‘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:

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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.



In China’s Diaspora, Visions of a Different Homeland

Yangyang Cheng
At the beginning, there were songs. It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving. In the storied New England town, over a hundred of us had gathered for the candlelight vigil. After a fire claimed at least ten lives in a locked-down building in Urumchi, and...

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.