Tiananmen Square crackdown

June 4 student leader Chai Ling says her faith is driving her to seek confession of alleged rape by fellow dissident Yuan Zhiming in 1990

Tiananmen student leader says her Christian faith had inspired her to accuse fellow dissident and pastor Yuan Zhiming of rape 25 years ago

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2015, 7:50am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 2015, 7:46am

Of all the 1989 student leaders who fled China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, few have been surrounded by more controversy than Chai Ling.

As the fiery "commander-in-chief" of the student protesters, Chai was accused of recklessness in resisting pleas from the movement's intellectual wing to abandon the scene to avert bloodshed. After fleeing China in 1990 with then-husband Feng Congde, Chai was listed as No4 on Beijing's most-wanted list.

Now, she is back in the spotlight, with stunning accusations that fellow June 4 dissident Yuan Zhiming raped her in 1990 in her flat in New Jersey when the pair were studying at Princeton University. She has been relentless in her pursuit of an admission of guilt from Yuan - a prominent leader of the Chinese Christian diaspora via his US-based China Soul foundation - since she privately approached him about the incident in 2011.

"After I fled China, losing family, country, everything … my body, soul and mind shattered … I never thought that I would be raped by you. What Satan did not accomplish in the fall [of 1989], you did in 1990," Chai said she wrote to Yuan in June last year, in an exchange she made public.

Yuan on Monday denied raping Chai, but admitted "extramarital sexual iniquity" with her. He said the act was consensual and that the pair continued a romantic relationship afterwards, a claim that outraged Chai . Neither Chai nor Yuan responded to requests for an interview.

The claims against Yuan exploded into the public arena in November when Chai penned an open letter and named her alleged attacker. Despite weeks of denials - and China Soul's threats of legal action against Chai's supporters - Yuan last weekend quit all his religious duties, begged forgiveness from his followers, apologised to Chai and said he would "retreat in the Lord and seek renewal". He continues to deny raping her.

Chai, 48, is also a born-again Christian and she said her pursuit of Yuan was inspired by scripture, citing the so-called "Matthew 18 process", a bible-prescribed form of reconciliation between victim and sinner.

"If you have treated any other person the way you treated me, you should apologise to them so that they will not be like me, unable to believe in the Lord, to be free from pain and gain salvation," Chai told Yuan in an email she said was sent in June.

Born in Shandong in 1966, Chai was a postgraduate psychology student at Beijing Normal University when the 1989 democracy protests broke out. She was chosen to head the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters group with other notables Wang Dan, Li Lu and Chai's husband Feng among her deputies.

Critics of Chai's role in the movement point to the infamous "last words" interview she gave to US journalist Philip Cunningham on May 28, just days before the crackdown. With the movement facing an uncertain future, a deeply pessimistic and fearful Chai gave video testimony to Cunningham in which she described her intention to leave the square, adding "I want to live". But, other students would have to stay until the square was "washed with blood," she said.

Her opponents say it was irresponsible and cowardly of Chai to plan to flee the square herself while leaving others to a bloody fate that she accurately foresaw; Chai's supporters - including Wang Dan and other survivors - point out that she changed her mind and stayed to the brutal end on June 4, after hundreds had been killed by PLA troops.

In an open letter in 2009, Wang Dan defended Chai. "Many criticised Chai Ling [for saying] 'let others shed blood and I want to live', but they all forgot a most basic fact that, no matter what Chai Ling said, in reality, she was truly among the last group to withdraw from the Square."

In the aftermath of June 4, Chai fled to Hong Kong - spending more than 100 hours in a shipping container - then travelled with Feng to France, where the couple divorced. Chai moved to the US to take part in a Princeton University programme for June 4 activists, which also included Yuan Zhiming.

After Yuan's alleged attack, Chai said she decided not to call police "for the sake of protecting the reputation of the student movement". "Now looking back, my decision granted you freedom from the punishment of rape," Chai said she wrote to Yuan last June, adding "this lie has held me in bondage".

She kept her silence for years. Meanwhile, she earned a masters degree from Princeton, an MBA at Harvard University, and worked for Bain & Company, the Boston-based consultancy.

There she would meet Bob Maginn, a wealthy Bain partner 10 years her senior. They married in 2001, and they now have three daughters. The relationship would prove crucial to Chai, professionally and personally. Maginn helped bankroll Jenzabar, a firm Chai set up in 1998 to provide software for educational institutions, and he remains CEO and chairman of the firm.

But Jenzabar has not enjoyed smooth sailing - a critical 2003 Forbes business profile headlined "Great story, bad business" described how Jenzabar had been hit by a series of lawsuits after buying other software companies and faulted Chai for trying to "cash in on her heroism at Tiananmen Square".

The private firm's current financial position is unclear; in 2011, it announced "record revenue", but did not name the amount. Nevertheless, the company is a major player in the educational software industry and in 2009 boasted a staff of about 300.

Around this time Chai enjoyed her self-proclaimed proudest accomplishment: "becoming a Jesus-follower". Although she has written about having experienced "the reality of God" in Tiananmen Square, it was only in December 2009 that she was baptised, a spiritual awakening that Chai said made her determined to confront Yuan.

Her faith also played a major role in her decision to re-enter human rights advocacy. In 2010, she set up the All Girls Allowed group "with the goal of lifting up Jesus' name by exposing the human rights violations caused by China's one-child policy".

Maginn, a well-known figure in Massachusetts Republican Party circles, is also a devout Christian and has been one of Chai's strongest supporters in her pursuit of an admission of guilt from Yuan.

"I am so grateful for my husband who never doubted me through the whole process," Chai wrote recently. "He was the one who first suggested in the spring of 2013 that I find the truth through a polygraph test."

Chai and her supporters say she took the test on November 19, confirming she was telling the truth about the alleged rape, and demanded that Yuan do likewise.

They are unlikely to be satisfied with Yuan's apology and resignation from China Soul, since he continues to deny having raped Chai. "I don't know what the future holds," she wrote in November. "But truth is truth. God is God. Justice is justice. No matter how long the delay, it will surely come."