How Members of the Chinese Diaspora Found Their Voices

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.”

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