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A revolution in thinking for Chinese athlete

Basketball opened Kai Chen's eyes to civil liberties. Now a U.S. citizen, he focuses on anti-communist protest.

October 05, 2009|Ching-Ching Ni

For years Kai Chen enjoyed the good life of a professional basketball player in China, playing on the national team and traveling around the world.

But he was never happy representing a government that he said tore his family apart and was responsible for millions of deaths in his country. So after Chen married U.S. foreign exchange student Susan Gruenegerg in 1981, the couple moved to the United States to start a new life together.

Chen eventually earned a degree in political science from UCLA and has since become a passionate anticommunist crusader. His main target: the legacy of Mao Tse-tung, leader of the People's Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976.

Last week, Chen led a group of demonstrators at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda in calling for the removal of a bronze statue of Mao, part of a permanent World Leaders exhibit featuring 10 former heads of state and government.

"I'm grateful to Nixon. Without Nixon opening China, how could I have met my wife?" said Chen, 56, who has written a book about his life under communist rule that details how his family were victims of purges. "But Mao has nothing to do with freedom and people's happiness and everything to do with tyranny, power and atrocity."

As part of his campaign, Chen has called for the removal of Mao posters at restaurants and other establishments around Los Angeles and has set up a website to promote his cause. He also ran a 10-city marathon to protest the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But some of Chen's friends are concerned that he has taken his crusade too far. They say his views of China are stuck in the past and do not reflect recent changes there and how the country continues to transform itself into a 21st century global power.

"As an old friend and teacher, I think he has gone a little out on a limb," said Richard Baum, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. "I don't feel comfortable endorsing these rather extreme ideas and gimmicks."

But fellow activists said they found Chen's outspokenness refreshing.

"Most people who support human rights and democracy see him as great," said Ann Lau, chairwoman of the Los Angeles Visual Artist Guild, a nonprofit group supporting free speech. "We certainly need more people like him."

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Saved by the ball

When he was 7, Chen's parents were branded counter-revolutionaries and exiled to Liuhe, a small town in northern China. He stayed behind in Beijing with three older brothers and an ailing grandmother.

By the time Chen was 16 he had reached his full height of 6 feet 7. But he saw no future beyond joining his parents in exile, which he eventually did.

Basketball saved him.

The tallest of three brothers, Chen was recruited by a local grain depot wanting to start its own team. Soon the three were the talk of the town.

They didn't know it at the time, but the success of Ping-Pong diplomacy in introducing China to the outside world in the early 1970s had inspired the government to do the same with basketball. Recruiters were scouring the country looking for potential players for the national team.

Chen was the only one of his brothers chosen and was sent to a training camp in Beijing.

But officials determined that he could not be trusted to represent the country abroad because of his family's history, and he was ordered back to Liuhe. Chen ran away but was caught and placed in solitary confinement.

Once he returned home, Chen enlisted in the army in Shenyang, near North Korea, because he knew it had its own basketball team. In the military, he dug ditches and built dams in freezing weather while enduring near-starvation.

A serious illness and the death of a friend convinced Chen that basketball was his best hope for a better life. "My goal was to get back on the national team," Chen said. "This goal was not for basketball. It was for freedom" to choose his own fate.

He approached his training with new determination and soon became one of his team's best players.

During an exhibition match in Shenyang, the elite August First national military team saw the talented young forward in action. "They saw me and said, 'We've got to get this guy,' " Chen said.

It was 1973. Nixon had made his historic trip to China. Mao was near death.

With the August First team, Chen traveled outside the country for the first time. During a trip to Mexico City, Chen met members of a U.S. team.

"I immediately felt a kinship with the Americans," he said. "They were free. They didn't have fear in their eyes. They just spoke their minds. That was tremendously attractive to me."

In 1978, Chen joined the Chinese national team and traveled to the U.S. on a five-city tour that included Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where team members visited the White House. After that, Chen was ready to quit.

"I no longer wanted to be a tool," he said.

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Back to school

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