Yes, another Ping Fu post. Bear with me.
Since I wrote the last one, South China Morning Post published a piece called ‘Heartbroken’ author Ping Fu willing to apologise for inaccuracies in memoir. To summarize it, her alma mater and even some former schoolmates are threatening to sue her for libel. Fu acknowledges and admits to some errors in her book (which, as the article points out, she has also done previously), and cites confusion and people remembering things differently as the culprit.
The SCMP article doesn’t seem to have done much to calm the anti-Ping storm. “A fake apology,” say her detractors. For them, it’s not enough. What would be enough, perhaps, is a statement from Fu saying: “I made many things up. I’m sorry.” Until then, their quest continues, with a fervor that angers the pro-Ping camp and, I have to admit, even alarms those who are/were more on-the-fence about the issue, like myself.
Whether Fu lied or not, I do not know and am not going to explore. I have read almost all the accusations against her — some making a lot of sense, others not so much — and many of the comments defending her — again, some making a lot of sense, others not so much. What interests me now is how many who are more pro-Ping have become that way because, to quote Joe Nocera’s New York Times column, “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.” Nocera also calls this fury “extreme, unrelenting vilification,” and tries to make sense of the anti-Ping zeal by calling the detractors “vigilantes” who want to squash discussion of the Cultural Revolution.
I agree that the sheer force of the anti-Ping anger is hard for outsiders to understand. I’m trying to. I think I know the answer — and it has nothing to do with wanting to cover up the Cultural Revolution.
First, let me state who I am: I am a third or fourth generation Malaysian of Chinese descent, depending on which grandparent you count from. My ancestors left China before 1949, and certainly before the Cultural Revolution. Though I’m fascinated by modern Chinese history, it’s not my family’s history, and I have no personal investment, really, in Ping Fu’s stories.
But what if I did? What if… my great-grandpa or grandma had returned to China, and they, and my parents or aunts and uncles were beaten by Red Guards because of foreign connections, humiliated in public, their education disrupted, their lives in disarray? What if they survived all that, and scrimped and saved to send me to school in America, and suddenly I’m there and hearing about a woman who seemed to have suffered like my family had and is now rich and famous due to her hard work — wow, good for her, I want to be like her — but then I find out there are all sorts of inconsistencies in her story and that she might have been a Red Guard, like the ones who beat my Ah Mah and Pa and Ma? She might have lied about being a ‘black’ when she was actually a ‘red,’ and now she’s rich and famous in America and people are going “poor her” when… wow, she might even have lied on her greed card application? WTF?!
I might become an angry netizen too.
My point here is, I think the anti-Ping fervor is about privilege. Frustration over privilege should be something we all understand. Racial privilege, class privilege, economic privilege — these are all hot topics. Privilege makes people angry. For the most part, I doubt many Chinese have a problem with privilege that is deserved. But throw in corruption and deception and that’s where things get heated. At the heart of the Ping Fu outcry is the hatred of privilege that is procured through ill means.
The last time I ever read about such widespread anger among Chinese netizens was the Zhu Ling poisoning case. Zhu Ling was a very bright student with a promising future when she was mysteriously poisoned with thallium in 1995. Today, her body is disabled, her mind deformed. She is less than a shadow of her former self. The main suspect was questioned by the police but let go, and is now living in the US and, according to different sources, living a very good life indeed. There were allegations that the suspect was highly privileged, with political connections who helped her leave China, leaving an unsolved mystery — and a poor, ruined girl — behind.
Chinese netizens jumped on this with a fury that threw me. They did to the suspect in the Zhu Ling case what they’re doing to Ping Fu now — they set up websites and forums, dug up very personal information, petitioned the White House to do something, anything. Supporters of the suspect said the same thing Fu’s supporters are saying now — this is a horrible personal attack that is crossing the line; this is the work of a mob. In Zhu Ling’s case though, there is no Cultural Revolution involved, no painful shared history for Chinese netizens to unite over or Westerners to point at. No, the root of the anger was privilege through ill means, and it sickened many Chinese to think about how, in an unjust society, privilege means getting away with anything, including murder.
Ping Fu isn’t accused of murdering anyone. She is accused of living a privileged life in a period that was hell for most, then playing the victim in the West; of being privileged enough to publish a book, but producing one with so many contradictions while many voices go unheard. Some of the things the anti-Ping voices are saying are over-the-top (such as asking her to show her scar in order to prove that she was raped), but I think it’s perfectly reasonable for them to ask whether she was a Red Guard/Communist Youth League member, and what privileges were attached to that. She says she wasn’t. Her Chinese university says she was, and they have a record to prove it. While such “I-say-you-say” contradictions exist, the furor isn’t going away.
I found this comment (posted to a Bloomberg column about Joe Nocera’s defense of Ping Fu) to be one of the calmer, more poignant voices that points to privilege as the reason for the anger:
I am one of those on Amazon who have been attempted to tell the world about the truthfulness of her book. However, at this point, I am willing to focus on one issue: her membership with the Communist Youth League. I am sorry for getting a little bit more personal. My family suffered a great deal during the Cultural Revolution. If Ping Fu became a member of that communist organization in 1973, that means she was from a politically privileged family during the Cultural Revolution.
I am aware that the information about her membership of the Communist Youth League was from a communist university. That is why I am willing to wait for her to show some evidence that Suzhou U manufactured that piece of record.
I am waiting!
And many are waiting too. For many Fu sympathizers, undeserved privilege — especially suspected undeserved privilege — will never, ever justify “unrelenting vilification.” I honestly don’t know if it does. I’m just trying to understand why it’s happening.
(Just so you know, I’m planning on buying her book, knowingly paying money for a piece of work that many claim is false. I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading it, and will find the entrepreneurial side of Ms. Fu very impressive. I divide the books on my shelf into fiction and non-fiction, and I’ll be sliding Bend, Not Break right in the middle when I’m done.)