How Members of the Chinese Diaspora Found Their Voices

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On October 13, 2022, more than two years into China’s totalizing COVID lockdowns, a man wearing a yellow helmet stood on the Sitong Bridge, an expressway overpass in downtown Beijing, and unfurled two oversized white banners. He then set fire to something that created a plume of dark, dense smoke. Below, stunned drivers and pedestrians stopped to read and to take photos of the scene. The man’s demands, inked in red, started with the quotidian—“We don’t want nucleic acid tests; we want food to eat”—and ended with the unapologetically political: “We don’t want to be lackeys; we want to be citizens.”

The protester, later identified as Peng Lifa, was arrested on the spot and never seen again. But his act of dissent hit a nerve among his countrymen. On public social-media timelines and private chat groups, Chinese Internet users started to spread the news in text, images, and codes, such as an obscure alternative-rock song titled after the bridge, that they knew no media outlet could report on. Soon, censors began scrubbing the words “Sitong Bridge” from traffic signs and online maps; Peng’s demonstration earned him the nickname Bridge Man, after the Tank Man at Tiananmen Square. On Beijing bridges big and small, a new vocation was born: bridge watchers. 

Peng’s demands for broader citizen’s rights and the relaxation of Xi Jinping’s stringent pandemic policies also struck a chord with countless Chinese people who live overseas. Beyond the reach of China’s censors and watchmen, posters featuring Peng’s slogans spread on campuses and streets all over the world. It was a resounding expression of solidarity that just a few years ago would have been unimaginable. In the decades following the Tiananmen protests and the exile of its leaders, Chinese activists abroad mostly agitated in isolated pockets. Inspired by political organizing they saw firsthand in the U.S.—around #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and labor unions—many young Chinese students and professionals found themselves moved to act. “Public expression had been almost unthinkable” to Chinese people, even those living overseas, Clyde Yicheng Wang, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University told me. But “the Bridge Man’s spectacular act of expression shocked people into thinking that the possibility exists.”

One such person was a software engineer in his thirties, who lives in the Boston area, whom I’ll call Seth, who had been eager to have political discussions since he moved to the U.S., a decade ago, but who struggled to find people who thought like he did. “I had suspected that people were intimidated from expressing their views because of the intensity of the crackdown—or maybe that they’ve become numb,” Seth told me. But in the days after the Bridge Man hung his banner, Seth learned, from a Chinese progressive advocacy group called Citizens Daily, that there were Chinese people in his area who were looking to start a Telegram chat to discuss current affairs. He was the third member to join the group, whose title translates to “Online and Offline Rescue Political Depressives.”

Seth and his fellow-Depressives were elated to find other Chinese people who shared values of social justice. Years of crackdowns on civil society and public speech in China had left them demoralized and fearful. One of them was an engineering Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University, whom I’ll call Chiara. “I was kind of emotionally avoiding Chinese current affairs,” she told me. The Depressives worried for their families in China, fearing that they might get sick, or find themselves trapped at home without enough food if a sudden lockdown was ordered in their area.

This anxiety was transformed into anger, Chiara said, by news of the Bridge Man protest. Another Depressive, whom I’ll call Lou, an N.G.O. worker in Boston, said, “I really couldn’t accept it—even though I had heard of stories of dark politics, I had always felt they were very far away. After this, I began to naïvely wonder, If we made enough noises overseas, perhaps Peng might be released, or become just a little safer.” The Depressives started more chat groups and one of them soon grew to more than a hundred members. Some participants started to hang posters together around Boston in solidarity with the Bridge Man. Near Boston University, Seth and some friends recreated Peng’s banner and hung it on a bridge over I-90. 

A few weeks went by; China’s quarantine rules persisted. Resistance to the lockdowns reached a fever pitch when a fire in an apartment building under lockdown killed ten residents in the city of Urumqi. The public suspected that quarantine measures had obstructed escape routes and firefighter access. (The government denied this.) Thousands of citizens across different Chinese cities took to the streets, many of them holding sheets of blank paper—a clever commentary on censorship in China—or chanting the demands for freedom that the Bridge Man had written on his banner.

