Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Life In Drift: Review of Chai Ling's Autobiography

More than 20 years after being one of the most visible leaders in the 1989 Chinese student movement, Chai Ling finally published her autobiography, A Heart for Freedom: the Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, her Daring Escape, and her Quest to Free China's Daughters, last fall.

When the book was published, it caused a minor publicity stir because of the author's surprise revelation that she had had four abortions during her younger years, the last two being almost immediately before and after the 1989 movement, respectively. But as that faded away, so seemed the book itself. Several reviews came from the religious community, focusing on Chai Ling's journey to Christianity. Her experience in that movement was mentioned only as a backdrop. Little was said about that movement more than 20 years ago.

Little could be learned from this book in that regard, either. A Heart for Freedom is a chronological account of the author's life so far, but lacks the details and depth necessary for readers to gain a real understanding of her intellectual and emotional development. In particular, as the Commander-in-Chief who dominated the second half of the 1989 movement, her account of that life-altering event was sketchy at the best and sometimes borderline on disingenuous.

Her Tiananmen Experience

In this book, Chai Ling framed her initial participation of the movement as motivated by her love and concern to her then husband, fellow student leader Feng Congde. She then provided little explanation or perspective as how she emerged to become the leader of the hunger strike and latter the commander-in-chief at Tiananmen Square. She did disclose, however, that she had held a personal grunge from the beginning as she felt mistreated by Feng Congde and his male-dominated circle of young leaders.

The book did provide some previously unknown hints, perhaps unintentionally, on her emotional state at the time. One particular puzzling aspect was Chai Ling's inner-despair, most obviously expressed first in her speech to launch the hunger strike and her later disastrous "Last Words" video tape (more on that later). That raw emotion, while powerful and influential, was at odds with the mode of the general student public. In this book we learned that Chai Ling had experienced a series of personal and family traumas just before the movement broke out. By that time she already had had 3 pre-marital abortions (only the last pregnancy was with Feng Congde). Her mother suffered a severe nervous breakdown at home after being falsely accused of stealing. She was nearly raped (she was not even sure if it was an actual rape since she had blacked out) by an acquaintance on campus. Then she had a couple of bad encounters with the campus police, which led her to believe that her relation with Feng Congde was in trouble. All this was probably too much for a 21-year-old girl, who later framed her call for hunger strike as imperative "at this life-and-death moment of our people's survival" as an effort to see if China, as a country, still had any hope left. Maybe that desperation had a deeper root at a personal level.

Meanwhile, the book glided through many critical moments at Tiananmen rather superficially, without going into any detail on her or others decision making process. Indeed, whether it was the start and end of the hunger strike, the dialogue with government official Yan Mingfu, the failure of withdrawing from the Square near the end of May, and even the final moments of the massacre, our Commander-in-Chief appeared in her own book more of a bystander or follower than a leader.

Chai Ling did devote quite a few pages specifically to her "Last Words" video. She defended herself with a rather, well, defensive tone. She made the excuse that she didn't know her conversant at the time, an American youth by the name of Phillip Cunningham, was working for a western media outlet. She attributed the most damaging passage of "expecting bloodshed" to Li Lu, one of the deputy commander-in-chiefs, and blamed him for not "owning up" to it. She also claimed that Cunningham disclosed the video to the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace producers without her permission.

Her Accuracy

That leads nicely into the question of accuracy and trustworthy of her contents. Indeed, Chai Ling might not know that Cunningham was working for a press agency, but she knew full well that another female reporter from Hong Kong was also present and answered a few questions from her. According to Cunningham, Chai Ling wrote a note specifically authorizing Cunningham to publicize the video. They then tried to "shop" it to several western media companies in Beijing right away but failed to find any takers.  Maybe Cunningham was not truthful here, but none of these was even mentioned in this book. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the video first became public in Hong Kong days after the massacre and years before that documentary was planned.

Upon the publication of this book, Feng Congde issued a public statement claiming that many details in it are not accurate. He said that he had sent Chai Ling a list of "up to 100" mistakes and more than 300 notes after reading her earlier drafts, but was largely ignored by the author. Of course Feng Congde is not an unbiased critic either. As the author's ex-husband, he was described as handsome and brilliant as well as temperamental and abusive in the book.

Indeed, there are many occasions in the book where the author's descriptions differ from known facts or consensus from recollections of others. The book only contains scant endnotes, almost all of which are not helpful as references of her story.

