Raised by the Communist party elite, Dai Qing has since become one of China’s most critical female voices. Al Jazeera’s spotlight on Probe International Fellow, Dai Qing.
Famed Chinese environmentalist and “historical investigative journalist” (as she prefers to call herself), Dai Qing, was raised as a pampered ‘red princess’ by the Communist party’s elite with little to do, not even homework. That changed in adulthood, when Dai became a Communist missile engineer and one of Mao Zedong’s “strong, very true” supporters, until disillusionment set in during the Cultural Revolution after being sent to work in the countryside. Instead of party propaganda, Dai opted for a career in journalism; her new calling: to “tell the true story” of China. That path ultimately led to her arrest after the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests but imprisonment did not silence one of China’s foremost iconic female voices. Dai’s ongoing work as a reporter — exposing official corruption, political executions and other taboo topics — earned her a reputation as an “instigator of turmoil”. Her most famous work, a collection of interviews, essays, and statements by Chinese scientists, journalists, and intellectuals opposed to China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project, is considered a foundational text for the country’s environmental movement. Now, at 75, Dai looks back on her childhood and career, and her continuing commitment to investigating China’s past.
Shanghai, China – Even before the police arrived, Dai Qing knew her arrest was imminent. First came the German diplomat, she said, imploring her to accept a visa and go abroad. It was an offer many Chinese intellectuals could only dream of.
“I went to the bathroom and cried,” she recalled on a bright winter’s day in Shunyi, on the outskirts of Beijing.
The summer of 1989 had brought a bloody end to the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, and now other political dissidents faced detention, or worse.
Dai considered herself a moderate, neither on the side of the government nor that of the student protesters. She even joined calls to abandon the protest, before it reached its violent conclusion. “Until the last minute we tried to push the students back. Give the army an empty square,” she explained.
But it was of no use. The People’s Liberation Army opened fire on protesters, and shortly thereafter, Dai was marked for arrest.
The diplomat on her doorstep should have been a godsend for Dai, had she not resolved to turn the visa down. “I refused to go with her,” Dai explained. “I said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much. I hope, maybe in the future, I can go to your country’.”
Calls came too, from a professor friend in Hong Kong and another friend in Shanxi province, all begging her to leave Beijing. Dai says she was even tipped off by the officials. Just as soon as the diplomat left the police officer came, not to arrest her, but simply to ask her about her plans for the next day.
Dai took his visit as a warning. Little time remained to plot an escape. “But I chose to stay at home to face the situation,” Dai said. “I have my responsibility.”
An iconic female voice
That was one of the many unconventional decisions that have defined Dai, and made her one of the most iconic female voices in China. The very next day, on July 14, 1989, she was taken by police and imprisoned for 10 months. It was another harrowing chapter in an extraordinary life.
That is, if Dai would admit to any such distinction. “Extraordinary” is a label she denies outright. What she does would be considered “ordinary” in many other places in the world, just not in China, she says. What she does, quite simply, is write.
“Historical investigative journalist” is the title she’s most comfortable with, though she’s often lumped in with environmentalists and activists. Her most famous work includes a novel-length expose on the controversial Three Gorges Dam and the toll it would have on Asia’s largest river, the Yangtze. It’s considered a foundational text for China’s environmental movement.
That book, along with others that Dai has written, has been banned in mainland China since the events of 1989. With an elfish grin, Dai, now 75, pulls out a paperback as an example. She explains that it’s a translation she did, but the thought of printing even a translation by the infamous Dai Qing gave her publishers pause.When Dai insisted that her name be included in the book, a friend at the publishing house offered her a trade-off. “He said, ‘Okay, okay, but then you will not get any money.’ So I said, ‘Okay, no money. But with my name on it,'” Dai recalled. She lifts the book and points, with a palpable sense of pride. “This is my name. And this is the title.”
She follows her declaration with a breathless, booming laugh. It’s an oddly joyful reaction for someone who has to fight to get published in her home country. Nowadays, her books are mainly printed in the relative freedom of Hong Kong – though lately, even that city’s booksellers have felt government pressure to conform or close down.
