'Heartbroken' author Ping Fu willing to apologise for inaccuracies in memoir
Trying to head off a lawsuit, Chinese American tells the Post she was willing to apologise for what her former university schoolmates and officials call 'falsehoods' in her book
In many ways, Ping Fu embodies the American dream. The 55-year-old Chinese American entrepreneur and author is an important figure in the global 3-D printing industry, and she sits on US President Barack Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
But six months after she published a critically acclaimed memoir Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, Fu, chief strategy officer of 3D Systems in the US, faces potential international lawsuits. Her alma mater, Soochow University in Suzhou, and some of her former schoolmates are threatening to take her to court for libel in China and the US.
“Her book humiliated the image of China in the world and the reputation of Soochow University as a public education institution,” Chen Jinhua, director of the university’s news centre, told the South China Morning Post. University officials have joined hands with a group of former students, classmates of Fu’s from more than 30 years ago, to demand that she apologise for what they call “falsehoods” in her book, and stop all promotional activities related to it.
“No society at any time should applaud success built upon lies,” Liu Biao, an official at the university’s president’s office, told a meeting of alumni at Soochow two weeks ago. “We will take further actions.”
This is not the book's first controversy. Fu devoted chapters to her early life as the child of a persecuted intellectual family, growing up during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution period, between 1966 and 1976. She recounted heart-wrenching stories of being separated for years from her parents from the age of 10, and of being forced into child labour, starved, tortured, even gang-raped.
Some of these claims, along with those she made in previous Western media interviews, were bitterly contested in China in the past months. Hundreds of angry comments and negative ratings were left on the Amazon.com page for her book, most by Chinese readers. Protest e-mails were sent to her publisher, her company and her associates.
Tens of millions of Chinese were persecuted during the disastrous decade of chaos and violence, started by Mao Zedong in 1966 and ending soon after his death in 1976. The estimated death toll ranges from one million to 20 million. However, Fu's critics accused her of making up many of her sad personal stories to win sympathy and sell her book. Some, such as the controversial Chinese academic fraud-buster Fang Zhouzi, wrote detailed essays to prove that the abuses and atrocities she claimed couldn't possibly have happened.
In 2010, Fu told US media NPR that she witnessed Red Guards execute a teacher by having her quartered by four horses, simply to frighten the children into submission. After Fang raised sharp questions about the veracity of this story, Fu admitted that this that traumatic event might not have taken place, and that her “emotional memory” might not be accurate. NPR has since removed the interview from its website.
College years disputed
Now, months after the previous storm of controversy seemingly cooled down, renewed criticism and legal threats from China are once more putting the high-flying executive on the defensive. The disputes have moved from her childhood history to her college years, starting in 1978, two years after the Cultural Revolution ended.
Former classmates and teachers are not only challenging Fu’s self-claimed academic credentials, but also casting doubt over some of the most riveting events in her book. These often dealt with issues that remain sensitive in Sino-US relations to this day, including birth control, torture, freedom of the press and persecution by order of top Communist Party officials.
Fu said she was willing to apologise for some of the inaccuracies in her book, which she blamed on memory failures or editing errors. She also said she would like to reconcile with the university to avoid a lawsuit.
One anecdote in Fu's book seems to anger her critics in particular – that university officials used to check female students’ periods with their fingers to make sure they were complying with mandatory government rules on birth control.
“I would like to issue an open apology for the description that appears about [Soochow University] conducting intrusive physical checks on all female students' periods for birth control purpose,” she said. Fu told the New York Times in February that the account was an error she had tried on several occasions to correct before publication. Instead of submitting to intrusive checks by officials, female students had to use their own fingers and show blood during their periods, Fu said.
As the leader of a student group called the Red Maple Society, according to the book, Fu had incurred the wrath of then-leader Deng Xiaoping after publishing a “daring and controversial article” criticising the Communist Party for corruption. According to her accounts, Deng, restored to power only a few years earlier, was visibly displeased after he read the article during a meeting with representatives from student publications.
“University officials arrested and interrogated all the students who belonged to the magazine group,” she wrote. “As the editor in chief, I was held most responsible for the trouble. For punishment, I was given a black mark in my personal file.”
But that was not the end of her political troubles. Fu also wrote that she was briefly kidnapped by unknown thugs and then banished from the university for doing research and writing a paper on infanticide in rural China, a barbaric side-effect of the one-child policy and people's preference for boys.
Fu also wrote she was forced to leave school without graduating, and officials had told her to leave the country. She went to the US in 1984, studied at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and later transferred to the University of California in San Diego to study computer science.
'It's just we remember differently'
However, Soochow University officials have shown journalists dozens of documents including Fu's full academic records, to prove that she never conducted research or wrote a thesis on female infanticide, nor was she ever punished or arrested for political essays in student publications.
“The so-called arrest and interrogation never happened. I am angry at her for lying about this,” said Ni Junqiang, Fu’s class adviser from 30 years ago. Now 63, Ni manages his own high-tech company in Suzhou. He said Fu frequently missed classes during her college years and on several occasions he recommended that the university give her demerits.
Speaking to a Post reporter by telephone in late June, Fu conceded last week that some of the details in her book were not accurate. “There was no arrest or time in jail or prison for the Red Maple Society members. We did informing and confession.”
She also added: “I wrote a memoir and this was my memory of what happened [30 years ago] and how I felt. If someone said they remember differently I’m not going to say they are wrong. It’s just we remember differently.”
But the university’s investigation has nonetheless stirred up painful memories and ripped open old wounds. Liu Buchun, Fu's former schoolmate, said Fu stole his story about suffering political persecution for criticising the Communist Party. Liu said that he was the one who delivered a speech at a meeting of student party members in 1979, airing doubts over the party’s teachings.
Liu, now a retired high school teacher, said he and several editors of a student magazine who published the speech suffered years of retribution in the form of demotions and lost opportunities. The consequences haunted their entire adult lives, Liu said. But Fu was not involved in either the writing or publication of the speech, nor was she punished for it, he told the Post.
“Correcting the wrongs of the Cultural Revolution is necessary, but not by making up stories like Fu did,” Liu said. “Lies have no redemptive power. Self-glorifying lies are even more despicable.”
'Heartbroken and deeply saddened'
In the face of harsh criticism from China, Fu said in February that she was “shocked, heartbroken and deeply saddened by the smear campaign”. However, she has on different occasions retracted some of the statements she made to Western media.
“When people are upset, you are touching on something sensitive. If people need to talk about the Cultural Revolution and by criticising me they can create some healthy discussion, that’s my contribution,” she said last week.
But she admitted: “It also bothers me. Sometimes I'm confused. I'm not helping the ‘American side’ or ‘Chinese side’ to attack one other.
“We should unite rather than divide; extreme opinion divides. I won’t fight with Soochow University. It will only hurt both of us.”
Now a mother of an adult daughter and working for a South Carolina-based firm specialising in 3-D printing technology, Fu said she wished the debate over her memoir would calm down so she could focus on her responsibilities at home and at the company.
“Creativity for us is about thinking out of the box exponentially, and innovation is imagination applied,” she said. “My new role is a perfect combination of creative destruction and pragmatic problem-solving, I love what I do: 3-D printing.”