35 Years Later: A Retrospective of Our Work on the 1989 Tiananmen Protests and Crackdown

This year is the 35th anniversary of the 1989 mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and elsewhere around China, and their brutal suppression on June 4. The memories of these events are receding into the past, a process greatly aided in China by censorship. And even when remembered, the crackdown that ended the optimistic 1980s in China is viewed by some Chinese government supporters as justified.

Updates to Our Database of Arrests under the Hong Kong National Security Law

We updated our suite of graphics tracking the impact of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. The law, which went into effect on June 30, 2020, and the allegation of “sedition,” have been used to arrest 292 individuals, charge 159, and convict 71 as of January 31, 2024.

Among arrests under the law in recent months, four individuals were arrested for signing up for paid subscriptions to Patreon accounts for Nathan Law and Ted Hui, Hong Kong politicians now living in the UK and Australia, respectively. Reasons cited for other recent arrests include posting on social media criticizing officials, as well as calling for protests and threatening the families of government officials, leading to charges of sedition.

In March, legislators passed a new security law in Hong Kong. Enacting a mandate in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s constitution, the new legislation expands on the 2020 National Security Law to cover sedition (and increases the maximum sentence for this offense), collaboration with “external forces,” treason and insurrection, and other acts. We will be looking into how this new legislation will affect national security cases going forward.

You can see our full dataset and graphics here.


Lessons from Tiananmen for Today’s University Presidents

Thirty-five years ago, in April 1989, Chinese students from Beijing’s elite universities began their occupation of Tiananmen Square. Their issues were different from those of American students today. Chinese demonstrators voiced concerns about corruption, inflation, the effects of on-going market reforms, and lack of free press and participatory governance. Today’s students at Columbia, NYU, Harvard, Yale, University of Minnesota, University of Texas, Brown, USC, and other campuses are mounting an antiwar movement, calling on their institutions to divest from Israel in light of the unprecedented levels of civilian death in Gaza, and for the U.S. government to stop supplying Israel’s offensive war machine. Another big difference: as it turned out, Chinese students faced far more serious and long-lasting repercussions than seem likely for American students, even those violently arrested by police. At least so far.

“It’s Too Convenient to Say That Xi Jinping Is a Second Mao”

A Q&A with Chun Han Wong

The Chinese Communist Party, an organization of over ninety million members, remains opaque to many outsiders, even within China. Wall Street Journal reporter Chun Han Wong spent years in Beijing documenting social, political, and economic changes as General Secretary Xi Jinping consolidated his power over the Party and country. Last year, Wong published Party of One, a portrait of the organization that rules China, and the man who rose to its top. Xi emerges in the book as a prisoner of the Party, and its history, as much as he is its leader. Wong spoke with Nick Frisch, a research fellow at Yale. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Nick Frisch: What misconceptions were you hoping this book would address?

Chun Han Wong: Talking about what kind of person Xi Jinping is, what he is trying to do, many people reach for this easy and simplistic reference to Mao Zedong. They just say Xi Jinping is doing a Mao. This comparison needs to be qualified. We do see some of the slogans, some of the tactics that we saw in the Mao era. But it’s too convenient to say that Xi Jinping is a second Mao, or Xi Jinping took this or that out of the Mao playbook. Of course there is some truth to the Mao comparison. Xi had little real education. His true education, throughout his early life, was political education. As a child, he had a front row seat to political drama, to Communist Party intrigue. He consistently learned up close how power was exercised, how power struggles evolve, the impact they can have on people. His own family suffered the negative consequences of such events.

But there are also important influences that not many observers note, and in my book I want to highlight those. Xi’s tactics have other influences. For example, [Mao’s rival Party leader] Liu Shaoqi, who was the arch Party-builder. Liu really believed in internal discipline, internal propaganda, internal political education. Liu wanted to ensure the Leninist hierarchy of the Party remained strong. Mao, by contrast, mobilized normal people to destroy the Party from the outside. This is something Xi Jinping would never do. The Party is his one true vehicle of power, the one instrument he has for implementing his vision. Xi is only powerful if the Communist Party is powerful. Xi’s internal purges, the internal Party inquisitions, emphasis on discipline, that’s from Liu Shaoqi. Xi Jinping doesn’t proclaim that theme loudly in public, but you can tell from the way he does things. Mao wouldn’t have done it that way.

Xi was born when the Party was a revolutionary movement that had just taken power. Now the Party has been a ruling institution for decades. How has the Party evolved over his lifetime?

It all goes back to Xi’s upbringing during the Mao era. Mao’s mobilizational approach, leaning heavily on ideology and messages, caused a lot of internal discord, dysfunction, violence. It was not good governance. We all know the worst excesses of the Mao era: the anti-Rightist campaign [in 1957], the Great Leap Forward [starting in 1958], the famine that resulted [killing an estimated 30 million people]. For the first two or three decades of the People’s Republic, Party rule was not conducive to nation-building, to what was envisioned before 1949. Much time passed between then and when Xi took power. His ideas of good governance would have been shaped by seeing what didn’t work during his childhood.

The years after Mao, the boom years, the Reform [and Opening] era [under Deng Xiaoping, from 1978], also had problems. Xi Jinping was reacting to those problems, trying to strike a balance between the two extremes. There was too much revolution in the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and then, in the decades before Xi took power, things went too far the other way [with corruption and disorder accompanying fast economic growth]. Party policy had swung too far towards development. Problems festered, to the point where the Party was struggling to control them. Xi wants to find an in-between: delivering good governance and economic results, but also with effective Party structures so top leaders can effectively execute their vision, rein in vested interests, and get all organs of the Party pointed in the same direction. That means ramping up the Leninist aspects of internal Party management.

You will often see [Xi’s] administration promulgating new rules and regulations, laws, Party guidelines. In the National People’s Congress, we haven’t historically seen such levels of legislative work. They have put down in black and white a lot of these things that might not have been considered necessary to say explicitly before, prescribing exemplary behavior for both citizens and Party members. Dangji [党纪, Party discipline] is stricter than guofa [国法, national law]. Party regulations are far more restrictive as a code of behavior. Some of the biggest changes introduced under Xi include new disciplinary regulations, clarifying processes, and penalties. In 2015, for example, he introduced this regulation against wangyi Zhongyang [妄议中央, speaking out of turn, or rashly, against the Party Center]. There is no room for freelancing when discussing matters of the Party Center.

How important is ideology today? 10 or 15 years ago, Marxism in China was considered a bit passé, almost a joke.

If you mean ideology like Marxist-Leninism, Party members have to be conversant with that, at least superficially. In 2018, on the [200th] anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, Xi led a propaganda push to study the Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, those early communist writings. People said, “Xi Jinping is leaning into the hardcore stuff.” He was, it’s true, the first leader in a long time to invest so much public effort in getting people to read such things. But in my experience, talking to people within the system, looking at the reading materials for their mandatory political study sessions, the people themselves are not necessarily ideological. They’re not studying it like academics, not engaging like a graduate student. That is not required. What is required is that people show their willingness to study. What really matters day-to-day is not so much Marx, but Xi Jinping Thought. That is the number one thing for these regular political study sessions that Party members must attend, whether ordinary SOE [state-owned enterprise] Party members or senior Politburo members.

Reading Xi Jinping Thought, there’s nothing essentially Marxist or Leninist about it. A lot of it is just about what makes China a strong country, and the things we must deliver to make China the great nation that we know it is. The student’s ability to regurgitate the mantras is key. Xi’s ideological emphasis is not so much making people good Marxists, it’s making people good cogs in the Leninist machine, showing willingness to participate in these rituals.

What are Xi’s economic policies? For decades, the Chinese state prioritized growth. Now, there’s concern that has changed.

From Xi’s perspective, he is not saying that we should not have growth, but he would argue that the growth China had was too focused on raw numbers, the blind pursuit of more GDP that doesn’t take into consideration distribution of wealth, benefit to the majority of people. You can argue there are elements of his Maoist upbringing that influence him: He frequently cites Maoist slogans about “common prosperity,” making sure that Chinese society is more egalitarian. He calls upon that spirit and nostalgia.

What Xi is trying to do is steer China closer to what it professes to be: a socialist state. It aspires to be a modern socialist power. Socialism, he’s actually serious about it. It’s not cynical. He believes China should be a more equal society. He thinks China has gone too far in one direction over the last few decades, and wants to recalibrate. He’s not an economist, so he sets the direction and entrusts delivery to his underlings. Xi Jinping doesn’t want to destroy the economy. He has gone to lengths to offer reassurances to the private sector, but signals that the private sector cannot blindly pursue its own narrow interests.

Because of how this message was implemented, a lot of private entrepreneurs and foreign investors are scared. They are realizing he’s serious. Private entrepreneurs are now rounded up for doing things that in the past the authorities would have tolerated or even actively encouraged. For a long time, foreign investors were welcomed with open arms. Now, they are expected to recognize that foreigners are guests of China, they’re on China’s terms. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic [and Xi’s draconian pandemic management policies], where we saw the extent to which he’s willing to ride roughshod over private sector interests, many people are finally thinking they can’t work with this.

In China’s foreign policy, observers have noted a shift from Deng Xiaoping’s low-key “hide and bide” stance to a more assertive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Is this one of Xi’s signature policies?

That shift started before Xi. Even under Hu Jintao, there were signs that China was trying to assert itself more abroad. In terms of economic statecraft, we saw use of trade pressure to exert leverage before Xi, for example with Norway [the suspension of salmon imports after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010]. Elements of “wolf warrior” diplomacy were visible in moments when Chinese diplomats were truculent and brash about “core interests” like Tibet, when the Dalai Lama was at the peak of global prominence and influence. Under Xi, you see these displays more often on a wider range of issues. Chinese diplomats are taking up Xi’s spirit of struggle, using harsh language.

