For the scattered and exiled dissidents of China’s student democracy movement, brutally crushed by the Chinese army on June 4, 1989, the annual commemorating of the Tiananmen incident has faded with the passing years. Things have moved on in the world. Younger American reporters were still in grade school when Chinese army troops and tanks smashed their way into the center of Beijing. The Chinese government itself has done an able job of consigning “June 4” to the national memory hole. Chinese students arriving in the United States are disbelieving when they first watch news videos of the crackdown. Few of them are even aware that there was an “incident.”
At least five of the “21 Most Wanted” list of the government of China after the massacre have turned to the Christian faith for answers. Zhang Boli, No. 14 on the list, who escaped from China after being on the run for two years, is now the pastor of a Chinese church in Northern Virginia. Xiong Yan, No. 20, is now a U.S. Army chaplain and served for a year in Iraq. But the most remarkable convert to Christianity is one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen students, Chai Ling, No. 4 on the list and the “Chief Commander” of the students. Chai Ling, 44, was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for attempting to change China’s political system and became prominent in the U.S. news after she filed a defamation suit against the makers of a TV documentary about her role in the democracy movement. She is also something of a posterchild for the success of former Democracy Movement students now in exile.
She was on the run inside China for ten months before escaping in April 1990 with the help of Buddhist sympathizers—first to Hong Kong, then France, and finally to the United States. She earned a master’s degree in international affairs at Princeton University and then got an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She married a coworker from a consulting company, and the two founded a highly successful software corporation, Jenzabar Inc.
While attending a congressional human rights hearing on China in November 2009, Chai Ling heard a Chinese female witness, identified only as “Yujuan” from Shandong Province and screened to protect her identity, narrate the wrenching tale of having her baby chopped up by scissors in her own womb during a forced abortion. Yujuan, it turned out, had become pregnant without a birth permit. Chai Ling was shocked into a total change of direction. The forced abortion story was her conversion moment.
She met the human rights activist Reggie Littlejohn, a San Francisco-based immigration lawyer who had founded an organization called Women’s Rights Without Borders. Littlejohn had also undergone a spiritual awakening after a serious illness. Chai Ling decided to make her own personal profession of Christian faith. “I was a typical type A, insecure overachiever,” Chai Ling has written of her student years in China. That sense of ambition followed her into exile in the United States, where she was determined to become economically successful so that she could help finance new directions in reforming China’s political system.
After experiencing her dramatic Christian conversion, however, Chai Ling felt she was now being moved in a new direction on issues relating to China. “I could no longer go back to the grand plan of becoming successful, setting up a foundation and freeing China,” she said recently. Referring to China’s rigidly enforced one-child policy, under which the regime claims to have aborted more than 400 million babies since 1979, Chai Ling says, “The whole world is asleep in the face of this massive campaign against humanity. I don’t know who has the courage and strength to stand up.”
Last week she launched a new campaign and website, All Girls Allowed, to draw attention to the cruel implementation of China’s one-child policy. Chai Ling selected the symbolic date of June 1, International Children’s Day, which China habitually celebrates with great fanfare, but without mentioning its forced-abortion policy. For the opening of her campaign, she planned a press conference in Washington with speakers to include Republican representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, a longtime champion of Chinese human rights.
“The significance of her conversion,” says Bob Fu, another student activist who came to the United States after Tiananmen and is president of ChinaAid, a Texas-based organization that focuses on China’s frequent suppression of religious freedom, “is that she’s taking a more transcendental worldview. She’s not forgetting her roots, but she is manifesting a social conscience as a Christian with a new identity. I definitely think it will have a ripple effect on two groups of people who know her, her supporters and those who criticize her.”
Another of the 21 “most wanted,” No. 5, Zhou Fengsuo, a financial analyst based in San Francisco who became a Christian in the 1990s, agrees. “In 1989 there was a lot of bitterness,” he says. “There was no hope. Chai Ling is so hungry for the truth. She has found her cause.”
And a definite sense of peace. A nanny for her children told a visitor that, since becoming a Christian, she has been a much kinder person. Oh yes, and as a new Christian she felt she should drop her lawsuit over the TV documentary.
David Aikman reported for Time for 23 years. He is the author of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power.