Today, Chai Ling is the founder of a multimllion-dollar software company and the driving force behind a nonprofit group that helps victims of forced abortions in China.
That's a far cry from 1989, when she led the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and became one of the communist regime's most-wanted student dissidents.
But she has had one conviction these 21 years: to speak out for the voiceless in China, which has led her from the gates of the Forbidden City years ago to the halls of Congress this week to participate in discussions.
Zhang Boli, senior pastor of Harvest Chinese Christian Church in Fairfax, Va., and a fellow leader with Mrs. Chai in the Tiananmen protests, said her most defining characteristics are her passion and commitment to those causes.
"She was like that even when she was 23," Mr. Zhang said, referring to when Mrs. Chai, then an honors student at Beijing University, led the pro-democracy demonstrations as "commander in chief."
"We were all looking for more freedom, and we wanted to know what was really going on in China," Mrs. Chai said of her fellow protesters, adding that they saw their demonstrations as a patriotic movement and hoped the government and police would join them.
But the tanks that rolled onto Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, 1989 - and the ensuing massacre of 3,000 students - crushed that youthful naivete.
"We were all taught to believe in communism," Mrs. Chai said in an interview. "But after June 4th, we no longer believed in it."
She remembers being stunned that the People's Liberation Army, whose members were "uncles and aunties" to her, would kill its own people.
Chai Ling survived the massacre and went into hiding for several months until a group of Buddhists helped her escape from China in a shipping crate. She traveled through Hong Kong and Paris before she arrived in America in 1990.
Despite the obstacles of immigrant life in the U.S., Mrs. Chai earned graduate degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and eventually became an entrepreneur. She said she hoped that through her success she could "once for all overcome and free China."
Her businesses have succeeded: the Boston-based Jenzabar software firm provides technology services to 700 college campuses nationwide. But Mrs. Chai, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was overwhelmed by the burden of freeing a nation.
"She was successful, but she still had a lot of pain," Mr. Zhang said.
It was not until November that she found the hope and will to keep fighting for China's liberty, after hearing the cry of victims of forced abortion, Mrs. Chai said.
"I thought I knew China well," she said. But when she heard the testimony of a Chinese woman who had been forced to abort her baby, it reminded her of Tiananmen Square all over again, she said.
She realized there were many things about China she did not know and became convinced that only God could bring justice and freedom to China. She said she decided to become a Christian, and was just baptized this Easter in Boston's Park Street Church.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Chai spoke on a panel about the effects of the one-child policy in China, and was to share her testimony Thursday night at a prayer meeting for the Tiananmen Square victims. But with her newfound faith, Mrs. Chai said, she is able to look back at the incident and see how it brought hope.
"It's not 'if China will be free' anymore," she said, "but when and how."
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