Her Life in Drift

A Heart for Freedom narrates Chai Ling's life from her childhood to her recent rebirth as a Christian and a triumphant return to public life through charity work against China's population policy. It is indeed an interesting story. She had attended top universities in both China and US, led a popular uprising that fixated the attention of the whole world, met with numerous world leaders and dignitaries, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, became a successful entrepreneur, and transformed herself from an atheist to a Buddhist and then to a Christian.

Given the author's background, most readers would rightfully expect to read about a determined leadership personality. Despite the obvious effort to portrait a strong-willed and independent woman, however, the book reveals a fragile soul that was constantly influenced by others at every stage of her life. It's a life in drift.

In her own words, Chai Ling confirmed that, although being the Commander-in-Chief, she was not the actual leader of the movement but a figurehead largely controlled by Li Lu, who made most of the important decisions from behind the scenes. Her initial participation was due to her feelings for her then-husband. Her decision of launching hunger strike was influenced by a few graduate student friends. Her veto of the plan to withdraw from Square that she had originally agreed on, her most critical decision throughout the whole movement, was entirely Li Lu's idea. And so on. At least from this book, we do not see the author as being and acting as her own person in that critical junction of history. Yet she occupied, and stubbornly refused to relinquish, the most important leadership position.

She also confirmed that she cried almost every time she faced a tough situation or choice.

The 1989 movement aside, the main theme of A Heart for Freedom seems to be the journey to Christianity: the spiritual awakening of a girl who was born and raised atheist. The "freedom" in the book title has dual meanings: a free life from the Communist oppression in China and a free soul under the protection of her newfound God. With her conversion, Chai Ling indicates that she has finally ended her decades of drifting and reached her destination. She had claimed that it was God who was writing this book through her hand. But it is difficult to find her conversion convincing or inspiring. Instead, it appeared more of an act of circumstances and convenience. Years earlier, when Chai Ling and Feng Congde were on the run after the massacre, they were protected by a group of devoted Buddhists for an extended period of time in southern China. In isolation, both of them were moved enough to convert themselves to Buddhism.  Later in her life, Chai Ling found herself surrounded by devoted Christians including his new husband, friends, and fellow former student leaders who had become ministers. She quickly found her new Lord and became a Christian. (Unlike Chai Ling, Feng Congde has held on to his strong Buddhist faith to this day.)

Her Self Perspective

In her story, Chai Ling often displayed her own way of selective truth telling. She spent quite a few pages describing her difficulties of getting a high-profile consulting job after her graduation in US because of potential threats from China. (She eventually got one when a firm forced her to work under a fake name -- is that even legal?) She regarded it as an issue threatening her very survival in this country. It never occurred to her that she could try working for a smaller firm without ties to China. While complaining about such obstacles, she conveniently neglected any possibility that her past and fame might have helped her to gain entries to such privileged institutes as Princeton and Harvard, not to mention important connections during her career development and launching her own company.

She repeatedly asserted that she "led" the students' final withdraw from Tiananmen on the night of the massacre. Yet even her own book confirmed that she didn't do anything herself other than walking in front of the student formation with other leaders (while a large group of students were still refusing to leave). The withdraw was initiated and negotiated by older intellectuals on site despite objections from her and other student leaders and finally orchestrated and led by Feng Congde.

In her defense of the "Last Words" video, she continued to claim that criticisms aimed at her are vicious attacks to student leadership and the student movement as a whole. (Feng Congde has been making the same claims through the years defending her.) Yet she found no problem in shifting the same criticisms to her then-deputy Li Lu, blaming the latter for not taking the responsibilities for her, the Commander-in-Chief. She also gravely underplayed her recent predatory lawsuit against the producers of the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Her Book

A Heart for Freedom traces Chai Ling's life and adds to the existing and expanding literary collection of characters associated with the 1989 student movement. But to readers who are not familiar with the nuances of that history, this book may be hard to follow as many events and names are casually mentioned without introductions. The author assumes her readers either already well versed in or not care much about them. It may find a ready audience in the religious community who are never tired of such stories of a celebrity conversion. For others, the book may provide a few insights to Chai Ling's back story and emotional state as a leader of that movement. But unfortunately it lacks details, depth, and accuracy to be a valuable historical account.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting and well written piece.

Anonymous said...

Great comment!

Anonymous said...

Rather a sneaker than a fighter.

Anonymous said...

I've just read the book. She surely has faltered and freely admits it, but we can hardly fault her as we casually write critical internet posts from positions of safety and security.

She admitted to many mistakes. I believe she is genuine and her faults human. She also has accomplished more good in this world than the majority of her critics combined despite suffering multiple tragedies, each of which alone would ruin most people. Feng should have spent time in US prison, if not sent back to the PRC.

You should spend more time trying to save human life and less time criticizing those who are. You are part of the problem.