Written by Diane Gatterdam
A petite sun-bronzed woman wearing a stained white tennis shirt and dusty beige trousers sits next to me in the back of the taxi, grimacing as if in pain, weeping quietly to herself. Named to the police blacklist, she says she fears imminent arrest. Up front the driver sullenly surveys the streets, scanning the road for Public Security vehicles.
Chai Ling, the so-called Commander in Chief of Tiananmen Square, had come to me this morning saying she wanted to “talk,” but for the moment I couldn’t get a word out of her. I had brought along a small tape recorder and camera along as part of my hasty response to the startling and unsolicited request for an interview, but we had yet a safe place to talk.
A graduate student from Shandong studying psychology at Shida, she rose to sudden prominence during the world’s biggest hunger strike. This morning she had approached me in the hallway of the Beijing Hotel as I was on my way to breakfast. It was so weird seeing her there, a fugitive from the police hiding in plain sight in a government hotel lobby. I naively invited her to join Bright, Wang Li and myself for breakfast in the Western Restaurant in the old wing of the hotel. But this wasn’t a Long Island kind of problem that could be worked out in a diner over a cup of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast.
Face drawn with tension, almost morbidly silent, the famous hunger striker, who barely gave her food a second glance, explained in a low whisper that she wanted to record some kind of final statement, a sort of last will and testament. I looked at Bright, who declined to offer an opinion, though her eyes implored me not to get involved.
“If policeman follow,” Wang Li says, turning around to peer at us, “I tell you, okay?”
Chai Ling, lost in a silence so deep that she seemed almost voiceless, quietly vetoed the idea of doing an interview in the car. Instead of talking, she penned a stark message on a piece of scrap paper:
This may be my last chance to talk, I entrust (Jin Peili) Philip Cunningham to tell my story to the Chinese people of the world.
–Chai Ling, MAY 28, 1989 10:25 AM
Holding in my sweaty palm what was essentially a last will and testament made me realize how quickly the tables had turned. Was this the same defiant young rebel who had risen to prominence during the hunger strike, supported by enthusiastic crowds of a million or more? Was this leader of the Square, the strident voice of the public address system, the Joan of Arc of the movement who refused to talk to journalists?
As the driver approached the Lido hotel, I advised him not to enter by the hotel gate but instead to go around to the back in order to directly enter the apartment complex. The driver paused at the rear gate while the sleepy guard gave us a brief visual inspection. Waved through without incident, we all breathed a bit easier once inside the compound. I had the driver follow the meandering course of a private drive that led us past a pair of empty tennis courts adjacent to a low-rise apartment block.
We get out on the top floor and I run ahead to the door of Lotus and Albert’s apartment, knocking excitedly. The door opens a crack.
We awkwardly filed into the small bedroom, acutely aware we were invading the private realm of a teenage princess. There were dolls and teddy bears, a McDonald’s poster, an unmade bed of pastel sheets and an armchair.
“Okay, Chai Ling,” I say, signaling the start of the interview. “Why don’t you tell us who you are and how you got involved in the student movement?”
My interview subject is slow to react, as if weighted down by her own thoughts. She looks away from the camera, staring blankly at the wall.
“No, I think it’s better if you look this way.” I say, pointing to the blinking red light of the camera. “Here, hold the tape recorder yourself.”
The student leader takes the compact cassette recorder and holds it in front of her mouth, as if she was addressing her followers with a megaphone. I motion for her to keep it down, away from her face, to put it in her lap.
“Okay, let’s start, what do you want to say?”
She began calmly but depressingly: “I think these are going to be my last words, as the situation is getting more and more cruel.
“I am Chai Ling. I am twenty-three year old.” She recalled the moment when she joined the movement at Hu Yaobang’s funeral on April 22. When the three students knelt down for their petition on the stairs of the Great Hall of People, she saw the tears of students in the Square. She saw her husband Feng Congde biting his finger to write words with his blood on a handkerchief. She remembered the launch of hunger strike, the dialogue with Yan Mingfu, and Li Lu’s proposal of self-immolation. She sprinkled her retelling of the movement with many negative observations of other student leaders who had opposed the hunger strike and continued trying to compromise with the government.
