Published September 30, 2009
NEW YORK – New York is seeing red over the decision to turn the city's highest beacon — and one of America's symbols for free enterprise — into a shining monument honoring China's communist revolution Wednesday night.
The Empire State Building shone in red and yellow lights over New York City on Wednesday night to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloody communist takeover.
The tower is lit in white most nights, but nearly every week gets splashed with color to honor holidays and heroes — red, white and blue for Independence Day, green for St. Patrick's Day, true blue for New York's Finest.
The building's managers say they have honored a host of countries, including Canada, India and Australia, but as of Wednesday that list of honorees now includes one of the world's last great authoritarian regimes.
Tourists were squirming as the city's 102-story landmark — which gained a special significance for New Yorker's after 9/11, when it again became Manhattan's tallest building — was being converted into a shining red beacon for Chinese communism.
"I think it's a bad idea," said Dick Paasch, 69, from Billings, Montana. "The Chinese Revolution ... in the years 1958-1960, there were something like 26 million people starved to death. Why would we want to celebrate something like that?
"I think the Chinese have come a long way since then, but I certainly wouldn't celebrate the revolution," he said.
Representatives for the building say it won't incur any extra costs to use the colored floodlights, so taxpayers won't have to pay a dime. But tourists thought it would have been better if the building would have stayed white this Wednesday.
"It seems a little out of place in New York City, an American city, having communist colors," said Cathy Crismore of Lancaster, California. "That doesn't seem right."
New York politicians have paid notice as well, and say they are let down by the light-up. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said it was a mistake to pay tribute to what he called "a nation with a shameful history on human rights."
Historians of the revolution noted the unimaginable — and often forgotten — toll of the revolution and China's communist rule, which has taken tens of millions of lives through years of war, famine, reeducation and wholesale slaughter.
"China gets treatment that other dictatorships can only dream of — a free pass on human rights," said Arthur Waldron, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The revolution and its aftermath may have been deadlier than any world war: though estimates vary, research from the historian Chang Jung shows that as many as 72 million people died as a result.
During one five-year period alone, the Great Famine of 1958-1962, 36 million Chinese are believed to have starved as a result of Mao's Great Leap Forward, a government policy meant to industrialize the nation.
During those years of ruin, peasants ate bark, maggots, bird droppings, human flesh — anything to survive — as government storehouses stood full with grain and other cereals, neither the first nor last in China's troubled line of violations of human rights.
"China remains strongly oppressive — but we make a lot of money, and we have a tendency to romanticize the country, confusing her brilliant cultural heritage with the current communist regime," said Waldron. "Will we light it in honor of Tibet?"
About 40 protesters massed outside the Empire State Building Wednesday morning as China's New York consul attended a ceremony the building's managers said was to honor "the 1.3 billion Chinese people and the 60th anniversary of their country."
"Because the Empire State Building is such a cultural icon ... this touches a chord close to home for people," said Lhadon Tethong, a leader of the demonstrators from Students for a Free Tibet.
Tethong said that the lights on the building "are a symbol of support for the Chinese state — for a totalitarian state," which ignores the country's "abominable record on human rights, on liberty."
Waldron, of the University of Pennsylvania, said he thought there would be an outcry if another brutal regime were so honored by the tower.
"Would we have lit the Empire State Building for the USSR knowing what we do about the Gulag?"