Chai Ling is a Chinese psychologist who was one of the student leaders in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 (1). Following her leadership of the demonstrations during the bloody Tiananmen Square Massacre, Ling skyrocketed to a place on the “21 most-wanted” students list in China (2). She did escape, and today she is the founder of All Girls Allowed, an organization dedicated to ending China’s one-child policy. She is also the founder and President of Jenzabar which is an resource planning software firm for educational institutions. She has also converted to Christianity (3), and what follows is a summary of her incredible story (4).
Ling was born into a Chinese Liberation Army Base, a small fishing village in Northeast China, at the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution. Both her parents were medical doctors who were were often sent to poor villages to care for the peasants and rescue the victims from earthquakes and other disasters (5). Despite all the horrible things that happened during the Cultural Revolution, in which many millions of people were tortured and killed, Ling’s family was “mostly shielded from the storm because Chairman Mao’s master plan was to keep the Army on his side. What I remember of my childhood is a terrible sense of loneliness and separation. My parents were constantly sent out to help others in worse conditions than us.”
Communist China enforced an atheistic ideology, “We did not know God, as we were not allowed to know God. “God” was deemed by the leaders as the evil things that the capitalists used to brainwash the people. It was a word that was forbidden in our society. As a result, God’s love was scarce too. The society was filled with hatred, distrust and fear.” Instead, in God’s place, Ling was taught by “Mao from his little red book: to love the people, love the country, to sacrifice our own needs and be ready to give up our lives for a greater good, and that greater good was our great leader of the country and the cause he defined.”
Ling, however, achieved academically after the death of Chairman Mao. A new leader came onto the scene who encouraged education and reform, and “For a short period of history, the country was filled with hope and vitality. By then, a lonely childhood and my family’s emphasis on education had made me a good student. I was a typical type A, insecure overachiever. At age 17, I became one of the few national honor students in China and realized the fulfillment of my parents and ancestor’s dream, to enter China’s greatest institute of higher education, Beijing University, called Beida.”
It was at Beida that Ling, for the first time, discovered something about God. She had heard of God from a graduate student who had done a biking trip along China’s famous Yellow River. The student spoke of God in a hushed and careful manner, and it had made a lasting impression on Ling. This student proved to be very important to the people of a poor village, “A group of villagers asked him to do them a favor. It was a Sunday night. They gathered in a small shack that was made with hay and mud bricks, and in the dim oil lantern light, they passed something that was twice-wrapped in a thick black rain cloth to prevent water and damage. He opened the cloth, layer by layer, at inside it was a copy of the Bible. The pages had turned yellow, and the edges had many wrinkles. It was the only copy that was left by a missionary, who was driven out of the country after the Communist revolution 40 years earlier. They kept it for all those years, risking their lives during all those movements. They had one problem. None of the villagers could read. So each time, when they gathered together to worship, they passed the Bible around, touching the Bible with their hands to be connected with God’s spirit. So finally, this college kid who could read showed up. They were thrilled their prayer was answered. They begged him to read the words to them. He did. That night, he stood and stood, read, read, and read, and read, the villagers looked at him, standing, hungry and thirsty for every word spoken from his lip; they stood without moving listening and listening, until dawn broke through the window. The villagers had to go back to work the fields. They left reluctantly. To thank my friend’s work to bring them God’s words, they gave him a big bag of sweet potatoes to bring home—the only gift they could find from their village.”
This story had a profound impact on Ling who, at the time, was a “young college girl dashing around campus trying to do a million things at the same time… I was touched by his witness and the spirit that attracts those villagers strongly attracted me. For we have grown up being asked to worship the Communist leaders and Chairman Mao.” Ling had never witnessed such a public display of a genuine and strong faith, “And for reasons that I don’t even understand today, ever since that moment, my life was turned from one event to another, and went spinning out of control.”
As a student Ling was very much a part of the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989 in which she demonstrated for democracy, “in the spring of 1989, the Tiananmen event grew and grew into a global event, in a society that allows no free media. It touched so many people, across so many cultures and continents. It changed every one of our lives in such a profound way.”
