It was a frigid New York night in late January, 2013, when Ping Fu sat with me in a hotel bar to explain her biggest fear. Fu had flown in from London earlier that afternoon and was beginning to feel jet lag. She tried to counter oncoming tiredness by drinking — mistakenly — chamomile tea.
“You sure you want chamomile?” I asked, noting the tea will likely send her to sleep.
“You’re right,” she said. “I travel so much I lose track of time.”
Ping Fu should have been afraid of nothing. Among many things, the then 55-year-old was co-founder and CEO of Geomagic, a pioneering technology company which on that night she was poised to sell for $55 million in cash (the deal would close in late February). She was a eulogised entrepreneur who led the team that devised Mosaic — the desktop browser that became Netscape which opened the internet up to the world.
Fu was held in such esteem in the United States, her adopted home, that in 2005 she was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc., a high-profile American business magazine, and sat on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Not bad for a woman from Nanjing, China, who arrived in the U.S. in 1984 with $80 to her name and three or so words of English.
Fu is also a memoirist. She is the author of Bend Not Break, a book that told an incredible against-the-odds story of her business success contrasted with her account of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. In the book, published by Penguin in 2013, she described being forcibly taken from her parents at the age of eight by Maoist Red Guards for “reeducation”.
Fu, the story went, had to become defacto mother to her four-year-old sister, was forced by authorities to eat dirt, animal faeces, and tree bark, witnessed executions, and was gang-raped at age 10 before being eventually thrown out of China for political subversion.
Yet she’s also been called “shameless” a “liar”, “fake”, “disgusting“, “dangerous“, “and, as one academic speaking off the record put it, “full of shit”.
But, let’s pause. We’re getting slightly ahead of the story here. Back in the New York hotel lobby bar, Ping Fu was frightened. She was, perhaps for the first time, realizing the consequences of writing a book about her life.
“I’m an introvert,” she said. “It’s very scary if I am to tell the whole world about my life.”
She stopped before adding a comment that would blow back over the next week like a typhoon.
“Also knowing there will be retaliation from China,” she said. “Character assassination. That sort of thing will happen because they don’t like what I write.”
Ping Fu thought she’d felt retaliation before. In 2005, Inc. profiled her after the magazine named her Entrepreneur of the Year for her work with Geomagic.
The story detailed her early life in China and Geomagic‘s history. Fu launched Geomagic in 1997 with her then-husband who had devised an algorithm to scan objects and recreate them with a 3-D printer.
The software that followed was (and is) revolutionary. Early clients included Boeing and toy manufacturer Mattel. The idea is that any object can be precisely custom-made in small and unique numbers. Geomagic’s software has repaired broken tiles on a space shuttle, fitted a prosthetic limb, created a millimetre-perfect replica of the Statue of Liberty and made a one-of-a-kind pair of pink high-heeled shoes that Fu likes to wear (everyday, she says).
Perhaps ahead of its time, Geomagic’s fortunes wavered and the company almost went bust. As detailed in Bend Not Break, Fu made errors as a rookie CEO but ultimately pulled her company through to make it the success story it became.
Not everyone was happy for her, though. Over six years, the online version of the Inc. story attracted just one comment, from a reader calling herself “Deborah Hogan”, who on January 19, 2011, claimed, in part:
“This entire company is a joke and Ping Fu is the BUTT of it. She is the most insincere, racist, politically to a FAULT incorrect to a fault CEO ever. The people who she embraces and continues to court are the ones who keep her secrets and continue her façade… [sic]”.
“I don’t have any idea who it is,” said Fu. “Apparently there was a temp at Geomagic for three days who’s name is Deborah Hogan. I never met her. Apparently she was a friend of my accountant and she says she didn’t write it. Someone used her name. It could be a competitor. It could be something else. Someone who got fired. It is possible it is the Chinese government.”
An online LinkedIn profile does exist for a Debbie Hogan who lists her current job as office manager at the Raleigh, North Carolina offices of Geomagic. The LinkedIn account lists little information and has zero connections with any other users of the social network.
It was clear the attack on the Inc. website stung Fu, especially as the comment will stay online for as long as the story does. But the chamomile tea is gone and the night is moving on. Fu has to make a late working dinner to discuss Geomagic’s software with a potential client and how it can relate to building yachts.