They were soon joined by Chinese nationals and emigrants living abroad, who began holding solidarity rallies and vigils, some of them a thousand people strong, for the victims of the fire, often in prominent venues such as Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station—the world’s busiest train station—or the Hudson River pier outside the Chinese consulate in New York. Some twenty members of the Political Depressives group decided to organize an event in Boston. “From my experience living in America, I learned that if you want something to happen, you can’t wait for others to do it,” Chiara said. They had one week to prepare, and quickly got to work on tasks such as designing a poster and setting up a stage. Seth remembers that even a simple job like printing out display boards at Staples felt incredibly high stakes. Evoking the slang word fenhong, or “pinkie,” for people who are knee-jerk nationalists, he said, “I felt that some fenhong might confront me and yell, What are you doing?”

About five hundred people met for the Political Depressives’ gathering in a park in Boston’s Chinatown. Above a makeshift stage, the group put up Seth’s banner from the I-90 action. Some participants carried sheets of white paper or used signs that echoed Bridge Man’s demands. They mourned the loss of the fire victims, sang classic Chinese songs such as the nineteen-eighties hit “Tomorrow Will Be Better,” and shared their own experiences. (At one point, a Chinese man tried to disrupt the event and threatened to shoot a volunteer. He was arrested that night and later pleaded guilty to making a criminal threat.) Chiara thought the night felt like a group-therapy session. “So many people started to cry and to hug each other. I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said.  When Seth first looked for volunteers for the event, a Chinatown resident in his seventies got in touch. “I have waited for you for thirty years,” the elderly man said.

Since the protests began, I’ve spoken with dozens of Chinese people who live abroad and have been galvanized by the events of the last year and a half. These conversations straddled time zones. The people I spoke to, mostly in their twenties and thirties, are spread out geographically, across Europe, Asia, and North America, though many of them have similar biographies. They are highly educated professionals—scholars, office workers, and artists—whose successes in building careers and middle-class lives outside their home country were propelled, to some degree, by the lucky timing of China’s economic rise in their youth. Perhaps unlike many people of older generations, they feel decreasingly indebted to the state for this good fortune—and feel less inclined to stay silent about the state’s overreaches. “I used to think that no matter what an individual or a group does, it makes no difference,” Wang Jing, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. “But now my feeling is that, regardless of what this can achieve, I have this anger and I want to express it.”

Most of the people I spoke to, who had been raised in an environment where silence around political subjects was enforced—by Internet censors, cautious teachers, and fearful parents—described a habit of staying quiet on political issues even after they moved overseas. Lynn, a thirty-one-year-old computer programmer in New York who has recently become involved in political organizing, noticed a common disconnect, among Chinese people, between having an opinion and stating it out loud. “They are not used to using their own body to express themselves,” she said of Chinese participants at protests. Lynn performs frequently in New York’s growing feminist and queer Chinese comedy scene, and her fellow Chinese comedians observed a reticence to directly address current events in China. When she said Xi Jinping’s name in jokes, for example, she noticed a physical reaction in the audience. “Many people would cringe involuntarily,” she said. “Censorship grows in your body.”  

For many of the people I interviewed, participating in protests required breaking through mental barriers: Were they alone in their thinking? Could they trust the people around them? They often spoke of a feeling of isolation, and even an instinctive suspicion of other Chinese people they met. “When I would see a Chinese person on campus, I would subconsciously think that they must be a fenhong,” Clyde Yicheng Wang, the professor, said. “In reality, it may not be the case, but there was no way to survey how people truly felt.”

At American universities, Chinese students often feel conscious of the presence of more nationalistic compatriots and, by extension, the state. When Lin Yao, a professor of political science at NYU Shanghai, studied at Columbia, he heard fellow-students whispering about an incident where a dozen or so Chinese students walked out of a lecture by Andrew Nathan, a preëminent scholar of China, when Nathan discussed human-rights abuses. Other scholars I interviewed recalled that classmates and friends had been asked by Chinese authorities—either before they departed China or on overseas campuses—if they’d inform on their peers while studying outside China. These requests weren’t coercive, the scholars told me, nor were they done in secret.

