The Corner

World

Leaders of Their Countries

Fang Zheng (Oslo Freedom Forum)

Fang Zheng was a sports star, a sprinter. He dreamed of bringing glory to his country, China, through international competition. He joined the Communist party while in college. He also joined the protests at Tiananmen Square. You could do that, in those days of Deng Xiaoping. Or you thought you could.

As the protests reached their fatal climax, a female classmate asked Fang Zheng for his protection. When a tank raced toward them, he shoved her out of the way — but he could not quite save himself. He was run over by the tank, which cut his legs off.

The Chinese government demanded that he lie about it. He was injured in a common road accident, you see. Alternatively, he and his fellow students had attacked the army, provoking a response. He refused to lie (though many played ball). They punished him for it in multiple ways, as though the loss of his legs weren’t punishment enough.

Today, Fang Zheng is in the United States, telling the truth about Tiananmen Square, and about China generally. I interviewed him and have written about him, here. The piece concludes like this:

When he was a schoolkid, he wanted to bring glory to China through athletic prowess. He has brought glory to China, all right — through his courage, moral and physical, and through the example he has set. Above all, he has insisted on telling the truth: the awful, important truth.

Dictatorships always want people to think of the dictatorship and the country as one. Vyacheslav Volodin, a Putin sidekick, said, “There is no Russia without Putin.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader, said, “This is probably the most insulting thing I have ever heard said about my country.” In 2007, when I profiled another democracy leader, Jianli Yang, I titled the piece “Leader of the Chinese.”

This point cannot be overemphasized: Jianli Yang, Fang Zheng — they are China too. Vladimir Kara-Murza, Sergei Magnitsky (murdered), Boris Nemtsov (murdered) — they are Russia too. We must avoid equating dictatorships with their countries, because, when we do equate them, we are doing the dictators’ work for them.

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