01 Jun 1998
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Chai Ling

The Meaning of Freedom
by Garry Emmons; photograph by Webb Chappell

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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 States.

"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 pro-democracy movement.

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."

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