(May 7, 2006) From Red Princess to Communist spy to death-row dissident, China’s Dai Qing has always gone her own way, enraging Communists and democrats alike. On a recent trip to Canada, China’s most famous iconoclast tells Kelly Patterson her story.
Communist Party princess. Ballistic-missile engineer. Spy. Freedom fighter. Death-row dissident. Award-winning environmentalist.
Those are just some of the moments in the extraordinary life of Dai Qing, whose roller-coaster career reads like the script of an epic movie.
Daughter of a Communist-Party star, Dai Qing was so loyal she once said she would have died for Mao Zedong, the father of Communist China. After serving the party as a weapons expert and later as a spy, she eventually became deeply disillusioned, forsaking a life of privilege and power to fight for reform as a journalist.
One of China’s most outspoken writers in the 1980s, she landed in prison for her role in the 1989 pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square. Now she is an acclaimed environmentalist, and has won a raft of prestigious international awards for her work.
And yet, as she sits demurely in a bustling Toronto cafe during a recent trip to North America, it would be easy to take her for just another middle-aged worker on a lunch break, with her faded orange sweatshirt, sensible shoes and practical soup-bowl haircut.
Until she opens her mouth, that is.
“Once I wrote to Deng Xiaoping, you know,” she says, referring to Mao’s successor, who effectively ran China from the 1970s through the 1990s. “I was still a very loyal party member then. But I thought the party should do more for the people.
“I told him everyone in the party should cut their salary by three levels!” she chortles, her eyes alight with mischief.
At 65, Dai Qing is still a spitfire, taking on the authorities with withering wit and breath-taking nerve.
This is a woman who tried to sue the Chinese secret police for detaining her (no lawyer would accept her case).
She remains a handful for the government spooks who still routinely detain and question her.
“Once, I was on my way to meet someone, and the secret police detained me,” Dai Qing recalls over a glass of green tea. “They made me come to their office and talk and talk for about two hours.
“Finally, I told them, ‘I won’t talk to you any more.’ And I started doing Falun Gong (meditative exercises that are forbidden in China). I don’t even know how to do Falun Gong,” she giggles. “I just wanted to annoy them.”
As a journalist, Ms. Dai became famous for fearlessly tackling sensitive political and environmental issues. Writing for the prestigious Enlightenment Daily newspaper in the 1980s, Dai became the first Chinese journalist to profile prominent dissidents such as astrophysicist Fang Lizhi.
Dispatched in 1982 to cover the Sino-Vietnamese War, she filed blistering critiques of the conflict and questioned China’s involvement.
And in 1989, she defied a media gag order to publish Yangtze! Yangtze!, a collection of essays by Chinese scientists exposing flaws in the government-backed Three Gorges hydroelectric project, which will dam China’s legendary Yangtze River, forcing the resettlement of more than two million people. Her book stirred up so much opposition the government was temporarily forced to postpone the project.
Dai‘s writings have been banned in China ever since, but she has continued to publish in the international media and, with the aid of foreign environmental organizations, helps other Chinese activists organize and find funding.
That is what has brought her to Toronto on this windswept spring day: For 15 years, Dai Qing has worked with the Toronto-based environmental group Probe International on projects such as training programs for Chinese environmentalists. She is here for a week to plan future projects, although she keeps details to herself, so disapproving officials won’t get wind of them.
In her own words, Dai Qing has long been “a thorn in the side” of Chinese authorities. But she is no darling of the democracy camp, either.
On the contrary, she has savage words for the leaders of the pro- democracy Tiananmen Square revolt of 1989, and anyone else who would like to see a pro-democracy revolution sweep China. A quick transition to democracy was only possible in countries such as Poland and East Germany because the conditions there were ripe for the change, she explains.
But in China, an “overnight revolution” would only mean a bloodbath, Dai argues, accusing the leaders of the 1989 uprising of being “extremist and simplistic” zealots. Dai is a reformer, not a revolutionary: She favours a gradual transition from totalitarianism.
The Tiananmen revolt started at the end of April 1989, when hundreds of thousands of people staged a series of protests to denounce government corruption and demand democracy. By May, thousands of students, as well as some disaffected workers, were occupying the central square in Beijing; as many as 1,000 went on a hunger strike.
On June 3 and 4, tanks rolled into Beijing as the army mounted a crackdown in which 2,600 people were killed and 30,000 injured, according to the Chinese Red Cross.
The student leaders could have prevented the massacre if they had called a stop to the protest after the first week, Dai says, arguing they were “shallow, rash” grandstanders who wanted to force a showdown.
