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Book Review

A Heart for Freedom

China’s Vice-President, and President-to-be, Xi Jinping has just finished a three day visit to Ireland. The letters page of the Irish Times has debated the merits of closer ties with a country whose human rights record is somewhat dubious.

I have just finished reading “A Heart for Freedom” the autobiography of Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. She ended up on China's most wanted list—not for criminal activity but for wanting dialogue and democracy.

Her story of growing up in China with her military doctor parents gives a fascinating insight into life there—and the twin pressures of conformity and shame that leave no-one wanting to buck the trends, to stand out and stand up, otherwise you bring shame on your family.

The story follows her to university and her involvement with some of the other key figures of the movement. The turmoil of the days of the protest is well captured, along with the infighting among the different student groups, the political intrigue, the panic at the end of the protests as the government resorted to military force, and her escape to the West.

Her quest for democracy and for a voice for the unheard finds itself interwoven with another tragic thread—that of abortion. Forced or pressured to have three abortions when she became pregnant before marriage and without a birth-permit, it was heartbreaking to see the ease with which she could have an abortion, and how much it is part of life in China.

It is in the States that her personal rebuilding starts, a rebuilding that incorporates coming from Buddhist inclinations to faith in Jesus Christ, dealing with misrepresentation by the media, a new marriage and with the guilt of her abortions. In the introduction she says that for many years she had tried to write this story of freedom, but it was only when she came to faith in Jesus that she found the missing piece of the jigsaw and everything fell into place, for her personally and in terms of telling her story.

This account is personal and passionate. She doesn't shy away from the difficult and troubling issues she faced. Yet one of the joys is that in her search for freedom she has found an ultimate and lasting freedom.

Her fight for freedom continues—although now she is a voice for others. Her organization, ‘All Girls Allowed’, exists “to restore life, value, and dignity to girls and mothers, and to reveal the injustice of China's One-Child Policy.” It’s part of her bigger dream to ‘bring God’s love to China’, to see others find the freedom she has found.

It’s a book that’s well worth the read. And to link back to the recent visit to Ireland, Xi Jinping’s father, a former member of the Chinese government, although retired, fell from favour when he condemned the use of violence to crush the Tiananmen Square protests. Perhaps his son will bring about reforms when he assumes the Presidency.


I’ve just finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand—in a word (albeit made-up), it is unputdownable. Reviews on Amazon speak of staying up all night to get it finished. A friend of mine did likewise starting it one morning and not stopping until late evening. I had to exercise a little more discipline, but it was hard.

From the author of Seabiscuit, which was recently made into a film, comes an incredible story of ‘survival, resilience, and redemption’ to quote the tagline. One May afternoon in 1943, an American B-24 bomber crashes into the Pacific Ocean and disappears; only three crew escape—one of which is Louis Zamperini. And so begins one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

Zamperini stole and fought his way through childhood. His older brother Pete encouraged him to take up running, and Louis becomes one of the fastest men in the world, a man likely to have broken the 4 minute mile mark long before Roger Bannister’s 1954 triumph. All that is interrupted by the war, which finds Louis breaking more records as they struggle for survival adrift in the Pacific for an incredible 47 days.

After fighting off madness, starvation, thirst, leaping sharks who sought a tasty morsel, and coping with enemy planes shooting at them, he and his pilot are eventually picked up by the Japanese. And then the real story starts.

The brutality of the Japanese POW camps is sadly legendary and Louis, because of his fame and perhaps too his stubborn refusal to be broken, became a target for extra savage treatment at the hands of one particular guard.

Louis survives the camps, returns home to his family, who although told he was dead refused to believe it. But even this isn’t a happy ending. The title of the book isn’t quite accurate: Louis is eventually broken, not by the camps, but by the aftermath. Like many POWs the trauma of returning is too much—he suffers horrifying flashbacks, attempts to drown his memories with alcohol, and watches as his marriage disintegrates.

It is here that the book reaches its climax. It is in this context that this broken man finds himself being remade, set free by a power much greater than his own rugged determination. At a meeting Billy Graham was speaking at, Zamperini finds that ultimate redemption that only God can give. So powerful was this that he was transformed, his marriage rescued, his flashbacks gone, and he travelled to Japan to meet his former guards—to embrace them, and to speak to them of the forgiveness he had found and that they needed.

It put me in mind of a verse in the Bible - "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come." (2 Cor 5:17)

It’s no surprise that this book was named by Time magazine as its top book of 2010, and still sits at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. This book is a perfect read for virtually anyone—even if you aren't drawn to war stories, I suspect that you will find yourself engrossed in this captivating tale of a struggle for survival and much more.