Student leader flees China after 10 months on the run 'Commander' of '89 protest zigzags her way to U.S.

August 10, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- For 10 months on the run from Chinese authorities with orders to shoot if she resisted arrest, pro-democracy leader Chai Ling hid with strangers in remote villages and learned local dialects to blend in. She disguised herself as a maid, a rice farmer, a laborer. She even got an eyelid operation.

The "commander in chief" of the crushed 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square finally escaped China in a wooden crate at the bottom of a rat-infested boat. Her eventual destination: Boston, where she now works as a management consultant.

Chai, who has never before revealed the story of her escape in the spring of 1990, is one of several leading Chinese dissidents who have traveled a perilous underground railroad from Beijing to Boston.

Several high-adrenalin rescues have been worthy of "Mission Impossible," complete with secret signals, night vision scopes, voice-scrambled cellular phones, speedboats and disguises.

Most recently, Liu Gang, China's third-most-wanted student, landed here in May after six years in Chinese prison and an exhausting, 10-day escape across his vast homeland. He is now studying English at Harvard University.

China's second-, third-and fourth-most-wanted student dissidents all ended up here, as did another leading student, and a longtime democracy activist ranked China's sixth-most-wanted intellectual.

Most of the hundreds of Chinese dissidents spirited out to the West in the past seven years have come through a secretive network known as Operation Yellowbird, named for a Chinese proverb -- "The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind."

Other dissidents, like Chai, organized their own escape routes, relying on sympathetic strangers or government contacts.

Yellowbird was hatched in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. Shaken by televised images of protesters shot down by troops, a few Hong Kong businessmen raised hundreds of thousands of dollars within days to help hunted activists escape. An unexpected alliance quickly formed among the businessmen, Mafia bosses and smugglers; fixers within China's security apparatus; international human rights workers; and Western diplomats.

Not every escape was high-tech, or successful. One attempt to rescue a democracy activist now studying at Harvard, Wang Juntao, was foiled when one of Wang's helpers was captured and turned informer. Wang served 4 1/2 years in prison.

Chai Ling's is perhaps the most dramatic escape story of all, and the only one that has remained a mystery, even to other exiles. Even now, she won't give certain details for fear the Chinese government will punish those who helped her.

The government was particularly eager to capture Chai, a

newcomer to the democracy movement whose passionate speeches and hunger strikes mobilized protesters and created an international sensation. Chai's then-husband, Feng Congde, was a long-time student protester who had been jailed before.

Yellowbird operatives raised $500,000 for bribes and equipment to rescue the couple. The money was never spent. Chai and Feng instead hid for the better part of a year, and finally escaped through a network of 200 strangers who supported the #i democracy movement.

Their life on the run began June 4, 1989, when the army fired into a crowd of 100,000 pro-democracy protesters who were demanding a dialogue on reform.

Chai and others led survivors back to campus, but when they heard tanks were rolling toward Beijing University -- home to many of the student leaders of the protests -- friends urged her and her husband to leave the city and lie low.

What the couple thought would be just a few weeks' vacation turned into a long, harrowing journey into the hinterlands, and finally, far from home.

They bought sunglasses and straw hats to disguise themselves. Spies were everywhere, so they leaped off trains when anyone suspicious offered help, and slept under seats. They switched from train to bus, from boat to foot. Once, a policeman boarded their bus to check IDs, but stopped right before their seats.

They were staying in the home of an elderly couple in a southern village when the most-wanted list first flashed on television. Their faces were prominently displayed, denounced as traitors trying to overthrow the state. The list was repeated on every news update, and posters were circulated nationwide.

"My heart was pounding as they read the list. I was fourth. Feng was 13th. All my blood went to my toes. They showed a friend of mine already in handcuffs," Chai recalls.

The peasants harbored them for 1 1/2 months, but finally could take the pressure no longer. The couple moved to another home of strangers, tantalized by the distant lights of Hong Kong across the South China Sea, but still far from freedom.

By August, a few supporters decided to launch an escape plan and began to test roads, checkpoints and border posts for weak spots. Chai and Feng spent two months locked indoors to avoid authorities who had flooded south China, searching.

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