From Hub, ’89 rebel again challenges China

'My fight for China started long ago,' said Chai Ling, shown addressing protesters in Beijing. "My fight for China started long ago," said Chai Ling, shown addressing protesters in Beijing. (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images/file 1989)
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / August 31, 2011

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Chai Ling learned a thing or two about leadership as a student in Beijing. At 23, she was commander in chief of the 1989 Tiananmen prodemocracy movement.

Declared one of China’s 21 most wanted students following the bloody military crackdown - she was fourth on the list - Ling fled to the United States in 1990, graduated from Princeton and Harvard, and emerged as the head of a Boston software company and a wife and mother.

She has never returned to China. But now, at 45, she’s taking on the People’s Republic once again.

Ling has started a nonprofit organization called All Girls Allowed, which aims to challenge China’s 31-year-old policy of allowing each family to have only one child. The policy has led to sterilizations and, because of a traditional Chinese preference for boys, abortions to reduce the number of girls born. The Chinese government has denied that it forces women to be sterilized or have abortions.

Ling’s zeal for improving the plight of Chinese woman and girls, fueled by a recent conversion to Christianity, aims to end such gendercide in China, which she likens to “a Tiananmen massacre taking place every hour.’’

“My fight for China started long ago at Tiananmen Square,’’ Ling stated at a celebration marking the group’s first anniversary in June. “Ever since there has been planted in me a desire to see China know true freedom,’’ said Ling, the mother of three girls.

Her new cause may be as much an uphill battle as the 1989 prodemocracy movement. Blacklisted by the Chinese government, she’s now being an activist long distance, with a nine-person staff and offices in Boston and New York.

China’s One Child Policy is a hot-button issue in the West. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned forced abortion and sterilizations in China. A congressional Human Rights Commission held a hearing on the policy in 2009, raising the issue’s visibility.

But opposition to the one-child policy has been most vocal from humanitarian and Christian antiabortion groups that say the practice of aborting female fetuses to ensure that a family’s lone child is a son is leading to other human rights violations. These include the abandonment of baby girls; a high rate of female suicide (approximately 500 suicides a day, according to the World Health Organization); and kidnapping and trafficking of girls who are in high demand as child brides due to a shortage of girls in China.

The One-Child Policy is “China’s war on women and girls,’’ according to Reggie Littlejohn, a California attorney who founded Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an international coalition trying to stop forced abortion and sexual slavery in China.

Into this battle steps Ling, who has had brushes with controversy even in this country. In civilian life she is the founder and president of Jenzabar, which makes educational software; her husband, Robert Maginn Jr., is chief executive. Jenzabar’s charitable foundation has committed $1 million to All Girls Allowed, which, with the help of private donations, dispatches volunteer foot soldiers to run four projects in China. A “Baby Shower’’ program gives financial incentives to mothers who keep their daughters. A scholarship program enrolls orphan girls in schools. All Girls Allowed provides legal aid to women who have been the victims of forced abortion.

It also operates antitrafficking campaigns, in one case crossing vast rural areas north of the Yellow River, distributing 60,000 pamphlets, and setting up a hotline in a successful search for a 3-year-old girl named Little Bean who’d been snatched in front of her house in 2010. The organization also hosts a website featuring profiles of kidnapped children and practical information on how to keep kids from being tricked or snatched. A typical post: “When walking with your child along the road, always have the child farthest away from the road to prevent traffickers from grabbing them as they speed by in a motorcycle or van.’’

Ling reports that so far 550 mothers have received financial gifts, 25 orphans have enrolled in schools, and four children have been reunited with their parents. It’s modest progress considering the scope of the problem: according to the group’s own data, there are 1.3 million forced abortions in China every year, 1.1 million infants abandoned, and 200,000 children trafficked.

“She’s a very passionate woman,’’ said Brian Lee, executive director of All Girls Allowed. Lee, a former Harvard University chaplain, was hired after applying for an unrelated administrative position at Jenzabar. He said he’ll never forget his interview. “The first thing she asked me was, ‘Tell me how you came to your faith in Christ’, ’’ he said. “The second was, ‘Do you know about the forced abortions in China’?’’

“She has her eye exactly on what the vision is,’’ said Lee. “She is very sweet in her disposition but can be very intimidating at times.’’

Working from the outside Ling was born in 1966 at the start of communist China’s Cultural Revolution. God was considered “evil’’ by authorities, she said, and her interest in faith coincided with the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, which she considers a “spiritual awakening movement’’ as much as a political one.

She went to the square to bring water and food, joined the student movement to fight for a “better, freer, and more loving China,’’ and gradually became a top leader in the square in charge of thousands of students. Named “commander in chief,’’ she also helped lead a hunger strike that lasted for seven days.

She was devastated when tanks and troops rolled in and the government she’d been taught to venerate turned on its own people and the People’s Army fired on unarmed civilians. Ling was unhurt but forced underground. Salvation lay in the United States, where she was smuggled, stowed in a crate in a boat.

In the states, she assigned herself the daunting task of working to free China from the outside, earning two graduate degrees, then working in government and private business. She married an American businessman, and started Jenzabar in 1998; her husband joined two years later.

“I stumbled on this idea that if only I could become a very successful entrepreneur, like Bill Gates, if I could make lots of money and set up a giant foundation, then I could once and for all overcome and free China,’’ she wrote in a “testimony’’ she wrote on the occasion of her baptism.

Jenzabar, with 280 employees, provides software and support services to college and universities. She may not be Bill Gates, but capitalism has been good to her. Ling earned $380,000 in 2008, according to a judge’s ruling in an ongoing lawsuit against the company filed by an investor alleging improper business conduct. The dispute between the company and the shareholder continues, but the court dismissed counts alleging wrongdoing on Ling’s part.

Ling is no stranger to controversy even in this country. Jenzabar’s early history was awash in a jumble of lawsuits from disgruntled former employees. But if a movie were made about Ling’s dramatic life, the antagonists to her would mostly likely be Brookline filmmakers Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton. Jenzabar began suing their company, the Long Bow Group, in 2007 “and there is no end in sight,’’ the filmmakers told the Globe in an e-mail interview.

Their award-winning 1995 documentary “Gate of Heavenly Peace’’ told the story of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and Ling appears in the film in archival footage as an idealistic and militant martyr, prepared “to face death for the sake of true life.’’

In 2007, Jenzabar, Ling, and her husband sued the filmmakers for defamation and trademark infringement. Massachusetts Superior Court threw out the defamation claims in 2008, and last year the court dismissed the trademark claims, though Jenzabar is appealing.

That scrappy attitude seems at odds with Ling today, hands folded in her white-walled, quiet office; she is petite, speaks quietly, and looks tired. Her days are busy - so busy that one day she took all three daughters with her to work, running out for pizza for them and admiring their paper dolls.

She spends a lot of time on the phone with her New York office, monitoring the field work in China. Her staff dispatches workers to villages where the government reports the highest level of gender imbalance to look for pregnant couples who are very poor, offering them gifts of money if they agree to keep their baby girls.

They send volunteers to rescue trafficked children; when someone calls their hotline with a tip like, “I saw that my neighbors now have two children they did not have before,’’ they investigate to see if the children were taken, then work with local police to rescue them.

“I am living my dream,’’ said Ling, “and I am very grateful.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at