Wang Dan is still alive, somehow. The Tiananmen Protest activist is perhaps the most famous almost casualty of the restlessness that swept through the Chinese youth during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Jailed, attacked and almost assassinated, the man who organized one of the most significant protests in modern history when he was still a freshman in college arrived last week at Cornell to a packed auditorium. On first glance, he’s a less than imposing man. But then listen a little, and the ferocious takes on the state of modern Chinese society roll out rapid-fire style. In a 45 minute span, he deliberated on the democratization of China, the brutality of the current regime, and his hope for the future of China. Powerful stuff.
We can use some fire nowadays: Everywhere we go at Cornell, there’s a hot button issue that holds some importance. Even something as innocuous as the November Cornell Reflect dinner, which was designed to increase open conversations between students. We all sat in a circle and were asked to talk about our assigned topic: “race.” For the most part, it was a relatively toothless debate as we talked endlessly; it seemed everyone was afraid to offend the other.
But then we landed on the hot topic issue of affirmative action. Suddenly, the race was on.
Each had their own take on it; there were subtle signs not everyone agreed. While others talked about the value of affirmative action, my friend shook her head throughout. She doesn’t agree one bit with affirmative action, thinking race is a bad way to judge candidates. She reasons because it only takes away the accomplishments of minorities, because there will always be a nagging question that they didn’t get on merit alone. It’s a disservice, really, in her mind. I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but it’s an interesting opinion that deserves merit in a sea of counter opinions. There’s value to be had in dissidence, even if you disagree with it; to be passively agreeable is a mistake.
It goes beyond dinners and receptions too. At a fake news workshop hosted in Uris Library for Sociology 1101, we were taught how to discern fake news from real news, to make a stand against it. It’s a civic right, I’m told. To simply take news at face value is dangerous nowadays. There’s an example cited: Facebook, with its role of as a vehicle of spreading misinformation during the 2016 election, seemed almost dismissive when the issues started coming to light. In the months after the election, Mark Zuckerberg would scoff that fake news on Facebook had a tangible hand in the outcome of the election. It seemed destined to fight to the grave for its impartiality. But In the end, it gave up and confessed:126 million people were exposed to the stories. By looking to stay on the sidelines, it ended up doing more damage than it could have imagined.
It’s why we fight for the things we do, because you might never know when it might simply disappear. This past weekend, I attended the International Transgender Day of Remembrance Vigil at Anabel Taylor Hall. Between some pretty terrific musical performances, the ceremony took on a somber mood as the evening progressed. Established to memorialize those killed by anti-transgender hatred or prejudice (It’s held in November to honor Rita Hester, who was murdered on November 28th in 1998), it aimed to remember those lost. Candles were lit to honor those killed as their names were read out; poems were read to humanize their experience. But the night wasn’t just spent on those were already lost; it braced itself for what’s to come. In an age where the current administration has started stripping back basic rights of the transgender community, it felt pertinent to act with urgency. The event was pervaded with a sense of grief; now our job was to ensure it never happened again.
It’s why as much I admire Wang Dan and held onto each word he spoke, his parting words for us Cornellians were a bit jarring. He seemed confident, in the face of a daunting challenge to democratize China and steer it away from its flirtations with authoritarianism, that his side would prevail. And what was his explanation? Because he was on “the right side of history”; because the good guys always win. I thought it was a neat little phrase; then I hesitated. The optimism is welcomed, but it rings a bit hollow. It’s no good to just being morally right anymore. It’s much better to take action and deliver — to fight, and to win.
William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester.