The chaos and confusion of radical student politics is there, the conflicting egos and factions, the trivial incitements with extraordinary consequences, the rapid oscillations between ideas, and shifts of alternating moods of resolution and panic. It is clear that the students are totally out of their depth. They have fragments of anecdotal knowledge of outside world history, but no coherent understanding of political theory, not from Locke or Madison, or even Lenin, so they don’t know what they are fighting or how to fight it. Thus while the student leaders wear headbands inscribed “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” their ultimatum to the government threatens it with their own death by hunger strike — a tactic which certainly would not have appealed to Patrick Henry or the Minutemen.
They hate the totalitarian system’s innumerable petty tyrants, like the cop who confiscates Chai Ling’s wristwatch for himself, but some of their leaders give speeches calling for the emulation of Chairman Mao. Another student attempts an oration modeled on Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” He is jeered off the podium. As PLA troops are gathered around the city, Chai Ling calls for sending delegations to try to win them over, but the other student leaders see no merit in the idea. Then the army enters the city, and shooting its way towards the square, throws the students into their climatic crisis. Should they disperse and be hunted down individually in obscurity, or stand their ground so that the whole world will bear witness to their massacre? At first they elect to hold in place, but as the oncoming slaughter grows near, the horrific threat becomes too great, and with Chai and the other leaders at the front, they march out of the square singing “The Internationale.”
There is much food for thought here. Certainly it is understandable that China’s rebels should frame their opposition to the regime not with an alternative set of ideals, but with its failure to live up to its own. But perhaps we can help their successors do better next time, by offering American university scholarships not just to Chinese engineers, but to political science and history students as well.
The other equally compelling side of the book is its account of Chai’s internal odyssey, which took her from Marxism through Buddhism to Christianity. This is delivered in an intensely personal way, as is her discussion of the one-child policy, which subjected her to repeated forced abortions and concomitant feelings of personal guilt, which she had to overcome through the deepest efforts of her soul.
For those who wish to really understand China, A Heart for Freedom is a must read.