An Unusual Coalition

Article excerpt

China brings out the best in many protesters.

"Sometimes noises came into my ears," China's President Jiang Zemin confessed on the second day of his late October state visit to Washington. Unless the Chinese president needed a hearing aid, it would have been difficult for him not to hear the cacophony of protests that drifted, uninvited, into his White House conversations with President Clinton. Tibetan monks chanted, aging, pony-tailed American hippies pounded on Tibetan prayer drums, and the bells of St. John's Episcopal Church ("Church of the Presidents") chimed away during a 95minute protest rally in Lafayette Park opposite the White House.

The rally of a rather modest 7oo people was intended to be the high point of a series of demonstrations during Jiang's eight-day, seven-city tour. But what it lacked in numbers and emotion it made up for in the kaleidoscopic nature of the organizations joining together to create it. The gathering, rather portentously entitled "Let Freedom Ring: A Protest of Human Rights Abuses in China and Tibet," was as fascinating a collection of various groups united in a common cause as Washington has seen in recent years.

The five sponsors were mainstream enough: Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, along with Human Rights in China, the International Campaign for Tibet, and the Greater Washington Network for Democracy in China. But the twenty-six other organizations supporting them were a political smorgasbord that ranged from left to right: the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth-U.S., Freedom House, and the Family Research Council. After the rally formally began at noon, a bewildering succession of speakers followed each other for brief orations on the makeshift stage: Chinese dissidents in exile, Tibetan women, U.S. senators (Wellstone and Feingold) and members of Congress (Wolf and Pelosi), suit-clad Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, and leather jacket-clad actor Richard Gere, the beauteous Bianca Jagger and a vulnerable-looking Adam Yauch, lead singer of the Beastie Boys. But only Gary Bauer took a stab at explaining this odd mix. "The media is obsessed with the unusual nature of this coalition," he said, "conservatives like me and Frank Wolf and liberal human rights activists and the AFL-CIO." But the point, he noted, was that "I would rather be in this unusual coalition than in the other unusual coalition, the one that brings together American capitalists and Chinese Communists." Whoops and a tattoo on the Tibetan drum rang out in response.

Most of the crowd was thoroughly mainstream, downtown office workers enjoying a burst of autumnal sunshine at lunchtime. There was, to be sure, something almost entertaining in watching Richard Gere, who first came to cinematic fame in American Gigolo, beaming at the audience and announcing that the demonstration was "very energizing, because it is about action." More whoops and applause, then shouts of "Put the sign down! Put the sign down!" Just in front of the stage the crowd's view of Gere's handsome face was being obscured by a "Stop Killing Uighurs!" placard. "I think they want the sign down," Gere said politely, and the placard quickly disappeared.

Gere said that he brought greetings "from a great friend of all of us, the Dalai Lama." While most were here to protest against the deplorable state of human rights in China and Tibet, it wasn't clear what the demonstrators were actually for. Tibetans seemed everywhere, waving brightly colored flags and handing out dozens of blue and yellow "Save Tibet" sheets to anyone who would take them. Professing Buddhists Gere and Beastie Boy Yauch appear to believe that Tibetan Buddhism itself could cure many of the world's woes. "Tibet," said Yauch, looking a good ten years less than his 33 years, "is actually the answer to most of the problems we are facing." He didn't elaborate.

Several placards read "Save Wei Jingsheng" and displayed a sad-looking photo of China's most famous imprisoned dissident. …