Leaders such as Wang Dan, who became an instant celebrity in the West, “wanted the situation to get more exciting so that they could have even more fun,” Dai wrote in her controversial prison memoirs, Tiananmen Follies, published last fall by New York-based EastBridge Books.
What do the former protesters think of that?
“They think I am a running dog of the government, a spy for the Communist Party!” wheezes Dai, bent double with laughter at the idea.
Then she draws herself up straight, her expression turning sober for a minute.
“If you ask, ‘What is courage?’ I’ll tell you,” she says, in her emphatic, heavily accented English.
“Courage is standing up to the government, and saying what you think.
“But it is also standing up to the other side, and saying what you really think, even if they call you a traitor.
“That is real courage. It is not easy. You must be very strong inside.”
As a prominent journalist and reformer, Dai was quickly embroiled in the Tiananmen standoff.
Along with more than 1,000 other journalists, she signed a petition demanding the government negotiate with the protesters. On May 10, she gave a speech at People’s University praising the students’ demand for social justice, but also urging them to disperse.
Along with 12 leading scholars, she signed an “urgent appeal” to the government to acknowledge the protest as a democratic movement and to legalize it. She twice led delegations of prominent citizens for talks with the students, each time urging them to disperse.
Six weeks after the army had retaken Tiananmen, Dai Qing was thrown into the notorious Qincheng prison for political prisoners, near Beijing. She was held without charge for 10 months, six of them in solitary confinement, and at one point was told she was on the list of six people to be executed for their role in the uprising.
Dai says she and 200 other prisoners were eventually freed in a “political exchange” with the World Bank, which had suspended loans to China after the massacre: Loans were resumed the same day she and the others were released.
But more than 15 years later, some 200 people are still in prison for participating in the unrest — part of a decades-long backslide in political reform that Dai blames on the Tiananmen standoff.
Before the uprising, liberal-minded officials such as party chief Zhao Ziyang had been successfully pushing for political reform, Dai says. After the revolt, Zhao and his allies were purged, and “China went back to the warlord era,” with party cadres wielding absolute power, she says.
That’s exactly what the hardliners were hoping for when the revolt broke out, says Dai, arguing that they deliberately let the conflict escalate in order to justify a massive crackdown that would crush the reform movement for good. Which brings us to one of Dai‘s most controversial arguments: The army should have stepped in much earlier, before a major crackdown became inevitable.
The democracy movement could never have won out anyway, she adds, arguing the students didn’t really know the meaning of democracy.
For example, she says, at Tiananmen Square they were just as autocratic as the communists. “The leaders themselves didn’t act in a democratic way,” she says, explaining that many students wanted to disperse, but the radicals wouldn’t let them.
Besides, maybe western-style democracy is not what China needs, she reflects. “Every nation in Asia is different. Maybe we would have a half-socialist, half-democratic government.
“Since the 1970s, China has opened up more trade with the West. But you can’t just import democracy the way you import the latest fashions.
“It’s easy to shout, ‘Democracy! Democracy!’ as a slogan,” she argues, punching the air in a parody of the protesters.
“But we don’t need slogans. We need the foundations of democracy … We need more non-governmental organizations, we need people who know how to negotiate, how to accommodate different opinions, before we can have democracy. That could take years, even a century, to build.
“Even myself, I don’t think I’m good enough to live in a democratic society,” she adds, her gravelly voice softening.
“For example, I don’t think I’ve learned to forgive my enemies, to love my enemies.” Loving her enemies — that would be hard indeed for anyone who has faced the horrors Dai Qing has lived through.
Born in 1941 to an elite intellectual family, Dai Qing is the daughter of Fu Daqing, who studied in Moscow during Lenin’s time and was a friend of the founder of the Chinese Communist Party. Her mother, also an ardent communist, trained in Japan as a chemical engineer. Both served as spies during the Japanese occupation of Beijing.
When Dai was four years old, her father was executed by the Japanese. Her mother, then pregnant with Dai’s younger sister, was also captured, enduring electric and water tortures before escaping.
Dai was adopted by Ye Jianying, one of China’s “Ten Great Marshals,” who wanted to honour Dai’s father, a party martyr and Ye’s comrade-in-arms during the war.
It was a wrenching move, as Dai left behind her mother and a younger brother and sister to be raised in a different family.
“The Marshal, he did that to make himself feel good,” Dai says. “For my mother, she was sad, but she also thought it was a great honour, and an opportunity for me.”
