As presidents meet, disparate activists unite in protest against China oppression Hundreds gather, demand pro-democracy reforms during U.S.-China summit

October 30, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Contributing writer Eric Lekus contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- What does Adam Yauch, a singer for the Beastie Boys, have in common with Harry Wu, a Chinese dissident who spent 19 years in prison?

About as much as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal California Democrat, does with Gary Bauer, a leader of the religious right -- or Richard Gere does with Vicki and Jim Jones, a couple from Columbia.

All these people converged outside the White House yesterday to protest during the visit here by President Jiang Zemin of China, incensed over what they see as the United States' tardiness in confronting Beijing on rights abuses.

Not many political causes could have brought together such disparate activists, who appeared unified by their common disgust with China and its cultural, religious and political oppression.

At Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, hundreds gathered to demand pro-democracy reforms from China during this summit -- the first official visit of a Chinese leader since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

The crowd -- some in skeleton masks carrying protest signs, others in saffron robes delivering sound bites -- assembled under cobalt-blue skies while Jiang and President Clinton met in the Oval Office. Law officers on horseback, motorcycle, on foot and undercover dressed as tourists kept protesters from the White House gate.

Asked at a news conference whether he had heard the protest, Jiang replied: "Sometimes noises came into my ears."

Even the protesters were surprised by the diversity in their ranks.

"I think this is a sign of how important the issue is that it has made some admittedly surprising allies," said Bauer, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "But I'd rather stand here with these critics than align myself with China's allies."

Bauer's fervor was matched by the Baltimore-born Pelosi, usually his ideological rival, who stirred the crowd by invoking Americans' love for "his holiness, the Dalai Lama," the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet.

Other seeming polar opposites spoke out. Last night, Oliver L. North, the conservative former Marine colonel and central character in the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal, made a pitch. He addressed students at Pennsylvania State University about the threat posed by Beijing. At the same time, Gere joined a "Stateless Dinner" here in support of liberating Tibet from China -- a counter-banquet to protest the White House state dinner for Jiang.

Gere spoke for what he called "the real" China.

"I'm sending greetings from the real 1 billion, 200 million Chinese who have no voice and are the real heroes -- the dissidents and the people who have been tortured," Gere said. Gere told the crowd that he had spent two weeks recently with the Dalai Lama, discussing Jiang's visit, China's record of rights abuses and the opening of his film about Chinese oppression.

Gere turned the podium over to Wu, who was imprisoned for 19 years. "I stand here today to remind you that China is a world leader in executing people," Wu said.

The day had its lighter moments. The crowd -- which included many young people -- responded with lively applause to Yauch, the Beastie Boys singer whose popular lyrics include "You've got to fight for your right to party." Yesterday, he was fighting for Tibet's right to free itself from Chinese occupation.

"In a way, Tibet is a cornerstone of this crossroads we're coming into," Yauch said. "Now the outcome of Tibet is going to be like a litmus test of where we're headed to in the future."

Across Lafayette Park, people draped themselves in Tibetan flags. A woman hoisted a large papier-mache Jiang head over her shoulders and jousted with a sky-high Clinton puppet. Nine people took turns hitting a kettle drum.

"It sends a message that we are all one," said Pedro Cuesta, who had been pounding the drum for 15 minutes. "It's not so much the sound as the intention that is important."

The spectacle, which attracted about 1,000 people, drew onlookers who did not seem so interested in U.S. policy. Three Englishwomen pushed into the crowd to watch Gere speak and left as soon as the movie star glided off the stage. A Polish tourist climbed the podium to snap pictures of the crowd. A dozen South Korean travelers photographed themselves with members of the news media.

One of the more vocal groups was Taiwanese. More than 600 Taiwanese marched to Capitol Hill to protest China's treatment of Taiwan as a renegade province. Costumed Taiwanese performers depicted Chinese authorities beating a political prisoner while someone mimicking Clinton looked on and smiled, carrying a large dollar sign above his head.

The rally outside the White House drew many who had never been to China but said their lives had been changed by the principles of Buddhism that guide many Tibetan dissidents.

"I've been praying all today. It is an inspiration," said Konchog Norbu, a saffron-robed Buddhist monk from New Jersey also known as Tom Fry. After hearing the Dalai Lama speak several years ago, Norbu said, he became devoted to the cause of religious freedom.

Similarly moved were the Joneses of Columbia. Vicki Jones said her interest in Buddhism soared after she started watching Gere's movies. "There was some aura to him that comes from his beliefs," she said.

Now she and her husband are focusing on the politics of China.

"It's horrifying to think we're sitting here and doing nothing," she said. "It's so important that we're here."

Pub Date: 10/30/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.