In diplomacy broadly, Xi himself is also leading from the front. He is the most traveled PRC leader ever, and he has welcomed the most foreign visitors to Beijing, at a greater frequency than any predecessor. He has invested more money in diplomatic outreach. The foreign affairs budget has increased; there are more Chinese embassies and consulates around the world than before. It flows from Xi’s core political agenda.

What kind of legacy does Xi want to leave?

Only he truly knows. I think you can take him at face value when he talks about things like the “China Dream” and the “Two Centenaries” goals [for certain policy achievements by the 100th anniversaries of the Party’s founding in 1921, and the PRC’s founding in 1949]. Often, these slogans are vague and amorphous goals, so you can never really fail, you can always redefine them.

Xi probably wants to be remembered as someone who restored China to its rightful place in the world, whatever that might mean in terms of concrete achievements. The general vibe—and he has already delivered on this part—is a China that gets global attention, a China that is recognized by governments around the world as an important political and economic power, and that is dealt with as such. You could even spin the perceived negatives of “wolf warrior” diplomacy as positives, because if the West is taking China seriously, then you know China is strong, because China is seen as a threat.

There are other issues where the legacy might be more mixed, domestic issues where Xi has set expectations of delivery and hasn't quite gotten there. Poverty alleviation, anti-corruption—those are as close to being clear victories as he has.

Then there are other things that you can’t dress up despite best efforts, like the Xiong’an economic region [south of Beijing], which hasn’t really taken off. The Belt and Road Initiative is not exactly a failure, but is not the resounding achievement that Xi would have liked. It will persist, but the limits of these projects, the limits of Xi’s ambitions, are becoming apparent. Some things you cannot will into reality.

There is a saying that Mao Zedong achieved jianguo [建国, founding the new Chinese republic], Deng Xiaoping fuguo [富国, enriching China], and Xi has presided over qiangguo [强国, strengthening China]. If we say Xi’s objectives are for China to be economically powerful, militarily powerful, internationally respected, you can argue he’s done much of these three elements, especially the last two.

A major part of legacy is succession. How much more time does Xi want on the job? When will he feel satisfied he did his best? It’s a dynamic problem, it’s not just about what you achieved, it’s about whether you can find someone to carry forward your vision. Xi has seen himself what happens when succession is botched.

Then there is Taiwan. This is one of those things everyone has an opinion on, but only Xi himself can answer. We’ve heard many anecdotes from people who have been in meetings with him, talked to him about Taiwan. He seems to hold this issue more closely and passionately than his recent predecessors. The language he uses creates a sense of urgency. But the realities of the situation are difficult. There’s a reason why Mao Zedong didn’t do it. There’s a reason why Deng Xiaoping didn’t do it.

The gap in relative strength of militaries across the Taiwan strait is big and probably going to grow bigger [in Beijing’s favor]. The sense of identity among people on Taiwan is drifting far from being “Chinese” or identifying with the mainland. This drift is a trend you can’t really reverse without taking military and political control of Taiwan. It’s not something you can change by force of will. Many issues in Taiwan now are seen through the lens of Beijing influence, so the more Xi does, the more it’s perceived negatively. In this respect, I don’t think Xi and the Party are better positioned than before. It’s arguably worse. You could put some of this on Xi himself. Can you resolve that peacefully? It’s hard to see. Is the alternative plausible? If you use force to take Taiwan back, that’s jeopardizing your achievements for 1.4 billion people on the mainland. The conditions for a war of choice undertaken by Xi are, at this moment, hard to foresee. You could end up in a war by accident, the lesser option of seizing Taiwan’s outlying islands [closer to the mainland China coast], or a blockade, to take political control by force.

Updates to Our Database of Arrests under the Hong Kong National Security Law

We updated our suite of graphics tracking the impact of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. The law, which went into effect on June 30, 2020, and the allegation of “sedition,” have been used to arrest 286 individuals, charge 156, and convict 68 as of the end of 2023.

Reasons cited for some of the arrests in the second half of 2023 include wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong” and sharing social media posts of the “Glory” protest anthem. 10 people were arrested in August for their connection to the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which received donations to advocate for sanctions against Hong Kong and to assist organizations supporting people in exile.

You can see our full dataset and graphics here.

What’s Behind China’s Laws to Protect Privacy?

A Q&A with Mark Jia

In his article “Authoritarian Privacy” for the University of Chicago Law Review, Mark Jia writes: “Privacy laws are traditionally associated with democracy. Yet autocracies increasingly have them.” In this ChinaFile Q&A, Jia and Samm Sacks engage in an exchange about what has motivated the Chinese government to enact and enforce a range of laws on information privacy and the implications for understanding the role of privacy laws in non-democratic states.

Samm Sacks: Outside observers have commented that China appears to have a split identity when it comes to privacy: rules limit how firms handle citizens’ data, while the state has unchecked surveillance powers. Is this dichotomy accurate? What does privacy mean in China, particularly in the wake of COVID, when the scale and reach of government surveillance and the use of data-intensive technologies for tracking and monitoring appears to have intensified?

Mark Jia: I agree with the view that China’s privacy laws are meant to preserve a broad “exceptional zone” for state surveillance in areas like intelligence collection, law enforcement, and domestic stability maintenance. I agree too that a lot of the rules and their enforcement have focused on how companies handle citizens’ data. For example, the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL for short), China’s first comprehensive privacy law enacted in 2021, establishes greater compliance obligations for major Internet platforms, such as a requirement to establish an independent body to “supervise” their privacy protection work.

But I think the reality is more complex than a private-public dichotomy would suggest. Most notably, the PIPL explicitly applies to state organs. The aim is not just to discipline firms but also lower-level bureaucratic entities that are abusing or misusing citizens’ data. To take one somewhat mundane example, my article discusses a case in which a local prosecutor discovers that a county-level agricultural bureau has been disclosing information on machinery purchase subsidies online without removing the personal information of over 1,000 farmers. The local procuratorate (prosecutor’s office) initiated a procedure that essentially asked the bureau to fix these violations, and the bureau complied.

The application of privacy law to state entities stems from a realization that some of the most egregious instances of data abuses in recent years, especially during COVID, emanated from state or quasi-state entities, not just private individuals or market actors. Most famously, perhaps, local officials in Henan once assigned red COVID health codes to a group of citizens to prevent them from traveling to protest the freezing of their bank deposits. Authorities have been sufficiently alarmed by these practices that as early as 2020, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issued a notice urging governments to follow personal information protection guidelines in their pandemic-control work. (At this point, the PIPL had not yet been enacted.)

I take this as supporting my general argument that China’s privacy laws were enacted in large part to highlight its responsive governance in the face of new vulnerabilities and dependencies that have arisen out of China’s data-driven society. If you look at how the national legislature and state media have framed China’s recent privacy laws, they have sought to position the central Party-state as a champion of individual privacy rights against incursion from various digital bad actors—individuals, firms, even local governments. Notably missing from this list of privacy intruders is the central Party-state itself, of course, despite its leading role as a surveillant. In this regard, privacy law may also be a means of distracting the population from the central Party-state’s own privacy incursions by redirecting attention to others.

You write that of the 130 countries that have enacted privacy laws, only about half are considered “free” by the nonprofit Freedom House. Why did you choose China as a case study for the role privacy laws play in these countries and to develop your theory of “authoritarian privacy”?

The most immediate aim of the piece is to explain China’s turn to privacy law. I do not claim that China’s situation is universal. But I do think that a close study of China’s privacy story can help draw out some hypotheses as to why authoritarian countries have been enacting privacy laws at their present speed and scale. In the article, I discuss four objectives that motivated the central government to enact privacy laws: to support its digital economy, to expand its geopolitical influence, to enhance its national security, and (most unappreciated in my view) to respond to data-related social grievances. Not all of these motivations apply to every authoritarian ruler. China’s geopolitical goals, for instance, are decidedly more ambitious than those of Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. But it’s also the case that at least some of these motivations likely present in other authoritarian examples. The government in Vietnam, for instance, has also been highly invested in growing its digital economy, deepening its surveillance state, protecting data security, and addressing digital abuses online. Vietnam is quite close, I believe, to enacting its own information privacy law.

Moreover, I think China is an interesting case because it is both the world’s leading surveillance state and a home to comprehensive personal data protections along lines inspired by the European Union’s Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is considered the gold standard in information privacy protection law today. Because China crystallizes that apparent paradox, I thought it could help suggest dynamics that might exist elsewhere.

We often talk about the Chinese government as a monolithic entity, especially when it comes to data. What are the ways in which Party-state actors at both central and local levels have responded to the so-called “datafication of China,” and what are some examples of their competing interests in datafication?

I draw on a definition of “datafication” as the process of “taking all aspects of life and turning them into data.” I think you’re absolutely right that central and local governments in China are not always 100 percent aligned in their data-related interests and priorities, including with respect to privacy. For example, some local governments that are highly invested in supporting local industry may be less willing to saddle those companies with the higher compliance costs associated with strict adherence to national data protection laws. On the other end of the spectrum, some localities may carry out central mandates more aggressively than central leaders might prefer. For example, a common pandemic-control measure implemented in residential communities required residents to use facial recognition to access their buildings. This became a sore spot for many. In 2021, the Supreme People’s Court included, in a legal notice clarifying the law on facial-recognition technology in civil cases, a provision explicitly calling on all people’s courts to “support” residents who request alternative methods of identification if their building managers mandate facial recognition technology for access. So here you see the center starting to reign in local practices that were initially implemented to carry out central mandates.

What has been the role of Chinese courts in enforcing privacy protections?

