A Matriarch of Chinese Dissidents
Ge Yang, a mentor of pro-democracy activists abroad, leads a new life in New York. EXILED JOURNALIST
NEW YORK — GE YANG has lost her family, job, and country. But the exiled Chinese journalist retains a sharp sense of irony.She laughs when describing how she and other veteran communists took refuge at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles after Beijing accused them of backing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Finding sanctuary at the feet of a mirthful Buddha is just one of Ge's many exploits during 50 stormy years with the Chinese Communist Party. In the 1940s, Ge mingled with the Party elite and dodged enemy fire as a young reporter with the communist New Fourth Army. Purged during Mao Zedong's 1966-76 cultural revolution, she labored as a "class enemy" in the desert of Inner Mongolia. After her rehabilitation in 1979, she clashed with party hardliners as editor of the defiant New Observer magazine. But Ms. Ge never imagined she would end up 10,000 miles from Beijing, living alone in this pockmarked neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Soon after Chinese troops crushed the protest movement in June 1989, Bejing's conservative mayor Chen Xitong attacked Ge's outspoken liberalism in a vitriolic report on the unrest. Later, Ge was ironically labeled a "heroine of the turmoil" by China's state-run press. Ge, then in the United States for a conference, heeded warnings by friends to stay away from the Bejing to avoid arrest. Her predicament illustrates how the Communist Party has alienated many of the country's most enlightened, courageous intellectuals, decimating the talent it badly needs to modernize. "Suddenly, I was an exile," Ge says over a glass of Dragon Well tea at her modest apartment, upstairs from a corner deli. Everything about Ge projects a calm determination, from her firm handshake to the way she sits straight-backed at her writing table. Charcoal-grey hair sweeps back from her forehead to reveal intent brown eyes. Her voice, though roughened by time, resonates with the strength of a survivor. "People have great admiration for Ge Yang. She's like a matriarch of the democracy movement," says Merle Goldman, a China scholar at Boston University. Yet Ge confides that a solitary life in New York can be "difficult" for an "old dissident." "At first, I was afraid to live here," she says of the neighborhood of rundown tenements, graffiti-streaked walls, and abandoned cars. To ease the hardship, Ge's daughter has attempted to join her from China. But perplexingly, the United States Embassy in Beijing has so far rejected four visa applications. So Ge struggles to support herself, writing articles for the Chinese-language press in New York. She is also working on a film, two books, and advising the Human Rights Tribune, a bi-monthly journal on rights in China. To save money and practice her halting English, Ge sometimes joins other low-income Brooklyn residents for meals at a soup kitchen. "You walk in off the street and for 50 cents you get a whole meal, with roast chicken and bread. And you can bring home whatever you don't eat!" she says enthusiastically. "This could never happen in China." This and other ironies of her exile do not escape Ge. When Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing in late May, 1989, Ge, stranded and without cash, sought temporary refuge at the Xilai (Come West) Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, run by a rich Taiwanese monk named "Xing Yun," or Star Cloud. "It was very dramatic: A communist cadre of half a century runs to a Buddhist temple to be saved by a monk because the party is after her!" Ge chuckles. Days later, on June 4, the Army opened fire in Beijing, killing hundreds of citizens. Stunned, Ge spent the next 100 days at the temple in the company of meditating Buddhist nuns, trying to make sense of her life and what the Party had done. "I was like a piece of wood, sitting there," she recalls. Then - in a reaction typical of many Chinese who find themselves in unusual circumstances - she began writing. "...I wrote the Chinese character 'shou' [hand]," she says. "Whether it was the hand of [Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping or the Communist Party, it ... [represented to her] the one that killed the people." "Later I realized that it was all a conspiracy. For a long time, they [Chinese hardliners] had sought to overthrow the reformist faction. So they deliberately let the [democracy] movement flare up in order to suppress it." When she joined the party, "Mao's guerrilla base at Yan'an was the Holy Land for idealistic young people...." says Ge, who ran away to join the New Fourth Army in 1941 at age 25. After the communist victory in 1949, Ge was assigned to an elite group that orchestrated the ceremony at which Mao inaugurated the People's Republic, declaring: "The Chinese people have stood up!" But it was not long that Ge, as editor of the lively New Observer, realized that the Party, intoxicated with power, was growing increasingly exploitative, dogmatic, and dictatorial. Letters from common Chinese attacking the Party poured in at the magazine, and she printed them. Angered, Mao criticized the maga zine, fired Ge, and expelled her from the Party as a "rightist" in 1956. Over the next 23 years, Ge, her husband, and four children were split up, sent to the countryside to labor, and paraded as "class enemies literally "cow ghosts and snake spirits during a string of radical campaigns. In 1979, Mr. Deng made a comeback and began rehabilitating victims of man Mao's purges. "Beijing said it was a 'mistake' and gave me back my party membership," Ge says wryly. Against the advice of friends, she gained approval to revive the long-dormant New Observer, again making it a lightning rod of criticism against Party hypocrisy, as well as a beacon for liberal reforms. When the death of purged party martyr Hu Yaobang sparked an outpouring of student mourning and protest in April, 1989, Ge's magazine was one of the first Chinese publications to cover and join in the demonstrations. Today, however, Ge believes her work to advance China's post-Mao reforms was largely a waste. "In order to stay in power," she says, "they [China's leaders] want to take the life-saving pill of capitalism to prolong the survival of socialism. Deng's reforms will never succeed. They are cheating the people and fooling themselves." Nevertheless, Ge remains optimistic that "people's ideas are changing," and popular pressure for a market economy and political pluralism will one day force China to embark on genuine reform. That will be the day she goes home.