Years ago when I first saw the documentary "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, my impression of Chai Ling was mixed. From what the former student leader said in her controversial interview (available in both Chinese and English) with an American journalist, it was certainly appalling that she expected the deaths of many fellow students to serve the 1989 movement's purposes. On the other hand, she looked genuinely grief-stricken by the prospect of bloodshed, and I couldn't help but feel sympathy toward her as well. After all, she was only 23 years old, a young woman who had grown up in China's "revolutionary heroism" culture. In such a culture, there's nothing out of place with what she expressed, that only the blood of innocent people can awake and enlighten more people. It is from a Western perspective that such an idea is simply unacceptable.
What I'm saying is, more of the blame should be placed on the revolutionary education she grew up with, rather than her naivety of believing in it. Who was not once young and naïve? I happen to also think Wang Dan has a point that no matter what Chai Ling had said, she did stay in the Square with other students until the last minute, and her action was more important than her words. (For the record, "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" also truthfully reported this fact.)
Reading excerpts of the newly published Tiananmen Moon (h/t The China Beat) by Philip Cunningham, the very journalist who interviewed Chai Ling 20 years ago, made me feel that Chai Ling might have been more innocent than some have thought. Although her idea of using bloodshed to arouse people was hardly a moral one, she appeared to be sincere and serious about the student movement and was indignant toward some other selfish power-thirsty student leaders. As such, I'd like to believe the young Chai Ling twenty years ago was a humanly imperfect idealist, as young activists are. If she sometimes took herself too importantly, it was largely because of the situation: being young and the leader of a mass movement can carry anyone away.
Today Chai Ling has become an American businesswoman. She is 43 years old, certainly no longer naïve, and apparently has done well financially. Now with the wealth she has gained in the democracy of America, she starts a new fight, only this time her target is not a totalitarian government but a critical part of democracy: an independent, nonprofit film maker who dared to express criticism toward both the Chinese government, and some student leaders, however slight of the latter.
Whatever legal reasons Chai Ling has been deploying, "defamation" or "infringing trademark," the drunkard's heart is not in the cup: the real nature of Chai Ling's lawsuit against Long Bow the firm maker seems more personal, as many internet articles have pointed out. From a societal point of view, this lawsuit is a big regression in Chai Ling's political ideal. From a personal point of view, her motivation is explicable yet the action is totally unwise.
If it is excusable that Chai Ling didn't have a concrete idea of democracy when she was leading that democracy movement two decades ago, shouldn't one expect her to have gained a lot more understanding now, after living in the West for all these years? Or so I'd thought.
It might be helpful to reflect here on a historical case that bears some remarkable similarity: the so-called Times v. Sullivan case in the 1960s, on which the Supreme Court's decision "revolutionized libel law in America." Here's a description of the case from the US supreme court media website:
"Decided together with Abernathy v. Sullivan, this case concerns a full-page ad in the New York Times which alleged that the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King's efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper and four black ministers who were listed as endorsers of the ad, claiming that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally. Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove that he had been harmed; and a defense claiming that the ad was truthful was unavailable since the ad contained factual errors. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment."
At the time, the NY Times was having financial problems, and being charged with this astronomical amount of money put it in the danger of bankruptcy. The paper appealed to the Supreme Court, and "the Court believed it was important for the survival of democracy in the United States that the press be allowed to aggressively report on public matters without excessive fear of being sued for libel."  The charge was dismissed. Because of the Supreme Court's wise decision, today we still have the NY Times to read.
Note that this Court decision was made in 1964, and helped establish the precedence to protect the press from similar liability lawsuits. Now it is 45 years later. If Chai Ling had any idea about the meaning of First Amendment, or the meaning of a free press, would she have sued Long Bow? On the societal level, surely she doesn't wish American democracy go backward to what it was before 1964? On the personal level, did she ever worry about others' suspicions of her motives?
In any case, it is certainly another mistake Chai Ling is making, hurting both others and herself, but this time it can no longer be explained away by innocence. How on earth could a woman as smart as she is think she could re-glorify her name through such a lawsuit? From what I can see, Long Bow's on-line appeal has gained extensive support from American academics, the English media, and internet readers (including me), while the appeal written by Chai Ling's ex-husband in her name collected a few signatures hardly reaching beyond the circle of old comrades, some of whom managed to be vague. For example Wang Juntao says in a straddle-the-fence way that he's friends with both sides and he understands and supports both. Go figure.
I wonder if Chai Ling really doesn't see the reality that, while she has succeeded in financially hurting Long Bow, an accompanying consequence is a further deterioration of her own name. And, does anyone notice that her language against Long Bow sound awfully familiar? In 1989, the then-government of China named the student movement a "counter-revolutionary riot," one of the worst crimes at the time. Of course, no one (except some soldiers) believed it. Now Chai Ling calls Long Bow the Communist sympathizer, one of the most hated names in America. Does she really think people with their own eyes and minds would buy that accusation? As an example, this is how the New Yorker commented:
"For the record, to anyone with knowledge of the film, the notion that it is sympathetic to the Chinese government is laughable. But, whatever happens with the suit, it’s hard to imagine a more acute measure of how far the student movement has faded into memory."
In this way Chai Ling not only does disservice to herself but also to the overseas Chinese democracy movement, damage that her million-dollar pledge won’t repair.
But what makes a once brave democracy fighter sink so low as to use the same means of propaganda she had suffered under to attack her foes now? I'm really puzzled. This is the final stroke that manages to erase whatever sympathy I had for her. In the end, her loss might be bigger than Long Bow's. I'm not talking about money.
The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism by James L.Aucoin