Internet Assault

02.04.13

Ping Fu Defends ‘Bend, Not Break’ Memoir Against Online Chinese Attack

Furious at the airing of China’s dirty laundry in Ping Fu’s new memoir, Chinese commenters have kicked off an online assault. The tech entrepreneur tells Katie Baker the vitriol feels like the public shame sessions of her youth.

“It’s like I’m living the book title,” says Ping Fu, author of the new memoir Bend, Not Break. Over the past week, the Geomagic CEO and her book have become the targets of a virulent attack by China’s Internet vigilantes, who have slammed her account of the country’s Mao-era troubles and lampooned the book on Amazon with a flood of one-star reviews. But to her critics and bullies, Ping has a simple reply: “I will stay strong, and I will not break.”

The bloggers began their Amazon blitz after Forbes China published an interview with Ping late last month in which several aspects of her story, including the use of the term “labor camps,” apparently got lost in translation. The memoir, which was released last month, tracks Ping’s tumultuous childhood during the Cultural Revolution, when she was forcibly orphaned and left to raise her younger sister alone, through her immigration to the United States and her years as an entrepreneur of Geomagic, which consults on 3-D technologies. Critics have questioned the timeline of Ping’s account, along with some of the more gruesome details of the story, including a childhood rape and the public quartering of a “black element” by the Red Guards. When Forbes followed up to correct the details in its interview after a prominent Chinese academic and other Internet users cried foul, the site was deluged with commenters calling the author a liar and a fake, and accusing her of fabricating everything from her knowledge of English to her account of public executions by the Red Guard. (In addition to the Forbes follow-up, Ping clarified many of the facts in a separate article over the weekend.)

Meanwhile, over on Amazon.com, the book’s ratings began to plummet. As of press time, it rated 1.6 out of 5 stars, with 315 out of 377 reviewers giving it the lowest possible one star, often under such headlines as “Absolutely a liar” and “A good book only on April 1st.” Under Amazon’s reviewing system, most of the critics were able to weigh in under a pen name—but many appeared to be non-native English speakers with a knowledge of Chinese history. “Only those cant [sic] read chinese and not familiar with modern chinese history will believe the story,” wrote one. “She had [sic] talked this fake story too many times,” added another. “Her father and my father worked together in the university since 50s until they retired … Ping Fu was also a Red Guard herself!” blasted a third.

Both Ping and her publishers say they were caught off guard by the vitriol. “We’ve never had an experience like this before,” says Adrian Zackheim, publisher and president of Portfolio, which released the book last month. “It’s not clear that any of the comments are based on an actual reading of the book itself, which is also a cause of some concern … The barrage of negative comments mostly seem to be based on the blog and Internet comments.” (The book is not yet available in China.)

“We are proud of the book, and of Ping, and of her perseverance,” Zackheim added. “Ping worked hard to get her facts right, but it’s her memory that she’s offering … it’s a personal memoir that’s written with candor.”

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While Ping says she expected a certain amount of backlash inside China, she was shocked at the firestorm her book touched off. “I have never seen an attack of this scale,” she says. “It was really a surprise … they just suddenly all appeared, and they appeared like armies.”

After her initial replies to her critics, Ping expected the furor to die down—but her responses seem to have added fuel to the fire. “We looked at some comments, and I thought if I were to just make a public answer to some of them, some of the questions and issues that I thought were triggered by the Forbes translation into Chinese…it would be fine,” she says. “But it just comes more and more.”

“It makes me feel like I’m living my youth again. Like everybody just screaming at me with all these names,” she says. “It makes me feel like I went right back to when I was 8 years old”—when, as Ping writes in the book, she was labeled a “black element” and forced to undergo public shame sessions. “Most of those [behind] the anonymous attacks are trying to reflect their own experience over mine. But everybody’s life is different,” she says.

“The other thing I respect is that if there are editorial mistakes, which every book has, here, we just point it out and then we correct it. I already corrected some information I was going to correct in the second print,” she adds. “If they could help me make it more accurate, I’d be more than happy to do that … [but] this organized attack is not constructive.”