The PIPL provides for both administrative enforcement and judicial enforcement. The most prominent cases of enforcement, the ones we hear about in the news, tend to involve administrative processes. But courts have played an important role as well. It’s still early to draw general conclusions, as the PIPL is a relatively new law and legal disputes necessarily take time to work their way through the legal system. But early evidence on the ground suggests a few interesting trends.

First, in addition to what you might think of as ordinary civil suits against privacy violators or criminal prosecutions for data fraud and theft, we see a rise in public interest data protection suits brought by local prosecutors. In one Hangzhou case, for example, a local prosecutor brought a public interest suit against a short-video app for violating the privacy rights of minors. The court supervised a mediation agreement that required the firm to follow a compliance schedule, to pay out compensation to various children’s welfare groups, and to issue a public apology in a state-owned newspaper. Some of these prosecutor-initiated public interest suits have targeted state entities—usually for a failure to adequately supervise privacy rights protection in their jurisdictions, but sometimes for direct privacy violations too.

The second trend to note is more of a caveat. China’s law-enforcement apparatus may be mobilized now to carry out the privacy law’s socially protective mandate (and to boast about their success online), but these same agencies are also charged with balancing assertions of privacy rights against considerable state interests. In one case, for example, a Shandong court denied a plaintiff’s request for a pharmacy to delete her personal information because the pharmacy was not authorized to do so under local public health regulations devised for pandemic control. This shows that there are hard limits to how far law enforcers are willing to go.

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. have expressed concerns that Chinese-owned software applications threaten Americans’ data security and privacy—that Chinese laws compelling companies to cooperate with intelligence services mean Americans’ sensitive data could end up in Chinese government hands. Are Washington’s anxieties warranted based on your research into how Beijing has enacted privacy laws?

A key question for Chinese policymakers when drafting privacy legislation was how to further its various objectives (including predominantly domestic goals) while maintaining flexibility for state surveillance. It is well established that Chinese firms are required to share information with intelligence services under various laws, including the National Intelligence Law. The PIPL does not fundamentally alter these obligations, and I have seen no commentaries suggesting otherwise.

This replicates a broader pattern that fairly describes much of Chinese law generally: even as the Party-state has legislated in various areas to serve its national objectives, it has done so through a legal regime that is carefully crafted to keep its own hands untied in core areas of national interest, including state security. In other words, the Party-state has sought to extract the benefits of law while minimizing its costs. I would hypothesize that a similar calculus also helps explain the substance of privacy laws in other authoritarian settings.

It’s refreshing to hear a perspective focusing on domestic factors underpinning China’s privacy regime because so much discussion I hear about developments inside China look at everything through the lens of U.S. national security and great power competition. Why did you choose to frame your argument as a domestic legitimization story?

I do see this paper as offering a corrective to a troubling tendency now in our national discourse to understand China primarily through the lens of U.S.-China competition. This is evocative of the Cold War insofar as normative ideological and geopolitical frameworks are increasingly used to structure our descriptive understandings of reality.

Many analyses in the think tank literature frame the PIPL as a top-down effort to grow China’s digital economy, to enhance the country’s security, and to expand China’s data influence abroad. These explanations aren’t wrong for what they say, but they miss a critical part of the story: the Party-state’s perceived need to address data privacy incursions through socially protective legislation. This is how privacy law is discussed in Party reports, legislative documents, and state media, and it is how prosecutors, courts, and other agencies have framed their enforcement work as well. Party-state documents rarely shy away from boasting of geopolitical goals where they are relevant, and yet official PIPL-related documents scarcely mention them.

The reason why I think a lot of existing explanations miss or understate the domestic legitimation piece of the story is because those accounts tend to take a fairly reductionist view of China, either as a monolith that is locked in geopolitical competition with the West, or as featuring an all-powerful totalitarian government that can essentially impose its will upon its population. But not every major piece of legislation in China today is principally motivated by geopolitics, and despite Xi Jinping’s ascendance as paramount leader in China, his rule continues to require a high level of responsiveness. Consider, in this regard, Xi’s abrupt reversal of the country’s pandemic policies after the lockdown protests last fall.

How would you answer the question raised by Jamie Horsley (in a piece by this title): “How will China’s privacy law apply to the Chinese state?” How does the PIPL apply to state organs, and how does it apply to companies? Is it empowering security authorities to demand greater data access from the private sector because now they have a legal authority they can cite in making data requests?

While there is an entire section in Chapter II of the PIPL devoted to state organs, that section is fairly abstract. It states that the law generally applies to state organs’ handling of personal information, while enumerating several exceptions at fairly high levels of generality. The result is that much is left to implementation. From what I have seen so far, state organs in China have sometimes been disciplined for privacy violations, often for what you might think of as inadvertent publication of private information, rather than any sort of malicious abuse of personal data. I gave an example earlier from Jiangxi of an agricultural bureau that (accidentally, it seems) disclosed the personal information of farmers online in the course of reporting local subsidies. I’ve seen other cases where a government organ was disciplined for failing to remove identifying information from various documents posted in the “Government Information Disclosure” column of its website. I would guess that drafters of the PIPL envisioned enforcement of the law against state organs for more serious violations, given the kinds of national controversies discussed earlier that helped pave the way for the Law’s enactment. For now though, initial enforcement patterns as to state agencies seem to reflect a measure of institutional and political caution in the early days of the law’s implementation.

China’s technology firms have sometimes balked at sharing their data with government agencies, and have often cited a lack of legal basis as grounds for refusal. My impression is that this dynamic is beginning to change, not only because of the PIPL’s clearer specification of legal authorities, but because the state-led campaigns targeting the tech sector that started in late 2020 and 2021 have fundamentally shifted the relationship between the technology sector and the central Party-state. As Professor Angela Zhang has well documented, the Party-state had employed a relatively lax approach to tech regulation in the years before Jack Ma’s fateful address in late 2020. Now that the pendulum has swung the other direction, I would imagine technology firms are more willing to share data with central regulators when asked.

I agree that the space for companies to push back is shrinking as the Party institutionalizes its power over the private sector. I have wondered what this dynamic means for the longstanding push and pull between economic goals and national and domestic security goals of the leadership. Economic growth goals have long been a backstop against implementation of some of the worst or most hardline elements of China’s cybersecurity and data regulations because officials recognize pushing companies too hard could come at a cost to investment in their jurisdictions. We saw this with data localization, with data access requests, and other cybersecurity-related audits where companies sometimes had more space to maneuver. It sounds like you are somewhat pessimistic that this space will continue, but I do wonder about it given the economic pressure facing China’s leaders. How do economic imperatives impact the way China’s privacy law is implemented and enforced?

If China’s economic prospects worsen, it’s plausible to me that the center may decide to relax enforcement of not only its privacy standards, but other laws that create regulatory burdens for firms in areas like antitrust, consumer protection, and financial regulation. The costs to popular support associated with a deteriorating economy may be steeper than the legitimation and securitization benefits of a zealously enforced privacy law, especially at the margins. But I think the old days of completely lax regulations are over. Central leaders have come to appreciate more fully the political risks of overseeing unchecked technology firms helmed by ambitious entrepreneurs sitting atop mountains of sensitive data. They know too much now to turn back the clock completely.

The Global Times Translated My Op-Ed. Here’s What They Changed.

On May 25, 2023, The New York Times published my guest essay “Like It or Not, America Needs Chinese Scientists,” on American higher education’s engagement with China in the STEM fields. The article was subsequently translated by the Chinese State-run Global Times newspaper without my prior knowledge or permission, appearing both in print and digital forms.

The Global Times omitted and altered key parts of the essay. While a few of the changes simply shorten the piece or cut passages that might not be as interesting to Chinese readers, most of the deletions and changes eliminate or blunt criticism of China, altering the tone of the essay. The Global Times also removed all of the links that appeared in my article, presumably because at least some of them led to sites that are generally inaccessible within China.

Fortunately, The New York Times also did a complete Chinese translation in both simplified and traditional characters.

I offer an annotated English version of the original essay with notes on the changes the Global Times made in its Chinese translation.

Presumably because of requests from The New York Times, the Global Times translation of the article was taken down from the Internet. However, documenting differences between the original and the Global Times translation can help us to understand what Chinese censors might find acceptable, although the standard of what can be published certainly changes over time and in different contexts.

What’s Behind the Youth Unemployment Statistics Beijing Just Decided to Stop Publishing?

A Q&A with Eli Friedman

This week, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced it would cease collecting data on youth unemployment. The news came after nearly a decade of poor job prospects for Chinese people ages 16-24, often reported on by international media as mainly a problem affecting recent college graduates. Earlier this summer, ChinaFile’s Jessica Batke spoke with sociologist Eli Friedman, who studies international labor, about the reasons for joblessness among China’s young people and how it is covered.

‘What Kind of Wish Is This?’

A Q&A with Author Murong Xuecun

The writer Hao Qun, who publishes under the pen name Murong Xuecun, has spent the past two decades exploring Chinese society through his literature. After studying at Beijing’s prestigious China University of Politics and Law, he worked in the private sector. He began his writing career in 2002 online, writing a series on gambling, sex, and drugs in China, which he later published as his debut novel Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, the English edition of which was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. In 2010, he won China’s People’s Literature Prize, which is presented by the state-affiliated China Writer’s Association, for his non-fiction book The Missing Ingredient. His acceptance speech was a critique of censorship in the publishing industry and of his own acquiescence to it, and when he was unable to deliver it at the prize ceremony, he delivered it instead at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. In the years that followed, he faced mounting obstacles to speaking his mind in China. His Weibo account with 8.5 million followers was deleted in 2013. But he wrote frequently for The New York Times about the limits on expression in China. In 2020, Murong traveled to Wuhan and documented the lives of eight ordinary people at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. He left China in order to safely publish the resulting book, Deadly Quiet City, which was released earlier this year in the United States. He now lives in Australia.

