The Magazine

Freedom in Exile

Life before and after Tiananmen Square.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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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.

Photo of Chai Ling in Tiananmen Square on June 3 1989

Chai Ling in Tiananmen Square, June 3, 1989

Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

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.