Marshal Ye remained a prominent party cadre, and his family was one of the most powerful in China. But in those days, Dai says, even the communist aristocracy didn’t lead a pampered life. “There was not such a big difference in money between the ordinary people and the leaders as there is now.
“The biggest privilege was that I could speak my mind, because my family was important. Every child should have that right.”
A passionate communist, Dai became a military engineer, and worked on guidance systems for ballistic missiles in the 1960s.
In 1966, when Dai was 25, the Cultural Revolution swept across China. Mao encouraged young people to form militias known as the Red Guards, who mounted a campaign of terror against intellectuals and artists as enemies of the state.
Her mother was again tortured, this time by Red Guards demanding to know how she had escaped the Japanese. She had remarried by this time, to a man who had served as Mao’s translator. Imprisoned on suspicion of harbouring western ideas, he went mad and died in an asylum.
In 1969, the Red Guards themselves fell into disfavour, and they, along with the intellectuals, were dispatched to the countryside to learn the virtues of hard labour.
Among them were Dai Qing and her husband, who had enlisted as Red Guards. Forced to leave their infant daughter behind, they left her in the care of a worker with six children of her own because Dai‘s entire family — well-known intellectuals all — had also been sent to the country.
Meanwhile, Dai and her husband were reclaiming land and raising pigs on a military farm. “Every day we were covered in mud from head to toe, and so exhausted we could hardly move,” Dai says in her 1998 book The River Dragon Has Come.
Worse, the authorities, suspicious of Dai‘s “independent attitude,” refused to allow her to see her daughter in Beijing.
Finally Dai and her husband went AWOL, braving prison as deserters to hop a steamer to Beijing. They raced to see their daughter, who did not recognize them.
They had been gone 2 1/2 years.
A few months later, a purge of hardliners in the party spelled a reprieve for Dai and her family; she was not punished for deserting. But her faith in the system was shattered. “I once truly believed Mao’s line that ‘sweat from work can purify the filth in the soul,'” she once remarked, “but it was on the military farm where … I realized the ignorance, hypocrisy, arrogance and darkness” of the military in China.
She found work designing surveillance cameras (ironically, her knowledge would prove useful in helping her spot the cameras in prison), and later was recruited to spy on visiting writers, posing as a member of the Chinese Writers Association, and filing reports on writers such as American author Studs Terkel.
She soon found she had a gift for writing, and published to wide acclaim a short story based on her experiences in the Cultural Revolution.
Feeling increasingly disillusioned, she made the decisive break with her elite past in 1982: She joined the Enlightenment Daily as a journalist with a mission to expose injustice and hypocrisy anywhere she saw it.
It meant a clean break with her adoptive family. “I knew I had to cut my connection with my privileged background. I knew I might be criticizing the dictatorship.”
While Marshal Ye died in 1989, his family remains very powerful: His sons are household names in China, moving in the highest political and military circles.
“If I used my connections, it would not be difficult for me to be an official and get rich,” Dai observes wryly. “But I would feel shame if I used my connections for myself.”
On the contrary, Dai has drifted farther and farther from her former life as “a child of the party.” The official break came at the height of the Tiananmen faceoff, when Dai tore up her party card in disgust after the military invaded Beijing.
Six weeks later, the secret police were at her door. She was to spend the next six months in solitary at Qincheng prison, where her hair turned white and fell out in clumps. Accused of “contributing to the turmoil,” she considered killing herself out of despair. In November, she was told unofficially she was on death row.
A terrifying experience. And yet even in her 2005 memoir, Tiananmen Follies, Dai somehow manages to crack jokes.
On her first night in the cell, the first thing that popped into her head was a joke: “I never made it to a (high-ranking) position” in the party, she writes, “but I’ve managed to land in a prison for big shots.”
She also praised the “obvious professionalism” of her interrogators, who never once mistreated her, and repeatedly praised her guards for their kindness, recalling how one of them fussed over Dai‘s weight loss, and another consoled her in a moment of despair. She credits the party for the humane treatment she received.
Dai Qing‘s critics call her a sell-out, adding she got royal treatment in prison because of her family. In a scathing critique of Dai‘s book in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Mirsky speculates she was so terrified by her imprisonment she jettisoned “a lifetime’s convictions.”
Dai fired off a blistering reply in which she points out that immediately upon her release, she jumped back into the fray, telling a foreign journalist, “You could say about my release that they’ve let me out of a small prison into a massive jail.”
As for her portrayal of prison life, she says, “That was the truth. The guards were polite to me. This is only my experience — others might have had other experiences.” She says prison staff watch their step with the top-ranking prisoners at Qincheng, because “one day you are a prisoner, next day maybe you become president. Like Mandela.”
