A Lady Called Hope

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Photograph by Redux for TIME

International treasure Suu Kyi after her release on Nov. 13

In my struggle for democracy in China, Aung San Suu Kyi has twice inspired me profoundly. The first time was in 2003. I was living in the U.S., where I was granted asylum after spending a total of nearly seven years in Chinese jails for my role as a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests in Beijing. Those demonstrations were crushed by the Chinese military, and hundreds of innocent people were killed. One year earlier, something similar had happened in Burma: soldiers had violently put down peaceful rallies for democracy by students and monks. There too, many died, but it was then that the world — and I — awakened to the moral power of Aung San Suu Kyi.

When in the U.S., I organized various campaigns to promote democracy in China, but I was also preoccupied with the heavy school workload at Harvard University, where I was studying the history of China and Taiwan. During this period in my life, I became confused about my ideals. As China's economy grew, people's passion for democracy seemed to wane — the drive for liberalization was losing momentum. Both the future of China and my own personal future seemed uncertain to me. Then I came across one of Suu Kyi's articles. Her main point was that perseverance — a characteristic she has repeatedly displayed — is the most important asset for a protest movement. The essay triggered such shock in me — it was as if it opened a window to a dark room and let in a gust of fresh air when I was on the verge of suffocation. Suu Kyi's words recharged a belief I had long held but was temporarily questioning: that democracy is the best guarantee of a more equitable and a more durable prosperity.

If a protest movement is sustained in the face of a formidable antidemocracy apparatus, then its great advantage becomes simply its longevity, its ability to outlast oppression. The perennial battle between tyranny and freedom depends on who can survive till the end, and history has shown that democracy often prevails.

The second time I have drawn inspiration from Suu Kyi is now, with her release from house arrest. After 21 years in and out of detention, Suu Kyi has become a symbol to those of us fighting for human rights against authoritarian regimes. She represents a force that seems weak on first appearance but which, in fact, is truly tremendous. Even when such a delicate woman is pitted against the might of Burma's junta, what we see is not a gross mismatch but an almost equal confrontation — because Suu Kyi is more than just an individual, and the junta is less than the guns of the soldiers it commands. The struggle between Suu Kyi and the junta is like a live historical drama in which the theme is the conflict between conviction and violence. Suu Kyi's release is the victory of conviction.

That victory is a great encouragement to all other human-rights advocates fighting for their convictions, especially Chinese dissidents. Her release offers hope for Liu Xiaobo, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner. For his efforts to promote peaceful political change, Liu now languishes in a Chinese prison, serving an 11-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power." True, Liu wants reform, but that's something even China's leaders have mentioned — and he wants it gradually and nonviolently. The accusation against him is horribly wrong.

Suu Kyi's release also symbolizes a different kind of victory, which is that persistent pressure from abroad will eventually bear results. The international community is often baffled by the conundrum between maintaining economic ties with authoritarian countries and exerting pressure on human rights. Burma and China set two different examples. While most of the free world imposes sanctions on Burma or berates it, China has been getting a pass on human rights because of its growing economic power. The upshot is that though both are Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Suu Kyi is out, and Liu is still in prison. To be sure, Suu Kyi can be rearrested, as she has been before. But for now, the junta — perhaps it is feeling confident and secure, perhaps it wants some international goodwill — has made a concession.

The rulers in Beijing are in no mood for concessions, not least because they are being allowed to get away with being harsh. Yet, real progress in human rights cannot be achieved without active and constant pressure, whether on Burma or on China. Any fantasies about advancing democratic reforms within a dictatorship through coordination and encouragement will be, to quote a Chinese saying, the equivalent of trying to catch a fish by climbing a tree. That would not do Aung San Suu Kyi justice.

Wang, now 41, was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement. He is currently a visiting assistant professor at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University