Book Reviews

God at Work in a Student Leader

A Book Review

A Heart for Freedom by Chai Ling. Tyndale Momentum; 1st edition, 2011, 370 pp, ISBN-10:1414362463, ISBN-13: 978-1414362465; $19.04 at

For twenty-three years, I have been waiting for this book to be written. Reading it took me on a reliving of the experience I had in Beijing in 1989 and gave me new perspective and details which were insightful and healing. Chai Ling’s, A Heart for Freedom, is an answer to prayer. It is her eye-witness account of the 1989 student movement and massacre in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. It answers many of my own questions such as, how did the student leaders emerge and become involved in the movement, what key decisions did they make and how did they make them, what did they hope to accomplish, who authorized the killing of peaceful civilians and students, where did the student leaders hide after the massacre and how did they escape, what did they think was accomplished by the movement and how did they begin their new lives outside of China?

Her storytelling is genuinely personal and deep. The irresistible, unfolding grace of God is made so evident in her life journey, beginning with her early years when she yearned to become an “extraordinary child” excelling in academics to please her “tiger father.” He and a remarkable teacher influenced Chai Ling both positively and negatively, motivating her to strive to make it into the most prestigious university in China, Peking University, also known as Beida. Envisioning the loveliness and serenity of the Beida campus was made easy by her descriptive writing. I remember the campus just as she paints it, with its atmosphere of enthusiasm for knowledge and political discussion. Love was also in full bloom throughout the university with young couples engaging physically under every tree and on every hill, as I recall. Chai Ling pours out the emotions of first love, sexual encounters and exploitation. Her honest confessions of the joys, pains, sufferings and duties of love parallel her revelations of being swept up into the student movement with its passions and sorrows. As she speaks frankly of her forced abortions, I think of how her personal tragedies eclipsed the national tragedy of Mother China ending the lives of so many of her own children before their time.

From an eye-witness, first person viewpoint, Chai Ling explains the events that led to the student movement which culminated in the massacre of unarmed civilians and students on Chang An Boulevard and Tiananmen Square. It is astonishing to read of her rise from obscurity to prime leadership of the movement, involvement in the class boycotts, hunger strike, negotiations with government officials and communication with, as well as organization of, the multitudes of students. I have not read anything so revealing of the personalities and relational dynamics between the different student leaders such as Wang Dan, Feng, Liu Guang, Wu’er Kaixi, and others. Now I am clearer about how the decision to leave the Square occurred. I was there in Beijing before, during and after the event and received other eye-witness accounts of the shooting, wounding, killing and running over of students with tanks and armored cars. Chai Ling’s reports further attest to what I saw and was told. Now I understand the ten months in hiding Chai Ling endured after the massacre, and her harrowing escape into Hong Kong and then to France. For the longest time, I had wondered how it was ever possible for any of the student leaders to remain hidden and escape the net of the Chinese police and military.

A subtle thread of God’s witness in Chai Ling’s life becomes more and more evident, and I cheered in tears when she wrote of her coming to faith in Jesus Christ after reading The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun. I actually feel that God answered my own prayers which I prayed in 1989 for the students and their leaders to come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and to understand the true meaning of freedom. My heart poured out adoration to our sovereign, powerful and faithful God for letting me glimpse the awesome marvel of answered prayer. I believe multitudes of Christians prayed for them as I did. God answered our prayers, and Chai Ling bears powerful witness to this.

The importance of the book in giving the world a written eye witness of this historical event cannot be minimized. The denouement of culture shock, adaptation, education, success and fame in the Western world continues Chai Ling’s saga. However, the impact of her writing, I believe, occurs in the latter chapters where she grapples with difficult questions such as, where was God in her life before, during and after the Tiananmen massacre? Why did God choose her to become a student leader? What purpose did God have in allowing her to survive such a horrific event, and what purpose does he have for her now? Again, the eclipse in her personal tragedies cause her to likewise grapple with dilemmas such as, where was God when she was being forced to have three abortions and when she had a fourth abortion? Should she reveal the shame, guilt and terrible aftermaths of those abortions? How would that affect her marriage and family? What good could God possibly bring from all her sufferings?

Struggling with God, Chai Ling finds him present, good and loving through every circumstance of her journey. This brings me and other readers face-to-face with God, as real and personal as he is, with each and every child he created. If you already believe in the God of the Bible, after reading, A Heart for Freedom, you will believe even more and more deeply. You will rejoice overand perhaps become involved inChai Ling’s quest for an end to forced abortions and the one-child policy in China. If you do not yet believe in Jesus Christ and have not yet accepted him as your Lord and Savior, you will be left with Chai Ling’s ending question, “‘Are you ready to walk with Jesus?'”

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Laurie Michaels

Laurie Michaels has lived in Asia since 1985 teaching English in China for five years and then working in Hong Kong until the present day.View Full Bio