Angeli Datt spoke with Murong at the offices of the writers’ advocacy organization PEN America in New York City.

The U.S. May Be Overstating China’s Technological Prowess

A Q&A with Jeffrey Ding

China’s technological prowess is frequently invoked by U.S. policymakers hoping to get votes, attention, or enough bipartisan support to pass a bill. Competition with China was a central motivating factor in federal legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, not to mention the work of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. “Beating China”—specifically in science and technology development—is a key driver of U.S. governance and, ahead of the 2024 presidential race, elections.

George Washington University Assistant Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Ding published a recent article that explains why measuring a state’s scientific and technological power should include not only how many innovations a country can check off, but also the degree to which new technologies are integrated into the economy and society. Ding spoke with Johanna Costigan about his new paper. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. —Johanna Costigan

Johanna Costigan: Can you explain the distinction between innovation capacity and diffusion capacity?

Jeffrey Ding: Innovation capacity refers to a state’s ability to pioneer new-to-the-world breakthroughs in science and technology. Diffusion capacity refers to a state’s ability to spread those innovations across a wide range of productive processes in an economy. I argue in my paper that we tend to gravitate toward measures of innovation and pay insufficient attention to diffusion.

How did diffusion occur in the second Industrial Revolution in the U.S., and why does that example show diffusion is an essential metric?

In the late 19th century, the U.S. was not at the forefront of science and technology—our best and brightest went to Germany to study. Even though other nations were leading the way in fields like chemical engineering, the U.S. was much stronger in terms of diffusion capacity; it was better at applying those uses across a wide range of processes. If you only looked at which countries were winning the most Nobel Prizes or had the most advanced research institutes, you would be underestimating the scientific and technological prowess of the U.S.

Assessments that are more oriented around diffusion capacity would have predicted the U.S. to sustain its economic rise and become the preeminent economic power. Back then, there wasn’t a global innovation index, but the case study was to go back and see if we rank different countries based on this, only using the innovation indicators provides an incorrect view. Diffusion is central to a state’s ability to convert science and technology into economic strength.

You write that academic research in the U.S. was more closely tied to commerce than it was in Europe, which allowed American breakthroughs to spread more rapidly. Given the close relationship between government and industry in the PRC, why might that not be the case in contemporary China?

The government acts as a bottleneck within China’s scitech ecosystem, stifling organic industry-university collaborations. A lot of the research happens at government institutions as opposed to corporate-sponsored R&D [research and development]. The channels between universities and industry are not as robust, so some of that has to do with surrounding legal regimes and whether university research can be translated into a startup company. Unlike China, the U.S. has a really good set of legal rules that enable that to happen.

But Chinese companies are trying to address this; more AI companies, for example, are trying to set up labs in universities to foster that. But if you look at co-authorship rates in publications on AI (papers that have at least one author from a university and one from industry), those rates are very low in China compared to countries in Europe and the U.S. A lot of the story here is just the vestiges of central planning that are still in China’s scitech ecosystem and that just don’t foster the organic fast-acting processing that is required for diffusion.

How would you characterize American assessments of China’s science and technology power? What’s missing?

The consensus significantly overstates China’s scitech capability. One recent example from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which while it is not American has been used to justify more extreme China policy, says China is leading the U.S. in 37 of 44 considered technologies, all of which were focused on innovation. (I don’t even think that conclusion is accurate based just on innovation.) It reflects the United States’ obsession with innovation capacity when it comes to assessing scitech power. Even if you go back and review Biden’s first remarks to Congress, he argued that China is closing in quickly and that it’s a race to see who can dominate new innovations in these technologies.

The contribution of my paper is partly to argue that assumptions about innovation shape the perception that China is improving rapidly and has already taken over the U.S. in some critical technologies. Reorienting ourselves to a diffusion-centric framework is an important first step to having a more balanced understanding of what’s happening in China’s scitech ecosystem.

Members of the Biden administration like Jake Sullivan have described moves like export controls aimed at China as “narrowly focused on technology that could tilt the military balance.” What do you think of that depiction, and how do judgments of relative military strength fit into the diffusion/innovation breakdown?

When it comes to competition with China over military AI applications, I think the Biden administration’s approach is overly preoccupied with maintaining a lead in innovation capacity. Their theory of victory, in my view, seems to be all about preventing China from building the biggest and baddest autonomous weapon, trained on the largest amount of data using the most amount of computing power. If the history of military electrification is a useful guide for how AI will affect the military balance of power, as I argue in a recent article, then AI’s most substantial impact on military power will take decades as advances diffuse across a broad range of applications in logistics, decryption, targeting, and intelligence. Ensuring that the military is able to tap into a broad base of AI engineering talent is a more effective route to ensuring that AI’s effect on the military balance will favor the U.S.

You write: “A rebalanced evaluation of China’s potential for S&T leadership requires looking beyond multinational corporations like Huawei, first-tier cities like Beijing, and flashy R&D numbers to the humble undertaking of diffusion.” Why do you think such limited analyses are tempting? Why are they dangerous?

Firstly, it’s just a lot harder to get diffusion capacity indicators. Many metrics of innovation, like government R&D funding indicators, patent rates, and publication numbers are all tracked, whereas it takes more work to get indicators of diffusion capacity. Finding systematic and reliable numbers of diffusion capacity is crucial.

And misleading assessments carry a few dangers. Having an accurate sense of where you stand provides a solid foundation for science and technology policy. There is something to be said about having a true—or truer—understanding of the world. Additionally, overestimating China’s scitech capabilities may lead the U.S. to engage in more reckless policies and provide more momentum for containment-type measures that backfire on both sides. It could lead to the mentality we saw in the Cold War where the U.S. was concerned about the missile gap with the Soviet Union that turned out to be illusory and resulted in wasted expenditures, spiraling fears, and an arms race that put the two superpowers on a path toward conflict.

There are people in the U.S. government who probably agree with me in that a lot of assessments on China’s tech development are overhyped, but they think it’s necessary to pump up China’s prowess in order to motivate certain policies. But that could easily backfire and is a dangerous precedent to set. While that justification might in some cases be used to make sound decisions, in other cases it could be used to enact dangerous policies.

Covering Tiananmen

An Excerpt from ‘Assignment China’

The Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989 was a turning point for China. Weeks of student-led demonstrations turned into the largest protest for political reform in the history of the People’s Republic. The bloody military crackdown that crushed the movement on the night of June 3-4, 1989, had far-reaching consequences, not only for China’s development, but for its relations with the rest of the world.

One reason was that Tiananmen Square was also a watershed moment in the history of the media. It generated unparalleled international coverage and became a defining moment in the Information Age: the first time a popular uprising in an authoritarian state was broadcast live across the globe. The images from that time—the Goddess of Democracy, the man in front of the tank—became enduring symbols of popular resistance to injustice. The coverage of Tiananmen redefined the relationship between the press, public opinion, and foreign policymaking and continues to influence both Chinese politics and international perceptions of China to this day.

I was CNN’s Beijing bureau chief in 1989. My new book, Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic, is based on interviews with more than 100 journalists who have covered China from 1945 to the present day. The excerpt below includes stories from reporters who covered the protests and bloodshed in Beijing in the spring of 1989.

The People’s Liberation Army assault began on the western side of Chang An Avenue. John Pomfret of the AP and Scott Savitt of UPI were watching at the Muxudi intersection.

John Pomfret, Associated Press: The military began to fire. I saw people falling.

Scott Savitt, United Press International: I can hear it right in my mind like I am reliving it—“ pa pa pa pa pa.” And those are AK-47 [rifles] firing on semiautomatic.

On the balcony of CNN’s room at the Beijing Hotel, I had a clear view a few hundred meters down Chang An to the north end of the Square. We managed to keep a phone line open to CNN headquarters in Atlanta. I could see red tracer bullets, and hear the occasional crackle of gunfire, as I broadcast live, telling viewers, “The assault on Tiananmen Square is now underway.”

Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times: I hopped on my bicycle and hurtled toward Tiananmen. You could hear the gunfire and the crowds were rushing the other way. And I keep thinking this is a crazy job where there’s gunfire, everyone in their right mind is going the other way, and you’re going towards it.

Melinda Liu, Newsweek: The bullets are so close that you not only hear the percussion of the shot, you hear the “zing.” I could see people being shot, bloody bodies being put onto these three-wheel ambulance things, people shouting all kinds of stuff at soldiers, and just total fear and chaos.

Cynde Strand, CNN: Bullets would fly past us and you’d hear crying and screaming. There were moments of fear. There were moments of—what the hell are we doing here? But this is what you are a journalist for. This is right where we need to be. We are witnessing history. This is what makes a difference. There is no record unless you are standing there.

Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times: I was pretty scared. On the Square itself, I tried to keep a layer of people between me and the troops, but I remember realizing that I was a few inches taller than most of the Chinese, so it was a pretty critical part of my real estate that was exposed. There were people in the crowd who were getting shot. My notebook from that evening was damp with sweat just from fear. I ran to the Xiehe Hospital. There were lots of bloody people in the hallways and everywhere. One of the ambulance drivers showed me bullet holes in his ambulance. One of the things that shook me was a young man, roughly my age, who had been shot in the back and who was fighting for his life. He hadn’t done anything riskier than I had. His luck has just run out.

Jim Laurie, ABC News: We were never able to determine the extent of the deaths and injuries that night. All we knew was that there were tremendous numbers and that the hospitals were in a panic mode. My view is that whether it was a hundred or a thousand, it was incredibly devastating, not only for the people who were killed, but for the reputation of China.

