“Do not read this book if you reject kindness, humility, and ingenuity.” So wrote Sally Rosenthal, the television producer, in her early appraisal of Bend, Not Break by Ping Fu, a memoir of 50 years of her life in two worlds, China and America.
Serious reviewers have acclaimed the book ("she tells her story with intelligence, verve and a candor that is often heart-rending," wrote Melanie Kirkpatrick in the Wall Street Journal). Yet rejection of the values Rosenthal identified in the book is the central feature of a vituperative campaign against Ping Fu led by an army of Chinese bloggers.
Now 54, Ping Fu came to America, alone and unwillingly, when she was 25, having upset the Chinese government by describing what she’d seen in the countryside, the murder of female babies at birth in pursuit of the one-child policy. She was penniless, with only a few words of English, and haunted by memories of a brutal separation from her adoptive family. She cleaned houses, waited on tables, learned English, fell in love with computers (and a computational scientist she married), discovered an aptitude for programming. In 1997 she cofounded Geomagic, a software imaging company whose modeling systems afford precise replication of complex shapes—the custom cranial plate for the skull of ABC’s Bob Woodruff, blown up in Iraq; heat tiles for the shuttle; prosthetic limbs of hitherto unimaginable precision. In 2010 she was appointed to President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The cyberwarriors attacking her are not interested in any of that. They are consumed by bitter resentment of her portrayal of China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She lied, they assert, about being gang-raped at 10: “the Red Guard were ‘revolutionists, not street thugs or rapists.’” The countryside infanticide due to the one-child policy she wrote about in an essay, which led to her arrest and solitary confinement, couldn’t have happened when she said it did if at all, they assert; nor was her subsequent departure due to an order for deportation.
I say “army” of assailants, but how many there are and where they are is one of the tantalizing unknowns in Internet warfare conducted anonymously. Two user names—20, a hundred—may conceal a single identity. The Wizard of Oz syndrome has been powerfully amplified, in this case, by the openness, some would say naiveté, of Amazon. It’s a brilliant company, but its book review site is not designed to repel boarders. Anyone with multiple email addresses and user names can click that many times on the invitations to write a customer review or say which other reviews they found helpful. Some 500 have clicked on the low one-star rating for Bend, Not Break, and 100 on the five-star—but this, too, is deceptive, since some five-star reviews are bogus, infiltrating more poison than praise. Second, the hostile ratings can be boosted by a tongue-in-cheek click: “I found this [nasty] review helpful.”
Take the industrious "Lin." Male, female, or hermaphrodite. Lin has led the customer review section with a five-star but hostile review of January 22 that was pages long. Amazon justified this, it seems, by the statement that “1,301 of 1,379 found the following review helpful.” Lin was still leading the reviews on February 9. How was this achieved when other genuine reviews of merit had appeared and the legend was unchanged that 1,301 of 1,379 “found the following review helpful?” Amazon has a button to enable readers to alert the site to abuse. It doesn’t seem to have much effect.
We don’t know how much of the hate campaign is organized by Chinese-Americans, proud of their country of origin, or by bloggers in China, acting on their own or encouraged by party and government. It is perhaps worth noting that putting the name Fu first is the Chinese way of ordering her name.
The dissident artist Ai Weiwei (New Statesman, October 17, 2012) has exposed the systematic way these things are organized in China by relating the confessions of one of the commentators hired by the Chinese government or Communist Party to steer a discussion away from anti-party content. They’re said to be paid 50 cents for every post on an Internet message board.
“I cannot make my name public. I’m 26. I have too many user names. If I want to use one, I just register it ... Almost every morning at 9 a.m. I receive an email from my superiors, on which directions to guide netizens’ thoughts, to blur their focus. This requires a lot of skill. You can’t write in a very official manner, you must conceal your identity ... You want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens ... The tone of speech, identity and stance of speech must look as if it is an unsuspecting member of public, only then can it resonate with netizens.”
The anti-Ping bloggers on Amazon are not just a random assortment of individuals who seek to correct lapses of memory. That is fair enough, indeed desirable; it would be surprising if there were not errors in remembrance. It’s the substance of the reviews that matter and the intent of the critic, and here the intent is less literary than political. The purpose seems to be to undermine the author’s credibility about her privations at the hands of the Red Guards when she was torn from her home at age 8 with The Little Red Book for her education.
But not just that. The campaign has morphed into a vindictive effort to destroy her life, to have her honors and awards withdrawn, the pending sale of Geomagic disrupted. Ping Fu groups have been formed, character assassination tasks assigned, and Amazon reviewers created a Google group to take their conversation offline. Here’s an entry from one of them under the rubric “Do not like liers [sic].”
“I am thinking about launching a petition on the White House website demanding the government to look into FU’s green card application case for possible lying under oath (it only takes 150 signatures for the petition to be displayed on the website.”
To which Lanlan Wang responds, “good idea, can someone provide a link.”
The apparent leader of the Google group writes: “Collect Ping’s book (it hurts to say this but yeah we need facts).”
“Draft an open letter to Chinese living in North America, call for action”
Here’s a contributor to the Facebook group: “Please join this group, It is time to stay together and give this blatant fraud a final strike. We will discuss this, dig out more lies. Write a petition to UCIS NBC, PBS, to expose her lies.”
Prof. Erica Brindley, a historian of Asia at Penn, ventured into the forum to say that Ping’s account of the Cultural Revolution was sound. At once she was subjected to lacerating personal attacks, known in China as “the human-flesh search.” So, too, Van Harris in the Google group, who protested the tactics of harassment and personal abuse. “H Chen” told him he must be a paid troll for Ping, a stupid American, a very, very lousy lawyer who should see a psychiatrist.
And Ping Fu? No doubt she is remembering the counsel of her Shanghai Papa that has fortified her all her life. “Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance ... Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. Take everything in stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwardly.”