Cultural Revolution Vigilantes
By JOE NOCERA
Even now, nearly six months later — during which time Amazon.com has been flooded with hundreds of negative reviews condemning her; a Web site was set up attacking her; and her friends and colleagues have been bombarded with e-mails denouncing her — it is a little hard to understand why Ping Fu’s memoir, “Bend, Not Break,” has aroused such fury in some quarters of the Chinese immigrant community.
Fu, 54, came to America from China nearly 30 years ago. In 1997, she founded a company, Geomagic, that was recently sold for $55 million. In 2005, Inc. magazine named her entrepreneur of the year. On Saturday, she’ll be speaking at the American Library Association’s convention.
In other words, Fu is the classic immigrant success story. You’d think that would be a source of pride for Chinese immigrants. Instead, she has been subjected to what they call in China a “human flesh search” — an Internet vigilante campaign designed to bring shame on its target.
Fu’s mistake — if you can call it that — was to include in her memoir scenes of growing up during the Cultural Revolution, China’s decade-long descent into madness. It was a period when people were routinely denounced and punished (and sometimes killed) for the crime of being an intellectual or teacher; when millions were sent to the countryside for “re-education”; and when teenagers ran rampant as “Red Guards” — all with the assent of Chairman Mao. It is impossible to read about the Cultural Revolution without conjuring up “Lord of the Flies.”
Three decades later, there is almost no one in China willing to delve into the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese government does not exactly encourage discussion of the subject. It remains a deeply painful subject to those who lived through it.
When I spoke to Fu recently, she told me that she had originally wanted to write a business memoir. But once she started writing, she realized that to explain the woman she is today, she needed to write about the girl she had been during the Cultural Revolution. A daughter of privilege, she was taken from her family in Shanghai when she was 8 and sent to live in a dormitory far away. She was raped by Red Guards when she was 10, she writes. She worked in factories and had to raise her younger sister. Although she says that she saw atrocities, she also writes about kindnesses that were afforded her. (Disclosure: I am currently writing a book for Portfolio, which published “Bend, Not Break.”)
In China, a blogger named Fang Zhouzi, well known for his Internet denunciation campaigns, decided to attack her. Quickly, Amazon was flooded with one-star reviews denouncing her as a liar. Her critics, most of them Chinese immigrants, picked apart her story, and, though they found a few real errors, most of their criticism was highly speculative. Yes, they seemed to be saying, bad things happened during the Cultural Revolution, but they couldn’t have happened to Ping Fu.
“School was interrupted a bit, but there was still school,” sniffed Cindy Hao, in attempting to refute Fu’s claim that she had worked in a factory. Hao, a Chinese-born journalist who lives in Seattle, has become one of Fu’s most vociferous critics. “Ping Fu made up her whole story,” she told me.
(Note: Hao, a freelance translator whom the Beijing bureau of The New York Times uses on occasion, helped report an article by Didi Kirsten Tatlow. She says that she became a critic only after that article was published. She is no longer permitted to do reporting for the bureau.)
You can’t spend time talking to Hao and other critics without thinking that the real issue here is not whether Fu’s book has errors, but rather who gets to tell the story of the Cultural Revolution — or even whether it should be told at all. Roderick MacFarquhar, an expert on the Cultural Revolution who teaches at Harvard, told me that for anyone who lived through it, the memories are ones they would prefer not to conjure up. “If you were a teenager in China during the Cultural Revolution, you were likely either being beaten up or were doing the beating. Either way, it is humiliating to think about.” Yes, Ping Fu’s book has mistakes in it. But it is hard to see how they justify the level of extreme, unrelenting vilification she has suffered. Her real sin, it appears, is that she stirred a pot most Chinese would prefer to leave alone.
In recent months, Hao tried to get Ping Fu disinvited from speaking at the American Library Association convention. In one letter, she described Fu as lacking “honesty, integrity and trustworthiness.”
From where I’m sitting, it sounds a lot like the denunciations that were so routine, and so awful, during the Cultural Revolution.