While all of this was happening, I continued my live reporting. At mid-afternoon Washington time—around 2:00 a.m. in Beijing—Secretary of State James Baker appeared on CNN, having been previously scheduled for a weekend talk show. I did a quick phone update, talking about seeing bullets and bodies, and then host Charles Bierbauer turned to Baker and said, “Mr. Secretary, does the U.S. government now take a stronger demarche against the Chinese government?”

James Baker, Secretary of State: It caught me by surprise. I was on the air as it began to happen. I was very much caught on the spot. I do remember vividly thinking to myself, “How do I handle this one?” I remember being caught flat-footed.

Bernard Shaw, CNN: I think you could say that was the beginning of the “CNN effect,” whereby time is truncated, and reactions and decisions are made based on events as they’re happening in real time, which puts a lot of pressure on foreign capitals.

John Pomfret, Associated Press: I stayed in the center of the Square with the remaining students until they conducted their negotiations with the military, and I walked out with them. You were involved with the simple logistics of doing your job. But it was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had in my life.

Cynde Strand, CNN: We came off the Square with them. Some were dejected, crying. But some of them were still singing. Then there was the dilemma. We’ve got great tape. How are we going to get it back? This old man in a Mao jacket was driving one of those bicycles with a flat panel. He let us lay on that, and the students gave us blankets, and we covered everything over us, and he rode us back to the Beijing hotel.

The next morning, Monday June 5, AP photographer Jeff Widener was on the balcony of a room at the Beijing Hotel.

Jeff Widener, Associated Press: I see this long column of tanks, and I’m thinking, “Well, that’s not a bad picture. I’ve got a long lens. It’ll be a nice compression shot.” And then this guy with shopping bags walks out. I’m just waiting for him to get shot, but It’s too far away. I look back at the bed, and I had a lens doubler, which would make my 400 an 800. Do I gamble? Do I go back to the bed? Maybe I lose the shot, or do I just shoot this wider? So I took a chance. I ran to the bed, got it, put it on the camera, open the aperture up all the way. One, two, three shots. Then it was over. Some people came, grabbed this guy, and they ran off. I took the film and asked a foreign student if he could smuggle it in his underwear back to the AP office.

Liu Heung-shing, Associated Press: Another 45 minutes passed. An American guy with a ponytail and a backpack showed up with an AP envelope. Our Japanese photographer soaked the film. I looked at that frame—and that’s the frame. It went out.

John Sheahan, CBS News: No one who has ever seen that is going to forget that picture.

Jeff Widener, Associated Press: For a lot of people, this guy represents everything in our lives that we’re battling, because we’re all battling something. We still don’t know who this guy is. It’s almost appropriate because it’s almost like the Unknown Soldier. He’s really become a symbol for a lot of people. For me, it was just another assignment. It didn’t sink in till later that I had something really big.

Official PRC Place Names

These datasets list the official names of all the places (political units) in China. This information is openly available on the Chinese government’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) website, but not in an easily downloadable or searchable format. We compiled these lists in CSV format and we’ve published them here in the hopes they may be of use to other researchers.

‘Beijing’s Global Media Offensive’

A Q&A with Joshua Kurlantzick

Over the past several years, there has been an active debate about Chinese influence overseas. Amidst allegations that Beijing has influenced foreign elections and politicians, state newswire Xinhua has expanded into one of the largest news agencies worldwide, and state-linked media companies have taken over Chinese-language media sources internationally. Joshua Kurlantzick discusses this landscape in his newest book, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. Kurlantzick spoke with ChinaFile Editorial Fellow Abby Seiff about his book. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Updates to Our Database of Arrests Related to the Hong Kong National Security Law

We updated our suite of graphics tracking the impact of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. It now includes information on the 248 individuals arrested between July 2020, when the law went into effect, and March 31, 2023. Information on these individuals’ cases, compiled by our partners at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, includes grounds for arrest, and, where applicable, resulting charges and convictions.

In January 2023, police arrested six individuals for selling books about the 2019 protests at a book fair.

For China’s Urban Residents, the Party-State Is Closer than Ever

A Q&A with Taisu Zhang

In a recent working paper, scholars Yutian An and Taisu Zhang argue that local urban governments in China emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with far more muscle and clout than they have ever had before. Unlike in the past several decades, the sub-district (jiedao, 街道, the lowest formal level of government) and the neighborhood community (shequ, 社区, technically self-governing entities below even the sub-district) now function as robust units of social control.

Though the central government had long considered—and vacillated over—giving more authority to the jiedao and shequ, the onset of the pandemic definitively tipped the balance in favor of providing these entities with greater resources and allowing them to act with more agency. This shift means that the Party-state is more present in people’s everyday lives, able to both provide services and conduct surveillance at a highly granular level.

Taisu Zhang recently spoke with ChinaFile’s Jessica Batke about this momentous change in how the Party-state interacts with its citizens. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

‘A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs’

A Q&A with Gulchehra Hoja

Gulchehra Hoja is a longtime broadcaster with Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Uyghur Service. She grew up in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and was a successful TV personality and journalist with Chinese state media there. She later left China to join RFA and provide uncensored news coverage from the United States. ChinaFile’s Jessica Batke spoke recently with Hoja about her new memoir, A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs. The book describes Hoja’s upbringing in a rapidly changing society and political environment, her work as a TV host in China, her decision to leave her homeland, reporting on the ongoing crisis there, and the process of building a new life in a foreign country. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jessica Batke: In some ways, your story is a remarkable one: you come from a long line of cultural luminaries. But in other ways, your story is unfortunately typical for a Uyghur living abroad: you are separated from your loved ones, who are undergoing persecution and oppression back in your homeland. Your book opens with a horrible statistic: 24 members of your family were taken away by the state. Do you have a sense of how common that kind of mass detention within a single family is?

Gulchehra Hoja: I am not the only secondary victim of this genocide. We live in another country, and starting in 2016, [all of us] lost contact with our family members back home. Not only me, but all of us. We didn’t know anything about our family for a year, or two years. Even right now, many Uyghurs still don’t know where their loved ones are. Their homes were destroyed. Phone calls cannot go through. You cannot find your relatives, or your neighbors, or your friends. There’s nobody there. So I am just one example.

I was able to learn the news about my family because the Chinese government intentionally wanted me to know and wanted to silence me by using this information to damage me. I think this is the way they want to give journalists a signal: If you don’t stay quiet, your family is going to be in trouble. So it’s not only me. It’s very common, the devastation we’re facing.

A few of my coworkers didn’t know what had happened to their families. And then some of them used their contacts with embassies to learn from the Chinese government, four or five years after the fact, that all their family members had been sentenced to 10 or more years because [their relatives] live in a free country. Even if [these relatives abroad] hadn’t said anything against the Chinese government’s policy.

It’s unimaginable for people living in a free country. But for the Uyghurs, that’s the situation for all of us.

It seems like Chinese authorities are especially targeting anyone they think is good at communicating and getting information out.

Yes, you can say I am a special target. Because they didn’t stop after they arrested my family members. In 2021, they accused me openly, saying I’m a terrorist. So they’re still using these kinds of tools and tactics to try and keep us silent. I don’t know what could happen to me or to my family. What can they do? I don’t know.

But I want to let them know: We will die proudly. We aren’t afraid of dying. We aren’t. We’re afraid of losing our freedom and our hope and our dignity. We don’t give up. This is all we have right now.

I wrote the book specifically for this reason. I just want to say to the world: We are not merely victims. We are so much more than that. We are beautiful people, just like you. Because we are different from the Chinese people, because we don’t obey the Chinese government—that’s why they want to destroy us.

In the book, you, and everyone around you, lived in this constant state of choosing, because anything that you did or said could be interpreted as political. Even if you didn’t mean it to be political, even if you just wanted to speak your language, or dance, it could be seen as political.

We were very careful, very careful. Even at home, we were raised with warnings from our parents: “Don’t say these kinds of things in school, don’t say those kinds of things when you’re playing with Han Chinese kids.”

Hearing that all the time reminded us we were different. And we were constantly facing discrimination in school, and society, and the workplace. We all knew it was because we were Uyghurs that we were facing that kind of pressure. So it was actually training you to be smarter in choosing your words, in communicating with people, in choosing what kind of people you should communicate with.

This is actually almost exactly what my next question was about. I feel like in the book you hinted at this sort of duality, in what you knew and how you were allowed to exist. For example, you wrote about the knowledge that you could get from history books, but also a whole other set of knowledge that could only be acquired “in private settings and in low voices.”

That’s why one of my professors in the university said, “Do you know how lucky you are?” I said, “Why?” He said, “You just can learn things sitting at the dining table that a lot of other people cannot learn even in university or reading a book. You are just so lucky because you are your father’s daughter, Abdulqeyyum Hoja’s daughter.” [Abdulqeyyum Hoja was a prominent archaeologist focused on the history of the Uyghur region.] Because I was young, I didn’t really understand it. After I grew up and this stuff was happening to us, then I realized . . . all this memory, you know, it comes back to you. So I was so fortunate, a fortunate girl.

How much do you think the knowledge from your father contributed to your decision, when you did finally go abroad, to stay abroad? Because that seems like such an extraordinary decision to make, leaving behind your family and your career. Do you think it’s because you had knowledge that other people didn’t have?

I dedicated this book to my beloved father, Abdulqeyyum Hoja, who taught me how to love myself, love my people, love my country, and human beings, and dignity, and freedom. So, the hardest part of my life was two decades of time during which I was forbidden to see my father. Conversely, this separation also trained me. It taught me that the love of human beings is unstoppable, regardless of time and space, and that such a misfortune would tighten the bonds of missing hearts.

