Kai Chen has a request for those traveling to China for this summer’s Olympics: “When you go there, do something or say something. Tell people that Tiananmen Square happened.”
The political activist, author and former member of the Chinese National Basketball Team spoke Thursday at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea to an audience of about 25. Chen, who said he fears returning to his homeland because of his activism, discussed his life, his grievances with the Chinese government and the upcoming Olympics.
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Growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, Chen, 54, said he found “sustenance” playing basketball. At the age of 17, the six-foot-seven Chen was recruited to the Chinese National Basketball Team.
But the government soon expelled him from the team because of his grandmother’s connections with the Nationalist Army in Taiwan, which fought against the Communist regime before China’s civil war in the 1940s. It was a low point for Chen, he said.
Despite this setback, he said, “I chose to make an effort to live and succeed and go towards freedom and happiness.”
After years of evading the government’s order to send him back to the countryside and a brief but near deadly stint with the army — poor nutrition and an ulcer left him hospitalized — Chen managed to work his way back to the National Team.
At the age of 27, when he was at what he describes as the peak of his career, Chen made the difficult decision to leave basketball by faking a heart condition because he felt he could no longer represent the Chinese government.
“The system and the country have always held my love for the sport as a hostage against me,” he explained. “They force you to use this thing that you love to benefit something you despise.”
After China opened up diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979, Chen met his future wife, Susan, a U.S. student studying in Beijing. They married after two years of courtship and soon moved to the United States.
Chen described his bleak outlook on life before he came to America: “I never believed happiness existed because I’d never seen it.”
Yet in America he found it. When asked what makes America strong, Chen gestured to the audience.
“Here, in your eyes I can see a yearning for truth and trust,” he said. “I’m here for that. In China they do not have that look.”
Now a U.S. citizen, Chen said he still harbors anger towards the Chinese government.
“The damage they do to you is not material; it’s spiritual,” he said. “The people in China have no way to judge right and wrong — only what is powerful.”
With this in mind, Chen began the Olympic Freedom T-Shirt Movement. While not a proponent of a boycott — as an athlete, he understands the importance of the games — he wants those traveling to the Olympics this summer wear his shirt as a sign of protest.
Haley Warden ’08 said she took issue with some of Chen’s characterizations of the Chinese people.
“While he seemed to attribute the passivity of [the] Chinese to a pervasive slave mentality, I have been encouraged by my interactions with Chinese people,” she said in an e-mail after the talk.
One sophomore in attendance, who declined to give his name, said he liked Chen’s viewpoint.
“I thought he was a very reasonable speaker,” he said. “I didn’t think he was radical at all.”
Warden agreed: “I think that he’s very hopeful that he and like-minded individuals can bring change to China, or at least awareness,” she said.