Chai Ling

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Chai Ling

Chai Ling (born 1966) was commander in chief of a 1989 student-led protest in China's Tiananmen Square, which ended with the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators by army troops and riot police.

Chai Ling was born in 1966 in the northeast Chinese province of Shandong. Both her parents were members of the Communist Party. As a young student Chai herself joined the Central Communist Youth League, which named her a "model student" during high school for her "good health, grades and moral character," reported Paula Chin of People magazine.

Chai began to question the politics she grew up with while studying child psychology as a graduate student at Beijing Normal University. She participated in demonstrations asking the government for democratic reforms in 1987, even though she realized that speaking out could have enormous implications. "I was afraid at first," she told the Los Angeles Times reporter Nikki Finke. "Because I know that in China the minimum jail sentence for counter revolutionaries is 17 years." Even though she knew the potential consequences, Chai and her classmates could not pretend to condone the inequality of the Chinese system, censoring of the Chinese people, and corruption among Chinese officials. "We saw all this," she told Glamour magazine, "and we felt a responsibility."

Instead of pursuing a career within a system she saw as wrong, Chai made a decision. "I knew I had two choices," Chai recounted in the Los Angeles Times. "One was to leave the country and do my graduate work at an American school, which was the secure route because I knew I'd have a safe personal future. The other choice was to stand up and fight and join the movement. And I knew that if I did that, my future would likely be imprisonment." Ultimately, Chai decided to risk the wrath of her country's government "because I really love my homeland," she told Finke.

In April of 1989, Chai joined fellow students who were staging a sit-in protest at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, objecting to the government's lack of response to their demands for more freedom. "We wanted to get the Chinese government to respect the constitution," she explained in a May 1994 discussion at the John Fairbank Center at Harvard University, as reported in Current History magazine.

Massacre at Tiananmen Square

After several weeks in the square, Chai and several other protesters began a hunger strike, hoping to draw more attention to the cause and provoke international action. On May 12, she delivered a rousing speech that energized the movement. Her image was broadcast around the world and she was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Students' Democracy Movement. Cassette tapes of the speech were distributed all over China, inspiring thousands of Chinese students and workers to flock to the square to participate in the three-week protest. The crowd eventually swelled to the hundreds of thousands.

On the afternoon of June 3, soldiers gathered around the square, waiting for orders to clear out the protesters through force. Later that night, army troops in tanks rolled into the square, accompanied by riot police with guns. The lights were cut and shots began to ring out. Although the Chinese government has steadfastly maintained that it initiated no violence against the demonstrators, eyewitness accounts confirm that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed. "I could hear bullets flying and people screaming," she told People magazine's Paula Chin. "We climbed to the upper tiers of the People's Monument and could see the tanks lined up at the edge of the square."

The blood bath was not confined to the square, reported Liu Binyan in Current History. Dozens of people elsewhere in the country were executed for "rioting," he wrote, and "thousands more were arrested; many were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3 to 15 years."


Chai and her husband, Feng Congde, who was also active in the democracy movement, escaped the melee at the square. Still fearing for their lives, they immediately went into hiding. Knowing that they faced immediate execution if they were discovered, for ten months both Chai and Feng managed to avoid arrest as two of the Chinese government's most wanted criminals. Chai later credited ordinary Chinese citizens with saving their lives. "All this time, I had the support of lots of people," she told New York Times reporter Alan Riding. "People who had their own problems of family and work to worry about, but who helped and protected us with their own resources." Citizens quickly formed secret organizations to help dissidents hide and escape, even though they knew they, too, risked execution. Twenty other dissidents in China were executed while Chai and her husband sought sanctuary in the West.

At one point, Chai told the New York Times, she believed her husband had been captured. She learned he was safe within a week, but did not see or contact him for four more months. Sometimes she was hidden with others on the run, but she told Riding that "most of the time I was hidden alone and I had lots of time to reflect on what happened in Tiananmen Square." She concluded that the action didn't go far enough. "But I think that, after 40 years of repression, this was the most pacific and reasonable revolt imaginable."

Finally, Chai and Feng escaped to France and sought political asylum. Soon after leaving China, the couple traveled to the United States for a seven-city speaking tour. Chai led a memorial rally in front of the U.S. Capitol, urging supporters to keep fighting for the dream of a democratic China. Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, she was still not able to get a message through to her parents.

Controversy over Role

History has somewhat weakened Chai's status as a folk hero. Some eyewitnesses, including Taiwanese pop singer Hou Dejian, have offered conflicting accounts of the night of June 3, when the melee on the square began. Hou wrote his version of the events, which were published in worldwide Chinese newspapers and reprinted in the book Crisis at Tiananmen: Reform and Reality in Modern China. He claimed that several hunger strikers decided that the best way to avoid slaughter would be to ask the students to withdraw peacefully from the square, requesting the troops to back down while the crowd dispersed. According to Hou, Chai opposed the plan, saying the students should stay in control of the square and citing a rumor that the government officials could bring the troops under control by daybreak so the students could peacefully retreat.

More questions were raised in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a three-hour documentary film about the movement by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton. The documentary's title is an English translation for "Tiananmen." The film, released in 1996, argues subtly but persuasively, reported Pauline Chen in Cineaste, "that the student protesters in their fight for democracy adopted the same extremism and repression of alternate views that they opposed in the government." Chai is included in Chen's assertion that "the students themselves, in favoring escalation of the movement over compromise with the government, in demanding further concessions after demands were met, and in allowing rhetorically powerful extremists to drown out more moderate views, both exemplify and perpetuate this political culture in China."

The Gate of Heavenly Peace features clips from a controversial interview with Chai filmed by American journalist, Philip Cunningham, on May 28, 1989, shortly before the demonstration turned deadly. "Unless we overthrow this inhumane government, our country will have no hope," Chai told Cunningham. "I feel very sad, because I cannot tell [the other students] that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment that the government at last has no choice but to brazenly slaughter its own citizens." Later she asserts, "Only when the Square is awash with blood will China be awakened."

The film, Chen wrote, also questions the process by which Chai gained leadership of the movement, and asserts that the hunger striking leaders monopolized the loudspeakers, silencing any dissension. The Associated Press reported that Chai refused to appear in the film, and the Chinese government sought to stop showings of it in Hong Kong, New York, and Washington.

Continuing to Fight

In 1990, Chai moved to the United States to earn a master's degree in international relations at Princeton University. She divorced Feng and found work as a computer consultant, continuing to speak on behalf of the struggle to liberate China.

Further Reading

Mu, Yi, and Mark V. Thompson, Crisis at Tiananmen: Reform and Reality in Modern China, China Books & Periodicals, Inc., 1989.

Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 1996.

Cineaste, January 1996.

Current History, September 1994.

Glamour, December 1990.

Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1990.

New York Times, April 14, 1990.

People Weekly, June 18, 1990.

Time, June 17, 1996.

World Press Review, July 1990.

Inside China Today, (February 23, 1999). □