She was distraught. Her voice was hoarse, pausing, and sometimes incomprehensible. Eventually, she broke down and started to sob uncontrollably. She could not face the fact that her beloved movement was disintegrating and losing its purity. As the government side started to unite and toughen up, she cried out desperately, students were moving in the opposite direction. Without giving specifics, she claimed that there were traitors, embezzlers, and special agents working for the government among the student leadership.
I asked gently, “When was the darkest moment of the movement?” Chai Ling was ready with an answer: the darkest days had yet to come. She pointed her fingers at “all the people” who had advised students to withdraw and unequivocally declared that Tiananmen Square was the last and only ground for the students to hold. They just could not retreat.
Chai Ling appeared to be particularly upset with people trying to seize power from her. She explained that she had to cling to the post of the commander-in-chief because she needed this power to fight against the forces of withdrawal. The other leaders, including Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, the Capital Joint Conference, and all the other self-proclaimed organizations, she accused, were working to undermine her.
Especially Liu Xiaobo and Wu’er Kaixi, whom she singled out by name and with anger. All they cared about was seeking leadership position even though Wu’er Kaixi had already caused great harm to the movement at least twice. The older intellectuals, on the other hand, only cared about making themselves look good.
Then, as if a pendulum were swinging back, Chai Ling recalled the early days of the hunger strike with fondness and deep longing. That was the best period of the movement when everyone was united as one and the movement was pure. The residents were supportive because the students had wakened their sense of sympathy. The movement reached its glorious peak, she said, when Beijing residents laid down their bodies to stop martial law troops from entering the city. But the happy thought did not last for more than a couple of minutes as the uncertain future crept into her mind immediately.
With that, she spoke the words that would forever associate with her in controversy:
The students always ask me. What should we do next? What could we achieve? I feel deeply sad in my heart. I cannot tell them that what we are really waiting for is bloodshed. It’s when the government reaches the end of its cruelty and uses butcher knives on its own citizens. I think, when and only when blood is flowing like a river in Tiananmen Square, all the people in China could then see clearly and finally unite. But how could I tell students such things?
Taken at face value, these words carried a sense of conspiracy of their own: that she was willing to steer the movement into bloodshed for the intention of waking up the populace while keeping that goal only to herself. But at the moment, Chai Ling was more worried about other people’s conspiracies. She became more and more emotional and incoherent. She talked about her husband, about their original plan to go abroad, about her parents, and about the debt she owed to her family.
I asked Chai Ling to describe her own plans for going forward. Chai Ling spoke more words that would come back to haunt her later:
For the next step, I think I myself will try to survive. The students at Tiananmen Square, however, will have to stay and persist to the very end, waiting for the government’s last resort in washing the Square clean with blood. But I also believe that the next revolution will be right around the corner after that. When that happens, I will stand up again. For as long as I am alive, my goal will be to overthrow this inhuman government and build a new government for people’s freedom. Let the Chinese people stand up at last. Let a real people’s republic be born.
Carefully, Liang Shuying inquired about the plan to withdraw on May 30. In no uncertain terms, Chai Ling said that that proposal had caused tremendous damage to the movement. She regretted that she had not opposed it from the beginning. Once again, she labeled the plan as a conspiracy. If they did withdraw, China as a country would go backwards.
“Will you continue to stay in Tiananmen Square yourself?” “No, I won’t.”
“Because I am not the same as everybody else. I am a person who is already marked as ‘Most Wanted.’ I will not be content to be murdered by such a government. I want to live. That’s what I am thinking right now. I don’t know if people will think that I am selfish. But I believe that the work I am doing now needs someone to carry on. Because such a democracy movement needs more than one person.
Could you not disclose these words, please?”
The last question seemed to indicate that Chai Ling had finally realized that her words were not appropriate for public consumption. With her “last words” taped, all Chai Ling had to do was to say farewell with her husband before she took off.
*You can see Chai Lings interview on You Tube- Gates of Heavenly Peace.