“It’s not like I have enemies and I know someone is going to attack me,” Fu said, before she slipped through the hotel’s revolving door, turned toward Times Square, and disappeared into the crowd.
Then, pretty much all hell broke loose.
In August 2010, Fang Shimin was walking to his home in Beijing when he was approached by a man who sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. Another man then chased Shimin with a hammer and an iron bar eventually catching him, hitting him in the hip with one of the weapons.
“They were hired by urologist Xiao Chuanguo because I exposed his unsound, unsound and harmful surgery,” Shimin explains. “I narrowly escaped with minor injury.”
Shimin’s pen name is “Fang Zhouzi”. His reputation in China is as something of a “Science Cop”, another nickname he acquired exposing plagiarists and frauds, especially in academia. His reputation was enhanced for revealing inconsistencies in the resume of the former head of Microsoft China, Tang Jun.
Shimin claimed Jun did not, as the executive claimed, hold doctorates from California Institute of Technology or Pacific Western University, an unaccredited college that specialized in online degrees that closed in 2006 after a law suit from the state of Hawaii challenged its legitimacy.
With Jun in the bag, Shimin trained his sights on other targets and when Forbes China published an account of Fu’s life story in late January of 2013 to coincide with the release of Bend Not Break, the Science Cop compiled his case. This time, however, the alleged ’crime’ was history not science.
The more Shimin investigated, the more he became incensed by Fu’s story, especially her recollections of growing up in China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He blogged about Fu’s comments in the American media on his website. At th same time, English-language websites that had covered Fu and Bend Not Break were swarmed with comments originting from China that denounced Fu.
The resulting forum frenzy was eviscerating. The Amazon page for Bend Not Break was inundated with negative comments and awful reviews that sunk its rating and affected the promotional algorithms necessary for good sales. The book, and Fu, was effectively trashed by those who had not read it (Bend Not Break was not available in China) equally exposing the vulnerability of Amazon’s review system (the retailer did not respond to a request for comment).
The online comments and reviews against Fu were mostly anonymous and subjective but Shimin was, if opinionated, exhaustively and obsessively forensic. Asked to comment for this story, Shimin wrote an extensive email and claimed that Ping Fu was not a so-called anti-Mao “Black Element” but a Red Guard herself; her experience working as a child in a “forced labour camp” was simply part of the national curriculum at the time; that her education timeline did not add up; that her claims to have witnessed executions were fabricated (Fu later clarified to Forbes that her recollections of executions may have been ‘emotional memory‘).
Shimin also slayed Fu’s account of her university research that she says led her to leave China. According to Fu, a research paper she wrote on China’s one-child policy gave detailed accounts of female infanticide in rural areas. Her unpublished university paper, according to Fu, was passed on to a newspaper by a professor that in turn influenced an editorial later republished by the People’s Daily.
The subsequent media coverage turned an international spotlight on China’s birth control policy. Authorities held Fu’s research responsible for the attention. According to Fu, police arrested her — a 23-year-old undergraduate student — and demanded she flee China.
“A possibility is that she fabricated this story to meet Western mindset,” says Shimin.
The denunciation of Ping Fu was widespread and relentless. Chinese-Americans joined the online mob, claiming they’d arrived in the U.S. at the same time as Fu and her story did not compare with their own experiences, therefore she was a liar. The attacks moved past the historical accuracy of the book and drilled into Fu’s personal life, including her divorce.
“In the book she did not talk much about her husband,” wrote a commenter on a Fast Company online article. “… Ms Fu I want to say this to you — you may have achieved your personal agenda but you know in your heart you have lost even more! That is why you have to keep playing these dirty tricks to feed your greed and fantasy.”
Yet it was not just internet trolls who were skeptical of Fu. Academics — experts on China — cited inconsistencies with her narrative and life during the Cultural Revolution.
“The controversy is in part surprising because the Cultural Revolution is universally condemned in China,“ said Rebecca Karl, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies with New York University’s Department of History. “Something that makes the Cultural Revolution look absolutely awful would usually be expected to garner praise in China.”
Yiching Wu, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of East Asian Studies and author of several books on the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, says Fu’s story may be plausible but it is certainly exceptional.
