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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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.