in Tiananmen Square less than two days before the military crackdown.

Then, on the morning of June 4, after troops had entered the square to clear protesters by force, a military vehicle toppled the statue. It was later demolished and removed.

Some observers, including Tsao, suggest the sculpture was intentionally built in such a way that it could not be dismantled. If the soldiers were to remove it, they would have to be seen – by the whole world – destroying it.

In his book “Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space,” the University of Chicago’s Wu Hang goes so far as to describe the artwork as a “martyr.”

A replica of the "Goddess of Democracy" on display at Hong Kong's Victoria Park in 2016, ahead of the city's annual candlelight vigil commemorating the incident.

Former protester Fang agreed with this description, saying: “It fell at the center of China’s autocracy, loudly collapsing in the center of Tiananmen Square. The statue died for China’s democracy underneath the tanks of the Chinese military.”

But Fang, who now lives in the US, also recalls feeling optimism about the artwork’s fate upon its completion.

“At that time, it was really simple: We thought we’d win,” he recalled. “By placing the Goddess of Democracy Statue in Tiananmen Square, it acted as a symbol – a symbol of victory.”

Enduring memory

Beijing authorities may have destroyed the sculpture, but its image lives on. Reproductions, both permanent and temporary, have appeared at parks, universities and public spaces in the democratic world. Every June, many of them serve as sites for memorials marking the crackdown’s anniversary.

Some of the more notable replicas can be found in San Francisco’s Chinatown and Washington, DC, where a bronze statue (around a third of the height of the original) has been erected under a new name: The Victims of Communism Memorial.

A replica of the statue was erected in Washington, DC, where it's known as the Victims of Communism Memorial.

Even the statuette for the Democracy Award, an annual prize recognizing champions of human rights and democracy, is based on the sculpture.

For Fang, who has continued to advocate for democracy in exile, this global reputation cements the artwork’s role as a symbol of resistance against China’s government, which continues to play down the incident. Just last week, an official at the Chinese Defense Ministry told reporters that the crackdown should not be described as “suppression.”

“No doubt this represents the indomitable spirit and significance of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ – that will never change,” Fang said.

A replica of the "Goddess of Democracy" statue during a vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park in 2018.

“The (statue) has become a symbol of June 4. But the statue is (also) a symbol of resistance against the tyrannical regime of the Chinese Communist Party. This is why so many people over the years have kept pushing forward.”

Yet, according to Tsao, the statue is not well known in its homeland.

“It will continue to serve as a symbol of the event outside of China,” she said, “however, its message has already (been) lost among most people in China.”