In China’s Diaspora, Visions of a Different Homeland

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 thousands across China took to the streets to protest against the government’s draconian zero-COVID policy, solidarity rallies have blossomed in the diaspora. Many are organized by overseas Chinese students. I came to the one held on the campus where I work. We sang “Vast Ocean, Boundless Skies,” the iconic 1993 ode to freedom by the Cantonese band Beyond, followed by “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Someone suggested the Chinese national anthem, yet the crowd was reticent. Instead we chorused to “Songbie” (“Farewell”). Written by the Chinese maestro Li Shutong in the early 20th century, with a melody inspired by the Civil War-era American folk song “Dreaming of Home and Mother,” the evocative verse is a toast to camaraderie and lament on separation:

Here at sky’s edge and earth’s end, true friends are scattered and few;
Let us exhaust all the pleasures to the last ladle of wine, and dream of neither winter chill nor final partings tonight. (Translation by Eileen Chengyin Chow.)

To be an independent-minded Chinese person is to assume a state of exile: alienated from an authoritarian homeland and blamed by the rest of the world for Beijing’s deeds. As a young child in China, I was taught that politics and death are the two biggest taboos. When I arrived in the U.S. for graduate school in 2009, Chinese classmates warned me to beware the watchful eyes and long arm of the Chinese state. The friendly reminder cast a shadow over my movement in Chinese circles. I was not so much concerned for myself—I’ve accepted the risks—but I did not want to put any of my compatriots in a compromising position, or let political disagreements rupture a budding bond.

Since I started writing about Chinese politics and society a few years ago, I’ve been questioning the ethics of my practice, whether weaving words about my birth country in a foreign land and through a foreign tongue is a form of trespass, a betrayal of my roots. I reckon that it’s the only way I can write. The physical and linguistic distance grants me limited protection. My adopted tongue is my first language of freedom.

Each time I receive a message of encouragement from a Chinese reader, a rush of gratitude sends me into a panic. A part of me is still suspended in disbelief, wondering how I deserve such generosity. I haven’t been speaking to an empty room or only satiating a Western audience’s appetite for stories from the Orient. Sometime somewhere, my words have encountered a kindred spirit and made two political orphans, the writer and her reader, a little less alone.

When videos of the protests in China poured into social media, the stunning scenes were like the materialization of a dream sequence: The explicit anger and cryptic complaints in digital spaces have transformed into physical bodies in motion. Out from behind censored postings and silenced corners, people emerge to assert their presence and make their voices heard. I clicked on every video that popped into my Twitter feed, anxious to not miss a single frame of history in the making. Residents tear down barricades that have sealed off their buildings and overturn COVID testing booths. The extreme restrictions in the name of pandemic prevention have become emblems of the government’s dictatorial control. Near busy streets and on college campuses, diverse crowds, often led by young women, shout slogans demanding democracy and free expression. A few point their wrath directly at the country’s top leadership: “Communist Party, step down!” “Xi Jinping, step down!”

I had never witnessed my mother tongue spoken in such bold fashion in my birth country. Glued to my phone over the long weekend of unrest, I felt uplifted by the courage of the protesters, fearful of what might happen next, obligated to keep watch, and frustrated by my own meager power. I followed coverage of the demonstrations as they spread beyond China’s borders, taking note of each location, seeing in them clusters of my long lost kin.

On this frigid Monday evening, I had arrived at the vigil early and watched the participants stream in. I recognized only a few faces, but there were no strangers at this gathering. We had all journeyed from a homeland that never existed—but one which, if there are enough of us, maybe will.

* * *

Halfway through the hour-long vigil, the suggestion to sing the Chinese national anthem was raised for a third time. Noting earlier objections, the speaker insisted that we did not have to see “March of the Volunteers” as the official song of the state but for its original purpose: Composed in the 1930s, the fiery ballad was a call to arms against Japanese invasion.

“But this is the song of the Little Pinks!” a student complained, referring to young Chinese nationalists who unconditionally defend their motherland online.

“Don’t let it be appropriated by others!” the speaker argued. Some agreed that a video of us singing the anthem, shared across the Great Firewall, would be a valuable show of support for folks in China. A lone voice started the first beat and more joined the chorus: “Arise, those who do not wish to be slaves! . . . The Chinese nation is facing the most perilous time!”

Yangyang Cheng

A sign reads “Freedom for China,” amidst candles, flowers, and blank sheets of paper, at a vigil at Yale University in support of demonstrations in China, November 28, 2022.

