Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Fall of Lady Liberty and Chai Ling's Revenge

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." [1] 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.


[1] The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism by James L.Aucoin


Anonymous said...

The tape is important, but it was made by an amateur and should be seen as such.

For even though Philip Cunningham cares not to correct people when they give him the credit, he was not then nor has he ever been a journalist. He was a student who used a HK crew and their video camera (and someone else's tape recorder) to record an interview with Ms. Chai. At the time of the taping, he was not employed by anyone, but neither was he a freelance journalist.

Cunningham was hired and employed as a translator for BBC. He knew some people who knew Chai and so that is how he got to talk and tape her. Cunningham is identified frequently as a "journalist" but he was neither accredited nor filed stories for any news agency.

Chai's remarks are interesting but Cunningham clearly did not understand what she was saying and was not interviewing her as a journalist, only as someone who happened to have access through other people. If you look at the tape, you will see that he does not follow-up on her statement about "blood in the streets".

Indeed, Cunningham admits to have participated in one of the marches and threw stones at soldiers and tanks that made the assault--something that journalists do not do.

By the way, a careful reader will note that there are many differences between what is in Cunningham's book and what appeared on the web. The latter are advertised as excerpts but they are not.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Interesting. I've read that Cunningham was a student at the time, but to me one's writing is more important than one's occupation. Do you think the content in his book is credible?

richard said...

Xujun, this is Richard of Peking Duck. Absolutely excellent article. I plan to reference in it in a post I am planning for the near future on Chai Ling.

Just so you know, the commenter above seems to be a troll who has a vested interest in slandering Cunningham. I am not necessarily a fan of Cunningham, but I can't tolerate baseless slander. She posted the same comments word of for word on my site under the name "Belinda" and after repeated requests refused to offer any evidence for her claims. So please don't believe it just because a commenter says it.

Anonymous said...

"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?"

Wow... Is the above applicable not only for Chai Ling who hijacked thousands of nutty students for her faith, but a small group of goons who hijacked 4 jet planes for their faith on Sep.11, 2001? LOL...

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Richard, you can access my blog from Beijing now? That's good news. Thanks for dropping by and for the comments.

@The first Anon: from the excerpts I've read, Cunningham didn't seem to try to hide the fact that he was a student and, for a short while, a temp translator for the BBC. I guess I'll have to read the entire book to see the more complete picture. But in any case, this post is neither about Cunningham nor about Peking Duck, so please, no more off-topic comments. Also, any personal slander will be deleted.

Xujun Eberlein said...

@The latest Anon: Exactly - I do think in most political violences the ideology is more to blame than the individuals.

pug ster said...

There's definately room for debate for Cunningham's role in the 6/4 incident as he as well as Chai Ling's role might not be so innocent after all. Chai Ling spent alot of money in the LongBow lawsuit but all she did is just dragging her name and her cause in the 6/4 incident to the mud.

I think the main problem is that Westerners and Chinese don't see eye to eye about politics, especially regarding 6/4 incident, and Chai Ling trying to censor someone is seen as the cause, and not the solution.

Shane said...

"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"

Remarks like the above are quite popular in the West. How it is possible to label a popular student rebellion as "pro-democracy" movement when the few leading figures have no idea of what democracy look like? It is still appall today to see these students were allowed to engineer a server event that almost turned China, a huge nation, upside-down in a short one-month period of time.

In the end, it is the political zealot that drive some people to throw their unconditioned support behind the event. The lack of critical reasoning also undermines such very effort.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Administrative note: this blog is not a place for settling personal scores. If you want to do that please go somewhere else, or your comments will be deleted.

pug ster said...

I don't see how Chai Ling and other dissidents represent an average Chinese person when she, Wang Dan, Wu'er Kaixi and Li Lu are Ivy League educated elites. If they want to see their cause as righteous, they should reject Western Education ideals and fight democracy as a grass roots campagain, and not from a western educated and financed campagain. That's why she and the other dissidents are not taken seriously.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
richard said...

Hi Xujun - sorry for causing any trouble in your comments. I just wanted you to know the situation.

I can only access your site with a proxy. Same as with my own site now; I've been blocked for a week now So inconvenient.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Xujun Eberlein said...

Administrative note: the comments I deleted above have nothing to do with this post. Someone kept coming back to express a personal grudge against Philip Cunningham. Because of this I'll have to activate comment moderation for the time being. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Anonymous said...

Why should receiving a good education, be it from Peking University or Harvard University, bar anyone from being an activist in China? It makes just about as much sense as, for example, saying the 1911 Revolution was invalid because its leader, Dr. Sun, believed in a western religion (i.e., he was baptized as a Christian).

As to other dissidents, I hardly think you're their representative, seeing that most of your posts at other sites are very much in support of the government party line.

Anonymous said...

But isn't that exactly we should get rid of any of the usual "indoctrination" in the education system -- i.e., everyone must go to classes teaching Marxism, etc. Because how else will you have a general public that can think critically?

Anonymous said...

I beg to differ that from a "western perspective" the idea of innocents dying to serve a larger, noble cause is unaccepted. I am quite flabbergasted that you could suggest this in light of the high body count (from the US military) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The only justification given for these deaths is that the sons died "serving their country", and if that isn't (for most Americans) the most noble and soaring of causes, I don't know what is. There is WW2, widely lauded as "the Good War", and even Christianity, which constantly trumpets that God sacrificed his son for the sins of humanity.

I love your blog, and your reasonable, accessible intellectual musings and writing. But sometimes you are wayyyy too deferential to western culture, to the point of romanticism. Just my POV of course.

Xujun Eberlein said...

First an update: there is good news today on this fight - see SCMP's report "June 4 protest leader Chai Ling drops film lawsuit" at I applaud Chai Ling's wise decision.

Anon, your point that much of western democracy is built on human sacrifice is certainly agreed - I'm glad you said it, and said it well. In terms of this post's content, however, I was comparing two perspectives on a particular case. At the time of the 1989 protests, neither Chai Ling nor the students who followed her leadership seemed to feel there was anything wrong with the notion of using innocent blood to awaken and enlighten more people. As far as I know, this notion (again in this particular context) was first questioned by Western journalists after Chai Ling's interview was aired. This disparity is not surprising given the overwhelming "revolution heroism" education that her generation (and mine) received in China. US schools, in contrast,do not place nearly that much emphasis on heroism. I think our difference is that of context. No generalization was intended on my part.

I want to thank you for reading my blog, but I feel your impression that I'm "wayyyy too deferential to western culture" is inaccurate. I have plenty of reservations about some aspects of western culture, while I appreciate some other aspects of it. I hope this will become more evident to you as you keep reading the blog.

Anonymous said...

Chai Ling is not a Christian. Her speech fills with hatreds. This is not a Christian should be. I think Chai Ling is using Christianity to explore herself to the public. I feel very sorry for someone using Christ name. This is in sin.