But on this particular morning, as the sun pours into the apartment lined with books, Dai’s spirits refuse to dampen. She starts to muse about the novels that influenced her as a child. Russian tomes were her favourite at first, but novels like Anna Karenina gradually gave way to Charles Dickens and literature from Western Europe.
And then there were the Americans. She almost stopped reading Western novels altogether when she reached college, but one day she picked up Mark Twain, whose witticisms and social critiques undoubtedly left a mark on the future writer.
It was a counterintuitive reading list for a “red princess” like Dai, who grew up in the household of a top Communist leader, in the midst of the party’s rise to power. Dai’s childhood, however, was anything but orthodox.
Her mother was born to a high-ranking official in the Qing dynasty, the kind who could travel the world and bring back the latest in cutting-edge technology – perhaps a thermos or an electric kettle. To maintain prestige, the family expected Dai’s mother to submit to an advantageous marriage with a man from a top Hunan family.But her mother had other ideas, Dai recounts with a hardy belly laugh. She escaped to Japan and got an education – a rarity for a woman of that era. When she returned to China, she dedicated herself to Communism. Like many devotees, she turned up at the door of No 50 Zengjiayan Residence, where the Communist party was headquartered in Chongqing.
It was through the Communist party that she met her future husband, Fu Daqing, and from their union came Dai. Their marriage, however, would be short-lived. World War II was raging, and the Imperial Japanese Army was pushing deeper and deeper into China. Dai’s father was martyred in the fight.
|When we faced a dictator, they just told lies to everybody and changed everybody into their tools. We only had collectivism. But right now we should have our independence. We should have our individualism.|
That’s how Dai came to be adopted by one of the most powerful men in China, Marshal Ye Jianying. Dai’s new father was part of the Communist party’s top army brass, and he would later ascend to defence minister and head of state. His position afforded Dai a life of luxury few could have imagined at the time.
“I remember when I was young, a teenager, I had nothing to do. I didn’t have to do any homework. Any homework! From class, I went to the library. Several hours at the library, till dark, and then I went back home. Food was already prepared. This is my life,” she said
She was free from the worries that shackled other Chinese families. Her education was assured, and political safety was a non-issue. Dai grew to be a “not very disciplined child,” by her own account.
The pampered “red princess” would eventually mature into a Communist missile engineer, with a strong sense of gender equality. As a young adult, Dai bought whole-heartedly into the propaganda that gender didn’t matter, that “everyone should be a fighter”.
“I said, ‘Me, I’m the same with men. No different. What you can do, I can do. What you can get – like with salary – I’ll get as salary, the same. Only maybe I should have a baby,'” Dai said.
And when she did have one, she was determined to go back to work exactly two months later. At the two-month mark, Dai said she swam in a cool reservoir to stop her breast milk from flowing. Dai’s mother, ever the diehard Communist, was shocked by her daughter’s resolve.
‘We were just tools’
“This is your rule, and you told me to be like that,” Dai remembers thinking. But her mother’s reaction remained the same. “My mother held my daughter and cried.”
Disillusionment first struck during the Cultural Revolution, when Dai and her husband were sent to work in the countryside. At first, she considered herself among the “strong, very true Mao Zedong supporters,” but gradually she arrived at a different realisation: “We were just tools.”“When we faced a dictator, they just told lies to everybody and changed everybody into their tools. We only had collectivism,” Dai said. “But right now we should have our independence. We should have our individualism.”
Dai made up her mind to “tell the true story” of China. She entered journalism and tackled a range of taboo topics: official corruption, extramarital sex, political executions. Her growing reputation as an “instigator of turmoil” began to cost her jobs, publishing contracts and even the ability to travel.
But somehow, even her 1989 arrest gave Dai a modicum of hope. Her country was evolving. There was “new air” all around. She couldn’t help but compare her situation with that of another Chinese writer, Wang Shiwei, who was jailed four decades earlier.
“If China was still closed, my fate would be exactly like Wang Shiwei,” she said, referring to his summary execution. “But China was open.”
Now, in the comfort of her sun-drenched home, with her dog at her feet and her daughter upstairs, she continues her work investigating China’s past. A couple more books need to be written before she can retire to her gardening.
“Me, I give the mystery,” she said of her writing, with a rosy-cheeked smile. “I give questions, not the conclusion.”
That’s a challenge she says she is leaving for the next generation.