By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Twenty-two years after the deadly crack-down at China’s Tiananmen Square, Chai Ling, a young leader of the student protests there, finally tells her story.
Why did it take so long?
Because Chai’s story is not simply one of political activism in China followed by escape to a new life in the United States. It is also the story of a woman who has had four abortions.
In the two decades since she left China, Chai has sat down to write her story several times. But each time she has been paralyzed by the shame of the multiple abortions – three in China and a fourth after escaping her homeland and its one-child policy – and the sexual carelessness they imply.
Compounding her personal shame is the guilt Chai continued to feel over surviving the violence at Tiananmen Square when so many others perished.
The details of Chai Ling’s life will fascinate readers with even the slimmest interest in the politics and culture of contemporary China. And I admire Chai’s courage in revealing the details of the abortions she endured.
But Chai is a true believer. And as a result, the story of her personal growth from obedient daughter in an oppressive China to marriage, children and career in America ultimately disappoints.
As a girl, Chai gives her heart to pleasing her autocratic father; she studies hard in school and brings home excellent grades – and honor – to her family.
As a student at Peking University, she becomes enamored of the study of psychology, long a forbidden subject in China. Next she embraces the idea freedom for China and for herself, leading to her involvement at Tiananmen Square.
On the run from the government after the student protests, Chai tries out Buddhism. In America she continues her education, founds the software services provider Zenzabar, and gives herself over to ardent, highly profitable entrepreneurship.
And finally, at book’s end Chai Ling gives her heart to Jesus.
No doubt Chai’s tendency to leap from true belief to true belief has something to do with the autocratic Chinese culture that shaped her. That makes Chai an interesting case study. But it does not make her the author of a book with a profound point to make.
Indeed, her political and emotional naiveté is unsettling: “I now believe that transforming China into a Jesus-following nation is the key to open democracy in that country,” she writes.
What, I wonder, does Chai think a democracy is? A place where everyone worships Jesus?
As her story draws to an end, Chai has founded an organization called All Girls Allowed and she has focused her energies on ending China’s one-child policy and its coerced abortions.
Chai closes the book with an invitation to the reader to become a follower of Jesus – and send her an email with the news.
In other words, a book that begins as a deeply felt memoir of a bright young Chinese woman growing up to reject her government’s party line – ends with a party line.
A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and her Quest to Free China’s Daughters, by Chai Ling, Tyndale House, $22.99, hardcover.