“There are many bad stories that have been told and she would not be the first person to tell those stories,” said Wu, who also expressed skepticism of Fu’s account of leaving China in 1984, a key part of her life story.
“It’s likely that she produced a critical piece [of research] that didn’t please the government and she got into trouble,” he said. “But in the 1980s to be asked to leave China for political reasons would be quite extraordinary. You would have to be a very, very, prominent dissident.
“Actually, I have never heard of anything like this. They would just throw you in prison. To be flown to San Francisco, that would be remarkable. I would find that extraordinary.”
Adds Professor Kay: “Particularly in the early ‘80s no one was asked to leave China unless you were dual citizen. Either you were hauled off to reeducation camps or into police stations and questioned and forced to write self-criticisms.”
In Bend Not Break, Fu recalls being beaten and raped at age 10 by a group of teenage boys. She writes:
“All I could do was feel the boys cutting my clothes off, the knife ripping into my armpit and my bare stomach, and the pain of something blunt pressing between my legs. I lost consciousness… A nurse told me I had sustained ‘deep cuts, a broken tailbone, and internal injuries‘. It had taken more than forty stitches to close the wounds. I carry the scars to this day.”
Fang Shimin sent another email from Beijing. In it he said Fu’s account of rape is “unbelievable”.
“Even in the most chaotic years of Cultural Revolution gang-rape or raping a little girl was still a capital crime that couldn’t avoid punishment… Red Guards were teenagers with revolutionary ideal and without any sexual experience. They were not some street thugs. They might beat ‘anti-revolutionaries’ to death but they didn’t rape enemies. Ping Fu’s is the only account that Red Guards had conducted this kind of crime… Why should we believe this one?”
And with that highly volatile and personal comment, the takedown of Ping Fu was apparently complete.
“The book was very accurate and very true,” explained Hong Bischoff, Ping’s sister, on the phone from Scottsdale, Arizona, where she owns a store selling regional arts and crafts to tourists. Bischoff was cared for by Fu when they were taken from their parents, lived and years later, as an adult, followed her to the United States.
“I’m 52 years old,“ Bischoff said about criticism of the book. “You can’t go back and say that day I had rice and the next day we had noodles but we can remember the things that happened to us.
“We are Chinese and we don’t like show and tell. There is a culture of this. Things are very private. Especially the rape. It changed Ping’s life. Her character and personality changed.”
Bend Not Break tells that at aged six, Bischoff fell into a river and Fu saved her from drowning. In the commotion, the sisters attracted the attention of the gang that Fu claimed raped her.
“They say this is not true but how do they know?” Bischoff said. “They were not there. In China, if you get raped you never talk about it. It’s shame — you should be a virgin before you get married. My father would have killed himself if he had known at the time. It’s not something you can talk about.”
Bischoff went quiet.
“I remember we ran,” she finally said. “I remember Ping cried.”
She paused so long it was as if she‘d hung up the phone.
“I remember I cried.”
For every detractor of Fu, Bischoff is a reminder there is equally strong support from within a world that also knows her life after China. Regardless of how she actually made it to America there is no contesting her fairytale rise from penniless immigrant to a multi-millionaire star entrepreneur who has shaped the way we use the internet and how we will use technology in the future.
Fu, her hair tipped with blue, who wears custom pink high-heel shoes, a CEO who posts Facebook photos of her trips to Burning Man, the alternative Mad Max-style festival held in the Nevada desert, has the ear of President Obama, the most powerful man on earth. Her success in America is genuinely exceptional.
“She is very highly regarded in her industry,” says Bo Burlingham, a friend of Fu’s who has been an editor at Inc. for 30 years.
“I don’t know about China but I do know about Ping as a human being. She is a person of great integrity. She has very strong values and values how people should be treated. She is an extremely intelligent engineer, who is a pioneer in a technology that for the next 30 years changes the economics of manufacturing.
“I find it very hard to believe this criticism is happening spontaneously. I find that just as incredible as the stories Ping tells about herself.”
Chip Conley, a hotelier turned entrepreneur turned best-selling author of let-me-inspire-you business books, first met Fu when they shared a stage at a conference several years ago. He questions why Fu would fabricate her past life when she has much to lose by doing so.