My father used to tell me that even a stone is precious in the place where it drops. That’s the name of my book as well, “Tash chüshkän yeridä äziz.” We said that all the time. I lived through the deep values of this proverb, which is often used among Uyghurs who are separated from their birthplace.

When I was in the Uyghur region with my father, I always asked his advice when I had to make a decision. And I strongly believe that afterwards, when I was alone, he was inside of me. It wasn’t only me anymore. It was about my father, about my grandpa. The power coming from what they taught me, that’s why making those decisions was not that hard for me. Actually, it was like a cage opened for me. I was flying, carrying their hope. This is not my decision. I feel that they wanted me to make this decision. The cage opened suddenly, just for me. They stayed for other people, for their people, for the land.

You know, all Uyghurs have only one wish: that when they die, they are buried in their birth place. It’s a huge thing. Maybe I still have that hope. But if there’s no chance for me to go back, at least I have the stone from my dad [a rock from his yard he managed to send to her in the U.S.]. I will write to my kids to ask them to bury me with the stone so that I will be with part of my country, my land. This stone is most precious. It is there in my bookcase. I can show you.


[Hoja retrieves the stone and holds it up.]

This is very special. It smells like home. I don’t know why, but it really smells like home. You know, like after rain touches the soil. It’s the fragrance I love the most. I wish someone could create this fragrance! It’s the most delicious smell in the world. I feel that it heals your soul. How my father found this and sent it to me is magic. And it actually gave me the inspiration to write this book. Yep, this is my treasure. Priceless.

‘It Is Especially Scary to See Students’

Professors in China React to New Levels of Control in Their Classrooms

As in many other aspects of public life in China under Xi Jinping, the space for independent inquiry and discussion within the academy has shrunk significantly in recent years. The Xi administration has released a slew of guidelines and communiques cementing the Party’s control over the classroom; state media have criticized university professors for “lacking a sense of identity with the Party’s theories, policies, and sentiments.”

As part of the newly-published compendium New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia, Jue Jiang, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS, University of London, examines this change through the system of student informants within China’s universities. “In addition to the high-tech cameras that are already installed in classrooms for monitoring lectures and discussion, student informants are viewed by authorities as key information nodes for a bottom-up, masses-based form of surveillance and control,” writes Jiang. “In this sense, the system of student informants provides a crucial lens for examining academic freedom in China under the leadership of Xi Jinping.”

Jiang interviewed 10 professors working in mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macau about their experiences with student informants. One chilling conclusion: that instructors fortunate enough or obedient enough to avoid getting informed on can develop “a demeaning or nihilistic attitude toward those who do not toe the line or those who challenge the official line eroding academic freedom.”

What follows is an excerpt from Jiang’s chapter in the book, describing (anonymized) interviews with mainland professors about the student informant system. Professors 1 and 2 had been reported on by student informants; the other professors Jiang quotes had not.

Regarding the impact of this system, both Professors 1 and 2 expressed their deep sadness and dismay about the consequences this system has brought to themselves, their teaching, and the wider context—although they were accused of having “immoral” or “unethical” speeches or acts. Also, both professors talked about taking a nonserious and irresponsible attitude toward teaching (e.g., simply reading the textbook or even asking the students to read the textbook themselves) as self-protection. Professor 1 stated that:

They were going to fire me, and I was so depressed—I nearly jumped off a building. There is nothing wrong with what I said, but they simply said, “You had evil thoughts.” That is a political crime, like in the Cultural Revolution, they accused you of bad political performance. Now they accuse me of degraded morality (dexing buhao). What is virtue? Is their morality good? They are poor in academics and even poorer in character (renpin), but they can reckon on this word of “morality” to bully you to death.

I think Hu Shi [a diplomat and scholar of Republican-era China] once said, when a country talks about morality every day, this country is particularly immoral. I really feel the degeneration of this country now—this country is hopeless. As so many people have profited from such a degraded environment, they are very supportive of such a system. A bad environment is where good people cannot do good things, so that you can only fall.

I feel that I myself am a little degraded now, because my classes are just water classes (shuike) [i.e., I teach in a perfunctory way]. I am safe only in this way, otherwise, I would be snitched on by student informants. My mistake in the past is that I was too serious; I even risked my life.

Likewise, Professor 2 said:

Several professors have been reported on by their own postgraduate students. I do not want to be complicit. I just want to listen to my heart. But I cannot be like that now. The scars inside me are so deep that I am really very disheartened when you ask me this question, and it hurts me so much talking about it. Nowadays, civility has fallen to such a level. Universities have degenerated to such a level (sigh).

There are plenty of “water classes” (shuike) in the university. Students and teachers are all irresponsible. I have been especially cautious in class this semester, and it is especially scary to see students. Nowadays, we teachers are all like this and students are not serious. We used to get angry when we saw students not being serious with study, but now we do not feel angry anymore—you snitch! Why should I be so dedicated to you?

* * *

The professors who had no such experience with student reporting and [as quoted elsewhere in the chapter] who voiced their justification for this system said they were not affected by student informants. For example, Professor 4 said:

I do not have any problems. Maybe those teaching the Constitution would have some problems? But I never talked with them, thus know nothing.

Professor 6 said:

I believe that the classroom is not a private space—it is public. So I do not think it matters if it is recorded or taped, and I will not be affected by it. The content of my classes is all discussions within the academic context, and we will also talk about the problems and shortcomings, but of course we will certainly talk about the progress and the positive aspects of the law first.

The pedagogical philosophy of teaching “within the academic context” seems to be recognized by these professors as the most crucial factor for not being impacted by student informants. They seem to believe that they will never “cross the line” and touch upon the “forbidden zones.” Perhaps most importantly, they identify themselves with the official restraints [imposed by the Party-state] and disapprove of “dissidents.” For example, Professor 3 stated:

The [classroom surveillance] technology is so advanced; thus, you know what you say may be filmed or recorded. You cannot say it forms pressure, but you would know it does—do not talk loosely (luan shuohua). If it is not necessary to say, you do not say it. Anyway, we professors are not critics (fenqing, 愤青), right?

Professor 5 also mentioned his pedagogical philosophy as categorizing officially banned topics as “politics” and leaving “politics” outside the classroom:

I do not think there is any problem with the content of my lectures, so I am not particularly worried. I do worry a little when I see reports about it [i.e., the student informant system]. But looking back at what those professors said in class after we saw the punishment, I felt that what they said in class was not quite the same as what I think Max Weber contends in Science as a Vocation (Wissenschaft als Beruf) [i.e., that politics should not have any place or role in the classroom and that teachers should not talk about their political attitudes or teach anything from a political perspective], and I agree that is not what a scholar should say in class. I am pretty sure that I will not talk about those issues myself, so I would not feel worried or nervous.

The Future of China’s Climate Policy

A Q&A with Greenpeace’s Li Shuo

With China accounting for more than a quarter of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, the future pathway of China’s emissions will play a central role in determining the extent to which the world can meet the Paris Agreement’s climate change targets. China has taken several ambitious steps in recent years to control and reduce its impact, headlined by Xi Jinping’s personal announcement in September 2020 that China would peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, referred to as the “dual carbon” (shuangtan, 双碳) targets. However, the lifting of the zero-COVID policy and ongoing concerns about energy security, among other factors, have exacerbated uncertainties about how, exactly, China intends to meet its targets.

With this year’s Two Sessions meetings set to unveil institutional reforms and a significant reshuffling of personnel, Asia Society Policy Institute’s Associate Director of Climate Kate Logan spoke with Li Shuo, Senior Global Policy Advisor at Greenpeace and one of the world’s leading experts on China’s multilateral climate and environmental governance, to discuss the potential implications for China’s climate and environmental governance. The following conversation was recorded a few days ahead of when the Two Sessions meetings commenced on Saturday, March 4. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Kate Logan: Hi, Li Shuo. It’s great to see you again. You’re actually in New York right now for the negotiations on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and marine biodiversity zones on the high seas. It’s good to welcome you back into the international fold after a few years. I hope everything’s been going smoothly over at UN headquarters this week.

Li Shuo: Thanks for having me, Kate. Very happy to discuss climate and China after two weeks of oceans negotiations at the UN. It’s a good change for me.

What we want to talk about today are expectations around China’s climate and environmental policy with regard to the upcoming Two Sessions meetings this year. They will be part of the five-year cycle of institutional reform—so a pretty major set of meetings. Maybe we could start by going back five years ago to 2018, when we saw climate policy governance shift from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the development ministry, to the newly renamed Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) as part of the last set of reforms.

What has been the impact since those reforms in 2018 on the Chinese central government’s approach to climate change? And how might this set the backdrop for what we could expect to see this year?

I think the short answer is that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Certainly a lot of things have changed. That’s actually a useful way to unpack the progress—or lack of it—of China’s climate action, if we go back to 2018 or so. I think it’s important to recall that those were the Trump years, but also the post-Paris Agreement years. Around 2018, what we observed was that despite the changing geopolitical situation—in particular, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the international climate scene—China was still interested in advancing not only its own climate agenda, but also the global climate agenda. So, in that sense, we preserved the valuable momentum that was generated in 2015 as a result of the Paris Agreement.

It was also notable, as you mentioned, that we had a bureaucratic reshuffle in that year, where the climate agenda was moved from the NDRC to the MEE. What happened after that? I think another subsequent major milestone, of course, was the somewhat surprising 2020 announcement, the dual carbon announcement made by President Xi Jinping—and in particular, the carbon neutrality [before 2060] pledge, which generated quite a bit of momentum. In China’s domestic climate discourse, immediately after that announcement we saw a big round of bureaucratic mobilization, trying to find ways to fulfill that vision in particular, on two fronts. One was that provinces found the urgency to actually act on climate change. So the issue was no longer just a Beijing agenda. And second, the key emitting sectors—steel, power, cement, transportation—were also asked to deliver more ambition. So that momentum really helped us all the way into 2021.