However, the ruthless government responses to the demonstrations were harsh, “So the last hour came, and I was with my last 5000 students at the Square when tanks and troops rolled in. The death toll and casualty numbers on the Long Peace Avenue were reported back to me. So the truth came from the leaders: when we offered them love and peace, they handed us death and massacre. None of us could believe it at first. How could I believe the People’s Liberation Army would kill its own people? I grew up with them. They were uncles and aunties to me. We love them and they love us. I remember when we had to abandon the commanding headquarters (a tent). I raised my head to the sky and asked in silence, “Why? Why? Why? Why do they have to kill us for wanting to have a dialogue?… I had overcome so many new emotions and tests – from living a simple life of a graduate student to becoming a Commander in Chief for a mass movement; from being young, care free with a love to dance to now taking a stand that would potentially lead to years of life in prison; from dreaming about studying in America and building a life of happiness and laughter to maybe just hoping to survive.”
The oppression and violence felt by those within the Tiananmen Square movement had a lasting, and very personal, impact on Ling. Not only was she already afraid of death since a little child but she would also experience the fear during her early adulthood, “As a little lonely child growing up around the hospital, I had been always so afraid of death. I had nightmares like sinking into a deep, endless and dark hole that simply would not end. Each time I screamed to awake. But this time, it was no longer a dream, even a bad dream. It was real, and this time we would not wake up from it. In the last hour, I was confronted the ultimate test and I was not sure how to overcome death… so many questions, so little time.” During the protests she witnessed a number of her own being crushed by moving tanks. Perhaps most vivid was Fang Zheng who, after pushing a young girl to safety, had his own legs crushed by a steam rolling tank. If he had not done that the girl would have almost certainly been crushed to death. Zheng would surprise Ling nearly three decades later after he, in his wheelchair and all, came to America to visit her.
But despite these fears Ling had to present herself as someone both strong and willing, and as servant leader dedicated to embracing the values and aspirations of the movement, “As a leader,” she explains, “I was going through: sadness, sorrow, anger, disbelief and helplessness… [but] I had to tend to my troops.” She affirmed that in all of their possible demise there would be a born free nation, “Smiles and cheers came back to our students’ faces. In those last minutes, we found our purpose. This shared purpose gave us courage to face the unbearable darkness and the unknown that comes from death.”
However, despite staring death in the face, Ling survived, “We led many of the last 5000 students out of the Square. And my life was thrown into another dangerous adventure–the underground. There, I was rescued by a group of devout Buddhists, whose beliefs are truth, kindness and endurance. They decided to risk their own lives to save me. When I was deeply troubled by the question, “Why have I survived when so many others have died?”, they told me it was because my work in this life was not yet done.” So, taking what these Buddhists had said, Ling endured five nights and four days of complete darkness and isolation “in a wooden crate inside a boat (when the trip was supposed to be only 8 hours) with nothing but a simple faith; “my work is this life is not done yet.” I escaped to freedom, first through Hong Kong, then to Paris and finally to America… For some miraculous reason, I survived.”
But despite all the great things America had to offer, a life as an immigrant was far from easy especially with a refugee who did not speak much English. The difficulties in her life were far from over “One may think that once we achieved freedom we could live happily ever after. But bad things kept happening one after another. My first marriage to another Chinese student leader fell apart. Then my dear mother passed away, then my grandmother passed away, then the job I loved did not want to risk their China business on me, then some vicious defamation and attack came against me; each dark hour was darker than the first one. At one point, I looked up at the sky and asked, “God, you’ve given me freedom, but nothing else is left.” Each time, I relied on my own strength and many others’ kind help to overcome. I tried many things: a graduate degree from Princeton, a graduate degree from Harvard, working in NGOs, working in Government, and working in companies.” But having endured these difficult times for over 10 years Ling’s life took a turn for the better, “I built back my life with my wonderful new American husband, we had three children; I brought my extended family out of China, gave money to save orphans in China, and built a software company with over 280 employees. These tasks kept our minds and hands full as we were inching our way towards that illusive big and grand goal.”
Unfortunately, Ling soon learned that because of her commitment to the movement back in China, her safety was threatened even in America, “Chinese government agents asked my family members directly to bring me a message: that my continued work would bring no good consequences for me and my family.” Ling says that it felt like a “dark cloud” had descended on her, “It surrounded me everywhere. From the surface, I lived this perfect American Dream life: lovely children and husband, home, company, private schools, vacation– but I felt I was being watched and followed. My phone was listened to, our computer was hacked, and then some mysterious fatal car accidents that ended the lives of several over dissidents surfaced. So what else are they doing? What are they going to do next?”
