Many of us who had spent years reporting on China watched with a feeling of slow-motion tragedy the unfolding of events in the Chinese capital in the spring of 1989, when student-led democracy protests started in Beijing and then across the country. Ultimately, it ended two months later in brutal suppression of the protest by the Chinese Army.

Some of us predicted that it would end very badly. How come? First, the Chinese Communist party had achieved power and secured it through violence. Second, China’s number-two leader at the time, Li Peng, had made it clear he was enraged by the challenge to his premiership posed by the students. Third, China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, had not hesitated to do Mao’s bidding when he was asked in 1958 to crack down brutally on the political dissent seeded by the “100 Flowers” movement that had begun a year earlier.

The Chinese students themselves, however, and some in the foreign press corps, didn’t share these misgivings. In her remarkably frank—and indeed vulnerable—account of the student leadership discussions, Chai Ling, elected the movement’s “commander in chief,” makes it clear what a thorough job China’s Communist propaganda gusher had done in brainwashing China’s young people. Many, perhaps most, of them believed the slogan that “the army loves the people,” and simply couldn’t imagine that the military might turn against the youths who had idolized them from childhood if the political leadership gave them the orders to do so.

Chai Ling’s story illustrates this phenomenon powerfully. The daughter of a husband-wife medical team who had served the People’s Liberation Army almost since the establishment of the People’s Republic, Chai Ling herself admired such dedication and loyalty. She grew up on an army base in coastal Shandong Province and deeply loved her father, who proudly escorted Chai Ling to the famous Peking University campus in 1983. Her parents had been almost dizzy with pride at their first-born’s academic success, but her father had also grown irritated at her occasional rebellious streak. He was even more outraged when she later had three abortions, the first of which (of a total of four) he himself angrily insisted on after discovering the “shame” of her unmarried pregnancy. Chai Ling was a popular and attractive female student and, though not promiscuous, had allowed serial romances to evolve into physical affairs.

The 1989 student movement was triggered by the death of former party chief Hu Yaobang, a sometime protégé of Deng Xiaoping who was popular among college students. He had been supportive of their protests against the party’s corruption and resistance to reform, but because of widespread student demonstrations in the winter of 1986-87, Hu had been demoted from party secretary-general. When he died on April 15, 1989, the party leadership insisted that his death be acknowledged as that of merely a senior party leader. Students from Beida (the Chinese nickname for Peking University) and nearby Tsinghua University, however, insisted that he deserved better. They began the protests that led to the Democracy Movement with the demand that the party honor Hu in grander fashion. One of the student leaders was Feng Congde, whom Chai Ling had married a short time earlier.

The couple had discussed the possibility of going to graduate school in the United States, but those plans were put on the shelf as the movement took on a life of its own. The leaders engaged in endless smoky, coffee-filled meetings to discuss policy, and from these Chai Ling was selected chief spokesman because she was passionate about student rights, eloquent, and clearly idealistic. The narrative of events leading up to the massacre is detailed and complicated, reflecting the chaos of the largely unplanned movement. What makes Chai Ling’s account so revealing is her candid irritation with the egotism, vulgarity, and verbal coarseness of some of the male students active in the cause. Her book provides fascinating glimpses into the movement’s internecine rivalries for leadership. There are also vivid glimpses of the charismatic Uighur student Wu’er Kaixi and a Nanjing University student, Li Lu, who showed decisiveness at key moments but who cynically squelched Chai Ling’s idealism.

About a month into the protests, Chai Ling orchestrated a mass student hunger strike on Tiananmen Square, during which several students (including Chai Ling herself) had to be hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion. As the likelihood of an army assault on the square grew, Chai Ling, perhaps unwisely, agreed to an on-camera conversation with an American freelance reporter that would haunt her for years. In that distraught interview, some of her remarks were interpreted as expressing the view that a bloody massacre might actually be the only thing that could shock China and the world into making room for democracy in China. Here, Chai makes it clear that she never wanted any bloody massacre to take place but was sensitive about accusations of cowardice from other student leaders.

In the predawn hours of June 4, as the People’s Liberation Army swarmed into Tiananmen Square, she supported an older Chinese writer and dissident, Liu Xiaobo, and three other Chinese, including the Taiwanese pop-singer Hou Dejian, in negotiating with military leaders to permit an unhindered exit for the thousands of students who still remained camped out in the square. Chai Ling and her husband retreated with them to the temporary safety of Beida, only to be advised to leave Beijing immediately because she and her husband, along with several others, topped the party’s most-wanted list.

What follows are the little-known details of their escape from Beijing by train and the tense months of hiding from the authorities in private homes in China’s far south. Their protectors were Buddhists who shared the student movement’s antipathy to the Communist authorities. Time and again, these Buddhists risked their liberty and even their lives sheltering the fugitives. Moved by their courage and sacrifice, both Chai and her husband became for a while ardent Buddhists themselves. The Buddhists completed their good work by finally arranging for Chai and her husband to be smuggled out to Hong Kong in a cargo crate on a small motorized craft.

Once in the safety of Hong Kong, however, then later in Paris and the United States, the stress of a new life in the West moved her in a different direction. She was buffeted by a series of fresh uncertainties after her husband deserted her, after the fourth abortion, this time in Paris, and when finally she decided to seek political asylum in the United States. Initially speaking hardly a word of English, Chai navigated the financially and socially challenging world of a penniless immigrant. She was eventually able to help support part of her family who legally left China to join her, first earning a master’s degree at Princeton and then, amazingly (because she had not planned on a business career), winning a spot at Harvard Business School. Success there led to job offers that were always poisoned, however, by the suspicion of some corporations that the Chinese government might not want to do business with any American company that had hired such a prominent dissident. The consulting company that eventually hired her after Harvard was shamed into not withdrawing its initial job offer by a courageous corporate officer who asked his colleagues, in effect, this question: Is it right to allow a dictatorial foreign government to determine our normal American hiring practices?

Chai Ling’s idealism for China, and particularly for Chinese women, took a decisive new turn when she became a Christian shortly after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Since then, she has not abandoned her campaign for justice for the victims of the crackdown, but acquired another passion: drawing attention to China’s compulsory one-child policy, which leads, every month, to thousands of gender-selective forced abortions and, in consequence, one of the highest female suicide rates of any country in the world. Her new organization, All Girls Allowed, seeks to campaign against China’s policy and alleviate the child-kidnapping and sexual trafficking that China’s gender imbalance has created.

David Aikman, a 23-year correspondent for Time, was an eyewitness to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

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