The Amazon attack bears elements of the type of Internet bullying—known by the ominous phrase “human flesh search”—that is increasingly common among Chinese bloggers. “Coordinated Netizen action against an individual is not at all unusual in China,” says Emily Parker, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and an expert on the Internet and democracy. (Parker cautions that she is unfamiliar with Ping’s case and therefore cannot speculate on who might be behind the attacks.)

I’m lucky that I came to the United States and made a better life, and many people over there did not. And they may be angry.”

While the human flesh search phenomenon has helped expose injustice, it also has been trained on individuals to humiliate them publicly or to punish those who do not align with a strongly nationalist viewpoint. Indeed, recent hacking attacks on prominent American media outlets seem to have been aimed at publications deemed critical of China’s leaders.

In Ping’s case, the most intimate details of her life story have become fodder for the bloggers’ mockery and their conspiracy theories—including her account of a brutal gang rape as a child. “Why can I say [the rape] is a lie with 100% confidence?” wrote one commentator. “Because, had anybody in the US dare [sic] to claim that she was gang raped by 10 teen boy [sic] in broad daylight on Pennsylvania ave without providing any evidence, everybody would know that is a LIE!!!”

Ping says she knew writing about the rape might be risky. “My mother and my sister were very much against it,” she says. “They don’t understand why I would want to air the dirty laundry. To them, for me to write about the rape is unbelievable.” But Ping says she knew that keeping silent about the assault would perpetuate the trauma and the cycle of injustice. “During the writing process, I found this piece was an important thing [to address] because it was such a traumatic moment in my life. And not writing it feels like hiding with fear. I was trying to confront my own fear, so that I can heal and move forward.”

Indeed, many of Ping’s critics seem to take offense at the book’s airing of China’s dirty laundry—namely, of the traumas of the Cultural Revolution—to non-Chinese readers. Others seem to resent Ping for having escaped China to resettle into a successful life in the United States. As one blogger wrote, “I think the most important point that outrages Chinese is that Ping … lived a better-than-average life.”

Of her critics, Ping says, “I sympathize in some way, because we are in a generation where most of us, whether a ‘black element’ or Red Guard, we have all gone through a period where I feel we all have been victims in life. I’m lucky that I came to the United States and made a better life, and many people over there did not. And they may be angry.”

Still, she notes, “there are so many people in the world, there are so many women in developing countries [who] have no voice,” she adds. “Like that little girl who was lonely and scared, they have no voice. But I have a voice now, today. And I need to talk about it and write what happened.”

Another point of contention for the Internet attackers has been Ping’s account of a paper she wrote as a college student on China’s one-child policy and the practice of forced abortions taking place in the countryside. According to her book, Ping was one of the first people to report openly on the infanticides and forced abortions, and the paper eventually got her into trouble with the Chinese government, which asked her to leave the country.

The furor over the details of the college paper dovetail with a heated debate inside China at the moment about the possibility of abolishing the one-child policy, amid concerns over China’s falling birth rate and the country’s gender imbalance, the result of the preference for boys among Chinese families. With the policy now “at the top of national consciousness,” Ping says, “my story … may have just triggered some people.”

Regardless of the online attacks—and her worries about visiting China (“You worry about fanatics,” she says)—Ping and her publishers remain undaunted, and the book just landed on The New York Times extended bestseller list. As the controversy has gained steam, the author also has received support from fans and colleagues near—the CEO of 3D Systems, which is set to acquire Geomagic, comes from a family of Holocaust survivors and has encouraged her to “be strong”—and far. One Twitter follower told her, “I read the Forbes article about you, my parents … went through the same.” These small acts of kindness are right in line with the philosophy espoused by Ping’s title. “This is not a book about bashing China,” she says. “I hope [the attackers] understand that I have come to peace with what happened in the past … I try to use my story in a small way to show people that there’s hope, and you can make it.”

“The thing is, this is my story. This is a memoir, not a history book. This is not a researched biography of somebody else. This is my life, this is my memory, this is my experience,” she says. “I was trying to show people how generosity, love, and compassion can lead to a better life. It’s not about anger.”