Thus, even in the land “of the free and home of the brave” Ling felt far from safe and free. Part of this fear stemmed from her responsibility for her children as well as her husband who were “completely innocent and unaware of the cruelty and consequences of a dark regime, whose favorite pastime is watching the Red Sox or Patriots and other sports he can find time for. After losing many of my beloved ones to the cause, this time, the thoughts of losing my new family was simply unbearable. Yet my life was supposed to have a purpose: my work was not done yet. For all I knew, the only reason I survived was may be because my work was not done yet. How could I not continue the work to bring freedom to China?… despite my reservations, I went ahead for the cause because it was the right thing to do.”
It was at this time she heard of Jesus. She had met two individuals who would become very important to her; these included “a dear friend, Jariy Hunter, who leads a faith-based college in South Carolina and a Methodist Minister on Cape Cod, named Rev. Holt. Both of these men,” Ling warmly recounts, “helped me to open my eyes for Christ. That night I met a new friend named Reggie Little John. She is a devoted Christian and believes she is being called to expose the brutality of China’s forced abortion practice. She talked about how she thought she knew God and realized that she did not really know God until she went through a life-threatening illness. She told me that through that experience she has been transformed from a litigator into a human rights activist and film producer. She is now devoting her time to serve the Lord. I asked her if she had seen God. She said she had not, but others have. She sent me a book entitled, “The Heavenly Man.””
The book was about how a young Chinese peasant boy was enlightened by God through the miracles God performed on his dying father. The boy, having grown up, became a minister and was sent to jail many times because of his work of bringing the Gospel to China. During one of his many experiences within jail the guards broke his legs but with God’s help he walked out the jail cell in front of their very eyes. God had healed by the Lord and at the end of his book he asks, “So are you ready to walk with Christ?” For Ling, the man’s testimony, as well as her experiences during the Tiananmen Square movement, became the driving force behind her putting faith in Jesus, “committing to Christ became equivalent to going back to those persecutions. I just finished digging myself out of there after 20 years. In the meantime Reggie also sent me the movie of the Gospel of John. Each time I watched the movie and heard the words of Christ, it brought an unexplainable sense of peace and calm into my burning heart. Later on, a few weeks later, one thing led to another– the drama only intensified. Reggie and I went to the U.S. Congress’s Human Right Committee’s testimony on China’s forced abortion practice. I thought I knew China until I heard Wujian’s story.”
Wujian was pregnant before she received a “birth permit” to have a child. As a result she had to conceal her pregnancy in the hope to escape the fate of having to give up her baby. Sadly, the family planning officials beat and tortured her father, forcing her to choose one life. Either her father’s or her baby’s. Her father did not reveal anything, but the Family Planning Officials still managed to find her in the hiding place after which she was dragged into a forced abortion hospital, “After two shots, her baby stopped moving, but still miraculously remained inside her… But on the third day, before Wujian realized what was going on, she was dragged into the operating room and scissors were inserted into her body, cutting her baby into many pieces. In her helpless tears and cries, all she could hear was the sounds of the scissors. At last, the doctor pulled out a small baby foot, with five little toes fully formed in the size of corn kernels.” That image has scarred Fujian for life, picture was forever seared into Wujian’s mind. When she reached this point in her testimony the entire room was filled with nothing but tears and cries, “Our hearts were broken with pain and sadness for Wujian and her helpless child, and for every mother in China and their unborn babies. That moment brought back all the memories of helplessness and pain we experienced on the night of the June 4 massacre in 1989. That night was so brutal, yet we had no strength to stop it, and the rest of the world could not stop it, either.”
Sadly, Ling says that Wujian’s story is just one of the 10 000 of so cases that occurred in China during 2005. And in the last 30 years “an estimated 400 million lives have been brutally taken by abortion in China; many used this form of cruel and inhumane operations, which not only ended the babies’ lives, but also deeply traumatized and endangered the surviving mothers.” Ling found that after her forced abortion experience, Wujian struggled on the edge of life and death, “She blamed herself for not being able to protect her child. She was only saved through finding her faith in Christ. Others have been less fortunate. Each day in China, 500 women commit suicide. Very few news outlets report on their deaths… very few of us realized that the three words “One Child Policy” would be a marching order for brutality hundreds of times more deadly than the Tiananmen Massacre — to happen in broad daylight, to be repeated each and every day.”
