Freedom. Democracy. For five days, as Chai Ling lay in the suffocating
darkness of a nailed-shut crate, these words sustained her more than her
meager ration of bread and water ever could. Hidden in the hold of a
leaky boat, waiting to make a run to the safety of Hong Kong, Chai dared
to dream that her long ordeal might be over. It had begun nearly a year
earlier, in 1989, when Chai, a 23-year-old Beijing University student,
was elected "chief commander" by the Tiananmen Square dissidents because
of her leadership skills and electrifying speeches. After the peaceful
pro-democracy movement was crushed by the Chinese army, Chai had to flee
her homeland to escape the authorities who relentlessly sought her
arrest and imprisonment.
For the next ten months, often alone, frequently in disguise, Chai,
aided by supporters, traveled all over China, learning local dialects
and posing variously as a rice farmer, laborer, and maid. Several times,
she was nearly captured. But she finally made good her escape to Hong
Kong and from there flew to France, eventually settling in the United
"When I first arrived in America," the petite, soft-spoken Chai recalls,
"I thought, 'God, you have given me freedom, but I've had to leave
behind my family, friends, and home.'" Undaunted, she enrolled at
Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, where she earned a master's degree,
and later worked as a consultant for three years at Bain. She
matriculated at HBS, she explains, to better serve her country.
"China's democracy and free-market economy will require people with a solid
understanding of capital markets, advanced management skills, and
experience in global competition," she says. After developing her skills
and establishing a track record of building and managing successful
enterprises in the West, Chai hopes a more favorable political climate
will allow her to return home.
Chai's leadership and organizational abilities were honed early. When
she was ten, her mother and father, both military doctors, put her in
charge of her two younger siblings and a grandmother when the parents
were suddenly reassigned for six months to an earthquake-relief mission.
At sixteen, she was named one of the two hundred most outstanding
students in China. Later, at prestigious Beijing University, where she
studied child psychology, she was elected president of the student
government. And since Tiananmen, she has twice been nominated for the
Nobel Peace Prize and remains a leading spokesperson for China's
With what she views as an increasingly repressive regime still in
control in China, Chai says, "It's important for American business to
support - quietly but persistently - the push for human rights and the
rule of law in China. Without those concepts in place, the country's
economy will never develop properly." She adds that "the most-respected
American companies in China are the ones that adhere to those principles
and maintain enlightened business and employee practices and policies.
Companies that 'adapt' to Chinese practices such as bribery and
favoritism are themselves doomed to suffer from those injustices."
by Garry Emmons
photograph by Webb Chappell