Around the middle of that year, there was also a lot of reflection from a governance and bureaucratic point of view on whether the environment ministry was best positioned to help deliver such a grand vision. For carbon neutrality, you really need to adjust not just the environmental aspects—the end-of-pipe emissions—but you need a reshape of your whole economic system. So around late 2020 and early 2021, there was also a lot of discussion in Beijing on the NDRC versus MEE labor division for the climate topic. I would say momentum in general started to decline as we entered further into 2021: The Chinese economy suffered difficulties, and some parts of the country experienced power shortages. Of course, as we entered into 2022, the zero-COVID situation really distracted us from the climate agenda. So as we move into 2023, the top priority for the country is to revive the economy. It is indeed a very important question, to what extent climate considerations will be featured in our economic recovery.

Let’s go to October 2022 and the 20th Party Congress. President Xi Jinping further enshrined the dual carbon targets during that meeting, but also elevated this concept of xianli houpo (先立后破), “building the new before breaking the old.” So we saw this emphasis on both clean coal and fossil fuels on one hand, and on the other hand the continued acceleration of new and clean energy development.

A lot has happened between that meeting in October and now, especially with regard to the economy and the lifting of the dynamic zero-COVID policy. We’ve seen the figures for China’s projected economic growth in 2023 massively readjusted. And as you just alluded, at this year’s Two Sessions, we’ll see a new economic master plan coming out. What does that mean in the context of xianli houpo?

I think we should see all of this in the context of the dual carbon commitment. As I mentioned, this announcement really set a high note for China’s climate momentum. But since then, the climate agenda has suffered quite a bit from our economic situation, the zero-COVID situation, and of course, the perceived energy security challenges. And I think we should see this concept of xianli houpo—meaning to ensure enough supply of energy before phasing out some of the higher-carbon sources of energy—we should see this concept in that context. I think there is still a strong desire within the Chinese system to maintain the role of coal in our overall energy mix. And that is indeed a big concern from the environmental point of view.

As I mentioned, starting this year, China will prioritize economic recovery. At the same time, we have already observed a record speed of coal power plant approval across the country. So I think the key question for us to watch is whether this growing momentum on coal will be there, and will it become even stronger. And I think the concern is the need to drive up GDP growth; the need to ensure energy security. Even if it is somewhat of a misleading way of understanding energy security. I think those things are going to be important to watch. And also whether we will see further bureaucratic adjustments out of the Two Sessions. I think that’s also something to pay attention to. I think what has already become clear is that there will be some personnel changes within the Chinese bureaucratic system—from the tactical level, at the environmental ministry, for example, to higher levels, the ministerial level. And of course, as you mentioned, the top leadership, the premier and the vice premier. So it is also going to be a very important season for us to observe. What will be the policy preferences of those new leaders? How do they balance the economic growth agenda and the climate action agenda?

Let’s dive into that personnel question a little bit deeper. Who should we have our eyes on with regard to climate and environment at the central level? For instance, former Vice Premier Han Zheng, who has been chair of the leaders’ group on carbon peaking and carbon neutrality, is no longer part of the Politburo Standing Committee. And [Special Climate Envoy] Xie Zhenhua was already brought out of retirement. What should we be watching in terms of any shuffling, especially at the highest levels?

I would continue to pay attention to the political rhetoric from the very top level—Xi Jinping—again, bearing in mind that the dual carbon commitments were announced by him. Since then, as you mentioned, there have been adjustments to the rhetoric—xianli houpo, for example. So I think what message the top leadership both send out of the Liang Hui (Two Sessions) will be something quite important to watch. And of course, this political intention will need to be implemented by China’s bureaucratic system. So I assume the vice premier will still play quite an important role in delivering that agenda. And then it goes all the way down to the NDRC and the environmental ministry. We still have some pending questions on the labor division between these two ministries. Can we expect that now there will be new leaders, potentially in both ministries, but also above them? Will that help streamline the labor division, or not? And if so, how much time will it take to streamline the labor division? I think those issues are the ones that we need to watch. And if all these issues are settled, at some point in the future, the outcome of that will tell us a lot about the direction of China’s climate momentum.

Do you think that governance for climate policy may increasingly shift back toward the development ministry, or will it stay with the environment ministry? And how much do these sorts of governance questions actually matter, versus how much is the potential for progress really down to personnel and coordination?

Well, I think it is both the bureaucratic structure, but also, of course, key individuals, their preferences, and their leadership. What I would say in general is it is increasingly clear that the climate agenda is the economic agenda, and the economic agenda will also have huge implications for the climate agenda. And this is not limited to China. Right? If you look at the U.S. climate deal, in many ways, you could argue it is an economic deal. So it is very much intertwined. And I think it is a good thing, right? It means, in a way, that the climate agenda has been mainstreamed in the bureaucratic systems of different countries. So I think in the long term, it is inevitable for China, but also for all the other countries, to integrate climate considerations in their economic policy setting. And I think everybody can have their own judgment or assessment as to which ministry might be the best positioned to achieve that objective.

Yeah, that’s a good point. For instance, in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for emissions monitoring, which is a comparable role to the Chinese environment ministry’s responsibility to track and control pollution. And that comparative strength [in monitoring] was perhaps part of the reason why climate governance was transferred [to MEE], especially as the carbon-trading market was being rolled out and the accounting of greenhouse gas emissions became more and more important—lending that comparative strength to climate emissions governance. But, as you pointed out, countries approach climate most effectively when they incorporate it across different government agencies to leverage their different strengths and treat climate as an economic development issue.

Regarding this question of local versus central, I want to bring up some of the new numbers on coal permitting and construction starts that we’ve seen released over the past weeks, indicating record numbers in 2022. How much of this [resurgence of coal] is an issue of local versus central decision-making? And what is the balance of powers in terms of who actually determines what happens on the ground with regard to both fossil fuel development and accelerating renewable energy deployment, such that we can ultimately achieve the drop in emissions that we’re all hoping for?

I think the coal power approvals are indeed the most important climate concern for China this year, and potentially for the foreseeable future. I think it is very important to understand the reasons behind the coal expansion. I think many China watchers would be familiar with the fact that China’s power sector is actually a saturated market, meaning we actually have more power generation capacity than we need. And as a result of that, if you look at most of the coal-fired power plants in China, they operate on a much lower basis—the load factor of the coal-fired power plants is much lower there than their international counterparts. So you cannot explain the coal expansion based purely on economic considerations.

The politics are important, and they are twofold. One is, of course, the interest to expand large-scale infrastructure projects as a way to boost economic growth. It is just a pretty straightforward way of doing that. And oftentimes, when officials do that, they tend to forget about the long-term economic viability of those projects. And the second thing that is emerging as a challenge in China is, how do you manage what we call peak load demand in some of the regional power systems? What I mean by peak load demand—and this is actually related to climate change—is that in the winter and summer, increasingly there are extreme weather conditions where power demand shoots extremely high, beyond the capacity of a single province or a single region. That’s what we have already observed over the last few summers.

To ensure that this peak load demand is absolutely met, there is an interest of China’s energy regulators to actually build more power capacity, just to be able to fulfill the power demand all of those few hours or few days. It is a very inefficient way of dealing with that problem. But the politics behind this is, if you’re a local governor, you absolutely want to make sure that there are no blackouts in your jurisdiction. So, I think going back to your question, Kate, about the central versus local, it’s very important for the central government to actually intervene, and in this case to set very stringent criteria for approving new coal-fired power plants because they have a very important role to keep that oversight and to ensure that further power market reforms could happen, which will actually help some of the provinces address their peak load demand. So I still see a very important role from the central government. The problem now, unfortunately, is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political desire to safeguard emission standards and to ensure that coal power plants are not approved.

Circling back to the Two Sessions again, what do you expect to see, both from a symbolic perspective but also from a substantive perspective in terms of any sort of new concrete policy proposals?

For instance, you mentioned implementing standards around new coal-fired power plant approvals. Should we expect to see anything concrete that would influence China’s ability to meet its dual carbon targets earlier and/or at a lower peaking level than expected, which would be hugely significant for global emissions?

I think this might or might not be a surprise to many: The Two Sessions itself is not going to give us a great amount of climate policy. That’s not the expectation. We’re also not expecting climate legislation, per se. I see it primarily as a signaling platform. As I mentioned, after the high note set by the new carbon targets a few years ago, and the recent challenges that we have, how will the leadership position the climate agenda? And how will they communicate their intentions through potentially new rhetoric? And how will they also adjust the bureaucratic system—potentially reshuffling different departments, or installing key people in key positions? How will they do that? I think all of this will tell us a lot about the political direction for the rest of this year.

Thanks for that. I know you have to return to the negotiations, so I’m happy to give you the last word before you head back into the deep chambers at the UN headquarters.

I mean, we’re checking in in March. It's an interesting time period. I think overall, people should bear in mind that the country has just emerged from three years of COVID lockdown. There are still a lot of uncertainties before we can tell further the political direction that the country is going. I should also highlight that starting from the early second quarter of this year, it could also be a busy and exciting season for international engagement on climate change, including of course the fact that the country is reopening and it is possible to have official visits, which could have climate components. So, in that regard, I think the diplomatic aspect would become interesting. How will China position itself on the international climate stage? How will the climate agenda be positioned in the context of major power engagement? I think the U.S. and China are at a very tough spot with regard to that. I don’t think we can expect any breakthrough. I think the priority is damage control. But I think there is a slightly different dynamic between China and some of the European countries. Their climate conversation could be more constructive. And I’m also hoping that the desire of China to calm down some of its major power relationships could also give climate more space in some of the bilateral exchanges and lead to some concrete climate progress this year.