Wujian’s story opened Ling’s eyes to God, “If there any one could stop this brutality, it had to be God, and it could only be God. I had tried and God knows how hard I had tried, and we did not succeed. Once again, I found myself pondering back and forth at the gate of God’s Kingdom, wanting to believe but hindered by many questions.” These questions concerned her experiences with the Buddhists who had rescued her during the demonstrations. She wondered that if she were to become a Christian would it mean that she would had to reject their beliefs that assisted her in her moments of trial? And what did it even mean to have Jesus “in control” of one’s own life, and that “God has a plan for each and every one of us?” These ideas sounded very unfamiliar to Ling. However, her friend Reggie was at her side during these times of questioning, and she encouraged Ling saying that “God definitely has a special job for you, because you grew up in China, had an excellent education, ended up in Tiananmen and came here, married an American husband and started your business. Very few have achieved the level of experiences and understandings as you have in so many unique areas.”
That chat she had with Reggie on that Friday afternoon opened up Ling’s heart and it was then that she accepted Jesus into her life, “I went to the corner of the office, kneeled down, and prayed, “Dear Lord, Jesus Christ, I now accept you as my Savior and my only God. Please forgive all my sins, known or unknown, please come into my heart and guide my life.” Then I looked around, making sure no one busted my office door to see me on the floor. I waited, to see what might happen, expecting some serious fireworks, loud music, like “da da da da…” or some serious disaster, like the water tank busting again. What I got was an amazing sense of peace.”
She was shy to tell others that she had given her life to Jesus and waited several hours after dinner to share the news with her husband. When he heard about it “He was so overjoyed for me and our family. He has been a devoted Christian and had been taking me to church from time to time ever since we started dating 12 years ago, and his love was very patient and complete. Now he was so happy. We shared a nice weekend together and watched more movies, King of Kings and several others. It was the first weekend in a long time I felt a complete sense of peace. Finally God was in charge!” When she told Reggie, Reggie screamed for joy and after she had calmed down sent Ling books and CDs to continue her walk and learning about Jesus. She also suggested that Ling join the Park Street Church and find a Bible study mentor.
Within just months of her conversion Ling says that God has been involved in many areas of her life, “I can’t begin to list all the amazing transformations God has done to us and through us. First, upon my conversion, God performed a miracle reunion through a work we supported on finding trafficked children in China: a young girl lost at age 7 was reunited with her family 25 years later. He prevented my father from dying of a sudden heart attack by letting him discover that he has leukemia, and through prayer on Christmas Eve we learned that God had made sure his leukemia was the least fatal type–that he has a chance of full recovery with medication. God started healing my long neglected health, and I even started losing that stubborn baby fat. God brought my children to Him and now I felt a great sense of peace that our Lord will be watching over them and bringing the best for their lives—the best gift parents could give to their children. Our marriage blossomed as we never knew with more intimacy, joy and love after the Lord drew both of us closer to Him. Our careers are changing too, interestingly, we feel an even greater sense of purpose and peace as we move ahead with our work. A book, a longer version of our journey, is being finished in record time and I believe only the Lord can get it done that fast. I am embraced with a new community of faithful people like Tammy, who is a great spiritual teacher and mentor. She is generously committing her time to do a weekly Bible study with me going through the four basic steps of what to do when you became a new Christian. All my life, I have been struggling and fighting on my own, I never felt so completely welcomed, coached and embraced. I am home, at last.”
Ling, having endured numerous trials and hardships, wants to leave us with some final thoughts, “God’s love is so immense. Today, I truly understand the tremendous love God and Christ had for us when Christ was being nailed to the cross. As we felt on the night of June 3rd, as we were facing the last hour to give up the most precious life and love we had, Christ sacrificed himself so we can be reunited with God, and be given eternal life in heaven with Him… God’s forgiveness is so complete, that even one of the two criminals, who was crucified with Him, when he repented for his sins, was promised by Christ that he would be in Heaven. If only the leaders of China could have heard the news: no matter what they have done and have committed, if only they repent, they can receive the same kind of love and forgiveness we all receive. What a great gift they will receive! Freedom for themselves and for China, at last!… The Lord is Risen! Freedom at last! Thank you for letting me share my testimony with you on this special day.”
If readers are inspired by Ling’s story, I strongly encourage them to check out her book, A Heart for Freedom.
1. Dingxin, Z. 2001. The Power of Tiananmen. p. 180.
2. ChinaAid. 2010. Tiananmen Square Leader Chai Ling Embraces Christian Faith and Freedom. Available.
3. ChinaAid. 2010. Ibid.
4. All Girls Allowed. 2010. Chai Ling’s Full Testimony. Available.
5. Ling, C. 2011. A Heart for Freedom. p. 11.