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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #46 (November 11-17, 2003), page 11
One manís victory against the odds
Escape From China: The Long Journey from Tiananmen to Freedom
By Zhang Boli
Washington Square Press, 2003
Paperback, 271 pages, $14.00
By Andrew J. Weber
The image is iconic around the world: a lone Chinese student stands defiant in front of a column of tanks advancing to Tiananmen Square. Zhang Boliís inspiring Escape From China is the written equivalent: a reminder to all that one man can make a difference.
A University of Beijing student leader demanding human rights and democratic reforms from Chinaís Communist regime, Zhang later became the most wanted fugitive in his own country. Escape From China recounts his first-person view of the massacre at Tiananmen, subsequent years in hiding, and eventual escape to asylum in the United States.
An unlikely hero suddenly caught up in world affairs, Zhang is a representative everyman who rises to the sweep of history around him. Attending a memorial gathering for a popular professor, he ends up witnessing mass murder at the hands of the government. After escaping to Russia, he is imprisoned and interrogated by the KGB, becoming a pawn in a delicate game to maintain the balance of power between China, Russia, and the West. He ends up the real loser in this game, sent back to China by the Russians who will not offer him sanctuary, despite Gorabchevís policy of perestroika.
Zhangís saga is also a tale of two Chinas. Far away from the political machinations of Beijing and the hard-line Communist government lies another China, mostly concealed from the outside world. Populated by simple peasants and farmers still living in the traditional way, this China is unchanged for centuries despite the rise and fall of various regimes and political revolutions. Here blood ties run deep and unite entire villages through generations of intermarriage, and party loyalty means little in comparison.
Drawing on his experience as a physical laborer in the mountains as a young man, Zhang is able to blend into this other China and survive. Aided by distant relatives and others sympathetic to his cause, he reverts to a rural lifestyle and evades the police for years.
Zhang modestly recounts the enormous hardships of life on the run: starvation, disease, loneliness, and fear. Yet he must put his own suffering in perspective, as the simple farmers he meets are beset on all sides by their own difficulties, crushing their strength and will. "Even among those mature in years, few were able to achieve a larger perspective, one that transcended the immediate circumstances. The energies of most people were drained by the struggle to remain alive. It is how despotic governments maintain control."
Despotic governments also maintain control through propaganda and state-sponsored media. The democracy movement is slandered as the work of counter-revolutionary terrorists, whose goals are "Chaos, anarchy, and destruction Ö of all that the workers, soldiers, and peasants had sought to achieve." Perhaps most offensively to the independent and intellectual Zhang, the students are denied to have even presented their own ideas, portrayed as only the puppets of other, older enemies of the state.
Hidden in a shack in the frozen wilder- ness, with only a stray dog as a companion and holding a dagger to his wrist, Zhang contemplates suicide. Yet after all of his struggles, he decides he is one of the lucky ones. So many others had died at Tiananmen; Zhang must survive to tell their story. Only then can the governmentís official version be countered, "The lie written in black ink [that hides] the truth written in blood."
But the truth can be written in black ink as well, as Escape From China so readily proves. Zhangís published work is his ultimate victory over the government that could not track him down, a moving rendition of a story they would rather remain untold. It is also an inspiration to all who would read it, especially those who question what can be accomplished by only one man.