Book Review: A Heart for Freedom

Chai Ling was one of the leaders of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Since her escape to the West, she has become one of the prominent exile opponents of Chinese governmental tyranny, including most notably its brutal one child per family policy. In A Heart for Freedom, she tells her story.

The outline of Chai’s account runs as follows. She was born in a small seaside fishing village. Her parents were the local doctors, committed communists and officers in the People’s Liberation Army, dedicated to a life of public service.

Excelling at school, she won the village scholarship to attend Peking University -- China’s Sorbonne -- a great honor that filled all of her family -- even her demanding father -- with pride. At the university, her experiences and ideas expanded, ultimately leading her into participation and then leadership of student protest movement.

Named by the government as the number two “culprit” in the Tiananmen Square events, she was forced to go underground following the crackdown, and after a year on the run, made a daring escape from China to Hong Kong. She then made her way to France then to the United States, where she was embraced by allies as diverse as Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Malcolm Wallop (R-WY), and given scholarships to Princeton and Harvard. Then, overcoming Chinese government blackballing to make her way into the business world, she found both financial success and a loving husband who encouraged her conversion to Christianity. Putting her fortune to good use, she then founded the All Girls Allowed organization, committed to fighting the one-child policy and its resulting “gendercide” in China.

One of most intense parts of the book is that dealing with the Tiananmen Square protests. Chai’s recounting of those events is fragmentary, but all the more compelling for that reason, as she tells the story not as seen by historians, but as seen, felt, and understood by her at that time. (This is her style throughout the book, so that, for example, when she speaks of her youth, we see the world through the eyes of a girl from a fishing village, who believes in ghosts and spirits, rather than from the sophisticated vantage of an Ivy League graduate.)