“I see little upside for her, as a successful CEO, in writing a book full of made up stories,” he says. “I’ve only known her to speak the truth. She’s loyal, open-minded and open-hearted. She’s a fierce competitor, resourceful, and passionate.”
“She’s admirable in that she bares no grudges,” said Fu’s 19-year-old daughter, XiXi Edlesbrunner, who learned some of her mother‘s story for the first time after reading the book. “She has had all these experiences yet she doesn’t hold anything against anyone.”
MeiMei Fox, Fu’s co-author on Bend Not Break, met Fu at a birthday party for Chip Conley at Burning Man. A Mandarin speaker, born in Hong Kong into a family of China academics, Fox is confounded by the intensity of criticism directed at the book and Fu.
“When I heard Ping’s story it did not feel ‘full of shit’ at all,“ Fox said via phone from her Los Angeles home.
“I don’t think any inconsistencies have warranted this vociferous and personal and ugly attack. I expected some criticism from China and from mainland Chinese given that it is talking about a very difficult period in Chinese history but I did not expect it to take off in this way.”
Fox said the story was fact-checked as much as possible but emphasized it is a memoir not a biography — a point the book’s publisher pushed after the controversy blew up.
“For me the big story of someone surviving incredible adversity and triumphing through compassion, generosity, hard work is absolutely true,“ Fox said. “She is living that truth.”
For Portfolio, a Penguin imprint and the book’s American publisher, the online attacks on Fu were “not only false but vile”.
Asked if he considered the criticisms an orchestrated campaign to discredit Fu, Portfolio’s president Adrian Zackheim said: “I don’t see how an intelligent study of the postings on Amazon, most of which are clearly not based on a reading of the book itself, could conclude otherwise.”
“I don’t think there is a conspiracy here,” added University of Toronto’s Professor Wu. “This type of [book] would not make the Chinese government happy but they could care less about it. This does not really undermine the Chinese government today.
“The book is less about China than it is about America. The China story is being used as a prop, a contrast. You can tell a good spy movie if it has a beautiful woman. But you can still have a spy movie without a beautiful woman.”
The morning after the night before, when a jet-lagged Ping Fu lost track of time and drank chamomile tea too early in the evening but still made a post-9pm dinner date, we were at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In one of the museum’s galleries, Fu discretely demonstrates how her iPhone can scan a sculpture or a painting and then, with the help of her software, could print out a replica of the original artwork.
She said she hoped her company, the one she was about to sell for millions of dollars, could in the future assist museums in redefining the way they think about restoring art and commercializing it.
You, too, could have an exact-to-the-millimetre Rodin or Miro, even down to the texture of the oil and canvas, in your living room. Fu’s passion, she said as she slipped her phone into a one-of-a-kind pink linen case she produced using her own technology, is where art meets science and tech meets handcraft.
She also asked that part of the conversation from the previous night be off the record. She feared that an individual she spoke about may face some kind of unspecified punishment if their role in her life became known to present-day Chinese authorities (every other part of our conversations remains on the record).
“I have truly lived my life in two worlds,” she said. “China and America are such a 180-degree difference in their ideology and beliefs but they are so similar. Chinese are driven and capable and the Americans are also driven and capable but less humble and sometimes less kind. Though sometimes they are very kind. American kindness is different to the Chinese kindness.
“But I don’t feel a strong loyalty or patriotism to China. I have more loyalty to the U.S. because it gave me a different life and gave me opportunities. And Chinese people hate it when I say that. They say how can you not love the country you were born? To which my answer is no one tells you that you have to love the parents who abused you.”
During the height of the online attacks Fu emailed to say that she was “shocked and hurt”. They far exceeded what she’d originally feared on that cold night in New York. She forwarded a link to a column she’d written for Huffington Post in which she wrote:
“I am human. This is a human story. I have made mistakes in my life, as have we all. That doesn’t make the story untrue.”
Listening later to recordings of our interviews, several lines stand out from the polite opening exchanges, the usual chit-chat that covered the weather and motivation for writing a book about your life.
“I never pursued anything,” Fu said. “I never wanted to be successful. I never went after money. I just wanted to live a good life and I wanted to contribute. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I said, ‘Let’s make it life lessons’”.
That much, we can agree, turned out to be very true.