Document 9, 10 Years Later

Ten years ago, in April 2013, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promulgated a critical directive: its “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” The document, issued by the CCP’s General Office and not intended for public distribution, enumerated seven “false ideological trends, positions, and activities” that posed a “severe challenge” and that the Party worried could lead to “major disorder.”

Document 9,” as it would come to be called, heralded the tone of the new Xi Jinping administration. It laid bare many major themes of Xi’s tenure: a disdain for genuine, grassroots civil society; a reassertion of Party control over any and all media messaging; an insistence that the Party alone can describe and interpret history.

And, infused throughout the document, a loathing—or perhaps, a fear—of anything “Western.”

Later that fall, Mingjing Magazine, a U.S.-based Chinese-language magazine, obtained and published the full text of Document 9. ChinaFile then published a full translation in English. I read ChinaFile’s translation from my desk in the U.S. State Department, where I was a Research Analyst for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The translation was powerful: it offered a clear and concise depiction of the CCP’s preoccupations, in English, straight from the horse’s mouth. ChinaFile had recognized the importance of this document, and, unusually, run its entire contents. And it had been translated with care, ensuring that even a reader with little background knowledge or expertise could grasp the ideological direction China was headed.

Ten years later, at the dawn of yet another Xi Jinping administration, Document 9 remains as relevant as ever. In late February, the General Office issued a notice admonishing legal theorists and educators to “firmly oppose and resist erroneous Western views of ‘constitutional government,’ ‘separation of three powers,’ and ‘independence of the judiciary.’” The struggle against intrusive Western ideologies continues apace.

‘I Wonder How the Protesters Felt When They Heard Their Own Voices’

On Sunday, February 5, after a polar vortex brought the coldest weekend in decades to the region, scores of people gathered in the heart of Boston to commemorate the third anniversary of the passing of Dr. Li Wenliang, the young Chinese ophthalmologist who blew the whistle on COVID-19 and later died of the disease. Similar events were held in over a dozen cities across four continents, from New York to Sydney and from Tokyo to Berlin. In the three years since his death, Dr. Li has become a symbol of speaking truth to power. His name is a rallying cry against censorship and state oppression.

Last November, after a fire in a locked-down building in Urumchi claimed at least 10 lives, thousands across China took to the streets, demanding an end to the draconian zero-COVID policy. For a moment, it seemed like the government acquiesced to public pressure and swiftly lifted pandemic restrictions. But arrests soon followed and have continued into the new year.

In mid-January, I received an anonymous email with the subject line: “Invitation to speak at our rally—2/05.” The organizers explained the occasion and its theme: to advocate for the release of the detained protesters and to voice support for free expression against tyranny.

I said yes without any hesitation and spent the next three weeks pondering the consequences of my decision. I had participated in a solidarity vigil for the victims of the Urumchi fire and been to public demonstrations on U.S. political issues, but this would be my first time speaking at a rally. On this freezing Sunday afternoon, by the 54th Regiment Memorial—a bronze sculpture dedicated to one of the first Black regiments during the American Civil War—I gave the following remarks:

* * *

Hello Boston!

I have never spoken at a rally before. This is terrifying. It’s truly humbling to be here. Thank you for your attention.

I remember the first time I witnessed a rally. It was a late summer day in 2009. I had just arrived in the U.S. to pursue my Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Chicago. That afternoon, I took a bus—the No. 6 Jackson Express, if there are any Chicagoans out there—up from the Hyde Park campus, to check out what downtown Chicago looks like. When we drove past Millennium Park, there was a small gathering. I did not get a chance to read any of the posters, so I have no idea what the protest was all about. But the scene is etched into my memory.

For just about anyone else on the bus, a street demonstration was as common as a McDonald’s sign and as mundane as the evening news. But for my 19-year-old self, newly out of China, the sight was a revelation: I had indeed completed a passage and arrived at a different place. I had never before seen people assert their presence and voice their demands the way the protesters did that day, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I kept replaying that scene in my mind as I asked myself if this is what freedom looks like.

Not long after, one evening alone in the office, I typed into Google “Tiananmen, 1989.” Growing up, I had sensed the presence of a seismic event in my birth year by tracing the hazy contours of censorship, but I had never probed the forbidden truth. Politics and death, as I was taught at a very young age, were the two biggest taboos. That evening, I held my breath as I clicked enter. The screen did not go dark. Crows did not fall from the sky. No government agents came knocking on my door. Sometimes, the only power of a taboo is fear itself.

Years later, after I had graduated and moved across the country, on another evening alone in the office, I wrote my first essay critical of the Chinese government. The clock slowed with each stroke. It felt like someone else’s fingers were pressing the keyboard. Words appeared on my screen and the page became a mirror, revealing a side of myself that I did not know existed, that I was told should not exist, that must be killed or banished or at least muzzled for the rest of me to live.

That night, I wrote, and a cage shattered around me.

These tiny, intimate moments, known only to myself, have stayed with me. I have stashed them in a most cherished corner and return to them when I’m in doubt, when I need clarity on who I am and what really matters. I was reminded of these moments on the closing days of last November, when protests erupted across China and spread to its diaspora. Over the long weekend of unrest, I was glued to my phone as videos and images flooded social media. I had never before witnessed my mother tongue uttered in such a bold fashion in my birth country. I wonder how the protesters felt when they heard their own voices, the tremor in their throat meeting the air, slicing through lies and taboos. I wonder how many passersby caught the sound of the unspeakable, even if by chance, and sensed a tingling in their chest.

Beyond the fleeting spectacle of a public demonstration, a lasting change begins with a private moment, when an individual confronts herself and peels back her fear, unearths an inner voice, and recognizes its power. She then walks out into the world and finds the lights shine a little differently. The colors have shifted a shade. There’s an extra lift in her step. Nothing is ever again the same.

When I received the invitation to speak at this rally, I asked the organizers which language I should use. We agreed that English would be the most inclusive. The decision might appear obvious, but as with everything about languages, it is also not so simple. Dr. Li Wenliang, in whose memory we gather here today, said that “a healthy society should not have just one voice.” He too was talking about languages. More than a medium of communication, language is a tool of power, a map for worldmaking. The only Chinese language I speak, standard Mandarin, is as old as Chinese civilization and as young as the modern Chinese state. It is rooted in three thousand years of words and song, but also tainted by propaganda and maimed by censorship. To speak Chinese is to contend with the legacies of empire. To speak Chinese freely is to wrestle history and identity from the brute forces of the state.

Since I started writing about Chinese politics and society a few years ago, I have only used English in my publications. I reckon that it is the only way I can write. My adopted tongue is my first language of freedom. Yet I cannot help but question the ethics of my practice, whether I am a coward, residing on a foreign land and hiding behind a foreign tongue. What is the point of writing across such distances? Who am I helping? Who can I help?

Similar questions may be raised about our rally today. I have been following the heart-wrenching news of mass arrests in China over the past weeks. Many of the detained protesters are young women. One of them, Qin Ziyi, is an alumnus of the University of Chicago, my alma mater. I try to picture a younger version of myself: If I were living in China, would I have stood on a street corner and held up a blank sheet of paper? Would I have heard the sound of my own voice venturing the unspeakable? I cannot say that I would have had such courage. This realization only compounds my guilt.

What is the purpose of protesting from an ocean away? I think part of the answer lies in the fact that all of us here have assumed a degree of risk, especially for those of us with loved ones in China. An act cannot be dangerous if it has no power. Presence is power. Attention is power. Raising public awareness and sustaining international pressure are well-tested tactics against state abuse.

But more importantly, the response from Chinese authorities should not be the primary measure of our actions. To do so is to give the Chinese state too much credit. To frame the question only as what we can do from here for people over there is to fall into the trap of false binaries. It is the same faulty logic Beijing wields when it blames dissent on “foreign hostile forces.” For many here in the U.S. who take their liberties for granted, casting a sympathetic gaze at another people on faraway land is a convenient way to exonerate themselves. The plight of the Chinese people is used to prop up the West’s pretense of moral superiority.

Before that fateful weekend last November, migrant workers, who sustained society under lockdown and bore the brunt cost of pandemic restrictions, were among the first to organize and resist, most notably at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, the world’s largest iPhone factory. By their actions, these Chinese workers have exposed the complicity of global capital and blazed new paths for transnational solidarity.

For those of us who have crossed oceans and political systems, who carry the weight of a border on our backs, there is no division between the work here and the people there. Home for us is not a place; it is an idea. It is nowhere and everywhere. To be in exile is to be a prophet: to stand on the edge and make it a new beginning. We have all journeyed from a homeland that never existed—but one which, if there are enough of us, maybe will.

My teenage self once believed that freedom was the treasure on the other end of the rainbow, that the path was a one-way street. But freedom is not a gift; it is not found or bestowed. Freedom is a state of mind, a means of existence. The work of liberation may begin with a private awakening, but true freedom can only be achieved collectively. No one is free until everyone is free.

I hold no illusions about the long night ahead. If there’s any lesson from a global pandemic, three years and counting, it is that there’s no return to the normalcy of yesterday or escape to the comfort of elsewhere. Each of us with a stake in the future will be faced with some very difficult choices. When that moment comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—I hope memories from this gathering can be a source of strength and affirmation. I hope we can keep the names of the forcibly silenced close to our hearts. Let them hold us accountable. Let them make us bolder and more honest and more loving.

Let this site of a past revolution be our witness. Let us give testimony. In the words of Lu Xun, “so long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire will never die.”

石在,火种是不会绝的。与大家共勉!Thank you very much.