There’s no question that, since her release from prison, Dai Qing has relentlessly stuck to her role as the gadfly of hardliners and democrats alike.
Since 1989, she has concentrated on environmental issues, especially the Three Gorges project, which will flood 64,000 acres of land, including more than 100 archeological sites. The project is politically sensitive as the government has aggressively backed the project from the beginning.
Since her release from prison, Dai Qing has published numerous essays in the international press, with provocative titles such as “Damming the Three Gorges: An Achievement or a Crime?” and “A Disastrous Political Project.” She also tours widely, giving talks in dozens of countries, from Canada to Spain and Australia.
She has won a host of awards for her work, including Harvard University’s Nieman Fellowship, the International PEN Award for Freedom, the Goldman Environment Prize and the Conde Nast Environmental Award.
It’s clear that Dai Qing would be celebrated and, above all, safe if, like so many other dissidents, she left China for the West. In fact, she could have done so through her connections as soon as she heard she was to be arrested. “I didn’t want to leave my country. Then any time I said something about China, people would just say, ‘Why listen to her? She’s a foreigner.'”
It’s a decision that has come at a cost to Dai and her family. She ekes out a living contributing to foreign publications and consulting for business, but she can no longer earn a living from her writing in China.
She is routinely detained and questioned by police. And in 1991, she was kidnapped for four days by the secret police to prevent her from attending a meeting with then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.
Her daughter has also hit career roadblocks because of her mother’s notoriety: Told she had to denounce her mother in order to be admitted to Beijing University’s graduate program, she refused, losing her place at China’s most prestigious school.
“Of course I felt bad. My daughter suffered because of me,” says Dai. “But when such things happen, I don’t take the pain into myself,” she says, drawing up her petite frame indignantly. “I get angry: It’s not my fault, it’s the system that is being so unjust.”
Having been through so much already, where does Dai Qing find the strength to carry on?
Dai credits her family and friends at home and abroad, especially her supporters at Toronto-based Probe International, who have had a profound influence on her life, she says.
Probe took an interest in the Three Gorges project more than 20 years ago, when the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) underwrote the cost of a feasibility study for the project, in which Canadian firms such as Hydro-Quebec and SNC Lavalin stood to land lucrative contracts for dam equipment.
Probe forced the publication of the confidential study, and vigorously attacked the report, arguing it glossed over the dam’s potentially devastating human and environmental costs.
“It was the first time I ever heard of people in one country taking on their government, not for themselves, but to help people in another country,” Dai says, shaking her head in wonder. “That was a very important influence on me. I thought, ‘I should live like that, I should do that too.’ “I would never have become what I am today without that.”
Probe has helped translate scientific and media articles on megadams, and this fall helped Dai Qing set up language classes tailor-made for environmentalists.
There are other projects in the works, too — but she refuses to discuss them publicly. All too often, officials have shut down meetings or lectures she has tried to organize — a reminder that Dai Qing can never really sleep easy in her country.
Not that that would stop her from speaking her mind.
Dai Qing recalls how she smuggled out of prison some essays in which she criticizes China’s “autocrats.” A few months later she published them abroad.
“When I got out I thought, ‘Publish it or not? Live or die?’
“Then a friend said to me, ‘Dai Qing, your voice is your life.’
“And he was right.”
– – –
‘Almighty proletarian bullets cannot solve the problem of inflation.’
‘You can’t just import democracy the way you import the latest fashions.’
‘I don’t think I’m good enough to live in a democratic society. I don’t think I’ve learned to forgive my enemies.’
‘I feel that revolution … is far more frightening than maintaining the present political order.’
‘You could say about my release that they’ve let me out of a small prison into a massive jail.’
‘I never made it to a (high-ranking) position, but I’ve managed to land in a prison for big shots.’
‘I was so loyal to Mao Zedong, I thought I would die if Mao Zedong needed me to.’
(If they execute me) ‘they’ll probably order me to kneel, and I won’t kneel for anyone.’
‘Society, including the Communist Party, has been good to me.’
‘I had underestimated the very large gap … between high-level (party) leaders
and basic human civilization.’
‘Courage is standing up to the government …
But it is also standing up to the other side, even if they call you a traitor.’
Dai to police who kidnapped her in 1991:
‘You’re professional and well-trained young lads set to grab a nearly 50-year-old woman and it takes six of you to do it. What skill!’
Dai to police: ‘I can sue you for violating my personal freedom.’
Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen, May 7, 2006
Categories: Three Gorges Probe