An art teacher in New York, whom I’ll refer to as Amelia, and who went to college in Los Angeles, told me she remembered feeling uneasy around her college’s Chinese students’ association, a well-organized umbrella group that offered many Chinese students a sense of community and was known to be closely connected to local Chinese consulates. Around these students, Amelia found herself avoiding “exposing” her views. “I find myself fleeing from this crowd and from the way I was raised—that a good woman has to be a certain way,” she said. The group’s communications, she said, felt like hongtou wenjian, “red-header documents”—the Chinese Communist Party’s term for an intra-Party communiqué. Her alienation from the group made her feel anxious and lonely, and she suspects that other Chinese students felt similarly. “I think much of it is about political leaning and identity,” she said.“We didn’t have the language to vocalize these issues yet.”

The more I spoke with people like Amelia, the more I realized that this is a coming-of-age story for a generation of Chinese people who looked outward for a better future. Many of them grew up absorbing that being a good Chinese person means submitting to one narrow set of values, behaviors, and loyalties. Years of living in two realities—the disillusioning crackdowns on civil society in China, and the rising hostility toward Asian immigrants overseas—have made them feel that they have to draw new allegiances or double down on old ones. “A lot of the more nationalistic form of overseas Chinese students organizing is less about their support for the Chinese Party state but more about an affirmation of their own Chinese identity when they feel quite alienated in a foreign country,” Yangyang Cheng, a law scholar at Yale, told me. Lou, the N.G.O. worker in Boston, recalls doing something very fenhong herself during her time in university: when a university survey of international students in the U.S. did not indicate that Hong Kong and Taiwan were part of China, many Chinese students wrote complaints to the school. Lou joined the campaign. “I can’t quite remember my thought process back then,” she said. “I wasn’t a staunch supporter of the Party, but I had a simple-minded patriotism.”

The solidarity rallies of 2022 catalyzed many overseas Chinese people’s turn toward public dissent, but a diasporic political consciousness has been growing online for several years. “Before Sitong Bridge, for a long time, people resorted to ambiguous or caustic ways to express their discontent,” Li Ying, an artist living in Italy, whose Twitter account, where he goes by the name Teacher Li, is a wildly popular source for Chinese news, told me. Even outside the bounds of China’s Great Firewall, Chinese social media users developed a distinctly ironic and coded way of commenting on the news. A common joke involved randomly invoking America while discussing news events clearly unrelated to the country, to satirize Chinese nationalists’ fixation on the U.S. A deadly flood near Beijing: “America is just too awful!” A trafficked woman found chained in a shed in Jiangsu Province: “America is just too awful!” “For an outsider, it may look like nonsense, but, among peers, we understood each other immediately,” Li said.

Li, who has 1.5 million followers on Twitter, is part of a cluster of young Chinese social-media figures who live abroad and foster political discussions with varying degrees of seriousness or jest. A Japan-based office worker who is influential on Twitter and goes by the alias Daxi Jinping bills his account as a “rehab center” for people who are traumatized by interactions with Chinese nationalists; his feed is a mix of delicious satires of nationalist comments, news about China and Japan, and photos of sunsets from downtown Tokyo. Many of these social-media personalities are ordinary white-collar workers or students who simply went online to vent about politics and accidentally found a place in the spotlight. Yet it is hard to overstate the space for unfettered discussion and sense of community they created.

Northern Square, a popular Instagram account, was launched in the spring of 2020 by a young Chinese artist who was studying in the U.S. and felt bored by his online classes. He had always admired another page called Beijing Springtime, which collected photos of the Tiananmen protests. “In these photos, I see a sense of hope and youthful vigor that are rare for today’s young people,” the artist behind Northern Square told me. The account was a low-ambition pet project, and, for more than a year, its follower number hovered around a few thousand. But then one day, in the spring of 2022, when Shanghai was in lockdown, the artist posted, on a whim, a question to his followers: “What are you thinking about during the lockdown?” Within a day, he received more than a hundred submissions, and he started to repost them. Suddenly, the account transformed into a lively real-time virtual square for people to gather and talk to one another. A number of people shared the fear that they might never see their ailing grandparents again; others spoke of bitter conflicts with family members over politics. “My mother said I was ‘anti-China,’ ” one person said. “My heart is bleeding. I really love my mom and my family but this conversation pains me so deeply.”

During the white-paper protests, Northern Square—by then a two-person operation—helped publicize poster designs and offline gatherings and poster designs. When student protesters were threatened, they turned to the account to crowdsource help, and the Square became an ad-hoc sanctuary and advisory committee, circulating messages of support and various suggestions. A quarter of the account’s followers are based in mainland China and use V.P.N.s to access Instagram, and the rest are mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the U.K., and the U.S. The dialogue fostered through the account has created sympathetic moments of reunion that politicians might dream of. Over time, the artist who started the account has learned a lot about the young generation of Chinese people who are still searching for their political identities: “From the submissions, I can tell that they really resist being included in the kind of stereotypical ideas that outsiders projected onto them. They want to be seen as a group of people who yearn for democracy and freedom.”

When Seth and the Political Depressives began organizing their first rally in Boston, they initially agreed that they’d dissolve the group and return to their own lives after the event was over. But as the gathering gained traction, they discovered that they enjoyed working together, and found meaning in being able to discuss current affairs and a kind of Chinese political solidarity that’s not organized around the will of the Party-state. When I caught up with Seth in March of this year, the group was organizing a screening for a documentary called “Urumqi Road,” which is about the 2022 protests. The director, Chen Pinlin, a Shanghai-based filmmaker, has been detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—a catch-all crime frequently used against activists.  

Recently, some of the Depressives have coördinated to support protests for non-Chinese causes. When Israel’s bombardment of Gaza had killed more than thirty thousand people, a few of the group went to a local march for Palestinians. “We saw many Jewish people at the march. It’s remarkable,” Seth said. “I hope we Chinese can be like them, too.” When Seth first came to the U.S., more than a decade ago, he was impressed by how all of American society seemed to turn its attention to the election campaigns. “Democracy had been a theoretical concept for me before I saw it firsthand,” he said. In 2019, Seth joined a protest in solidarity with people in Hong Kong. “I was so nervous at the time,” he recalled. But over time, his fears—like the anxiety over doing a print job at Staples—dissipated; the way he described the expansion of his own mental freedom sounded like advancing through a video game, unlocking rewards along the way. “I stopped wearing masks at gatherings for Hong Kong and Uyghurs,” he said. “I no longer feel that fenhongs are watching me.”

Many of this cohort’s online gathering places emerged by accident, but since the white-paper protests began, more have been created with the express purpose of fostering solidarity. The names of these projects alone give an idea of how the diaspora is embracing its new identity. A news account for “dignified Chinese-language cultural life” is aptly called Dasheng, which means “a loud voice”; a new zine, “Mangmang”—an archaic term that describes the unfettered growth of wild grass in a field—advertises the slogan “an independent Chinese magazine without censorship”; a labor-organizing advocacy account uses the name Dagongren, a term that has historically referred to low-wage work, to foster solidarity between manual laborers and office workers. “I noticed that many people moved their focus from reacting with intense anger to community building,” Lynn, the New York programmer, told me in April. Recently, she and a few friends founded a company dedicated to helping incubate Mandarin-language podcasts, with ambitions to “reimagine talking freely.”

The past decade has felt, to me, like an education in social change. I’ve witnessed various movements—Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Hong Kong protests—coming to a boil and briefly eclipsing all other political happenings. Yet often, after a while, the voices quiet down and the streets empty out—either by force, or from attrition. Some argue that nothing has changed, while others say that everything has. As the moment of the white-paper protests recedes into history, the political reality claims its place: Chinese students studying abroad have reported being followed or intimidated after protesting. Teacher Li, the one-man news outlet, knows he will never go home again; his parents have been harassed and placed under surveillance. China scholars I spoke to, who are enthusiastic about the movement, are also wary of exaggerating its reach. It’s hard to imagine any major political shift in Chinese politics in the near future.

Still, I remain persuaded by something that a professor in Hong Kong told me. “Now that we have stood together and seen each other, we know we are not alone,” she said. “It’s kind of like baptism. It may appear that after being submerged in water, one returns to secular life unchanged. But, in fact, your whole mind-set is different.” ♦


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