But what constitutes the Chinese nation, who decides, and where do the dangers lie? A literal blaze ignited months of pent-up rage and despair across the country. The prospect of being trapped in a burning building elicits a primal fear. Anyone affected by the unrelenting zero-COVID restrictions could picture themself or a loved one in a similar situation. Yet, the tragedy happened in the capital of Xinjiang and took Uyghur lives. For years, many among China’s Han majority, of which I’m also a member, dismissed reports of ethnic oppression against the Uyghur ethnic minority as Western propaganda, or deemed the crackdown necessary for security purposes. The fire resonated with the Han people when mass internment and cultural erasure against the Uyghurs did not.

In the protests that ensued in Urumchi and other parts of Xinjiang, most of the partakers appeared to be Han, who are accorded more freedoms in the Uyghur homeland and view themselves as vanguards of the Chinese frontier. At related events in Europe and North America, there have been reports of tension between Uyghur and Han participants, but also encouraging signs of a fledgling ethno-racial awareness among the latter. Some stumbled with expressions of solidarity, chanting “We are all Xinjiangers!” and “Urumchi, I love you!” Others strived to center Uyghur voices. During a rally at UCLA, a young Uyghur man spoke movingly of his imprisoned family, and a Chinese student bowed in apology before urging everyone to repeat after him: “Stop concentration camps!” “Free Uyghurs!”

I found myself welling up before the astonishing sights and sounds. I could not help but notice that the Uyghur speaker used Mandarin. In the words of Adrienne Rich, “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you.”

Removed from the immediate demands of COVID restrictions and out of the iron grip of the home government, the mostly spontaneous remarks at overseas Chinese rallies have been a search for language: to contend with the legacies of empire that haunt the borderlands, to wrestle one’s national identity from the monopolizing powers of the state, to seize cultural symbols not yet claimed by the ruling party, and to uncover political expression for visions of a different China. At the vigil I attended, a few recited verses by contemporary Chinese poets. One quoted Mencius on the people’s right to topple tyranny. Another, in a passionate vilification of Xi’s one-man reign, spoke in a mixture of Mandarin and English. The lack of polish or preparedness was not a mark of weakness but a sign of potential. For many Chinese youths, this past week has been a moment of political awakening. A taboo is broken. A muffled tongue ventures its first cry. Vocabulary and fluency will take time.

* * *

This nascent movement, still looking for the right words, has been called the “blank paper revolution.” Many protesters chose to raise an empty sheet to highlight Beijing’s sweeping censorship. Previously used during demonstrations in Hong Kong and in Russia against the invasion of Ukraine, a blank page cannot be hacked; its message cannot be erased. The absence is a mirror held up against state terror, a vessel for divergent grievances, and a path to infinite possibilities.

“The deaf do not believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing,” writes the poet Ilya Kaminsky, who lost his hearing due to illness as a child in Soviet Ukraine before emigrating to the U.S. at age 16. In his acclaimed volume Deaf Republic, a soldier kills a young boy and the entire town goes deaf; the people organize their resistance by sign language. A new way of speaking opens up fugitive spaces, where an excised past is restored and alternative futures are in rehearsal.

I first read Deaf Republic in the spring of 2019, when I was invited to write an essay on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. In the piece, I recounted how, as a teenager in China, I had sensed the presence of a seismic event in my birth year—I was born in the fall of 1989—but it took a flight across oceans and languages for me to find out the forbidden truth.

How does one speak with knowledge of such calamity? In the ostensibly free West, discourse on political defiance also suffers from a lack of vocabulary. Each time a mass demonstration in China catches the attention of the Western public, including the latest protests, the immediate and often the only analogy is that fateful spring 33 years ago. I’ve grown increasingly wary of the question—“Is this the next Tiananmen?”—not because there aren’t useful comparisons to be made and lessons drawn, but because this line of inquiry is seldom curious or honest. It leads to a foregone conclusion as we know how the first story ends. The plot affirms a reductive view so cynical it borders on nihilism. A nationwide upheaval that culminated after years of ferment is flattened to a handful of tokenized images: idealistic students in the square; banners, bullets, and blood; a lone man against an array of tanks.

A movement is not a spectacle or an academic exercise. The West’s selective remembering of Tiananmen is another form of erasure. In the popular narrative, the Chinese workers who advocated for a socialist democracy as their country was undergoing marketization are all but forgotten. Those who did not speak the language of Western liberalism are effectively silenced. Similarly, coverage of the current unrest has often neglected the fact that migrant workers, who sustained society under lockdown and bore the brunt of the cost of pandemic policies, including the “closed loop” system that effectively imprisoned them inside their factories, were among the first to organize and resist the restrictions. Workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, the world’s largest iPhone factory, staged daring escapes from their confined production quarters and clashed with security forces. By their actions, the Chinese workers have exposed the complicity of global capital, the hypocrisy of anti-China rhetoric in the West, and the moral paucity of Cold War binarism. As Apple retail workers in the U.S. voice their support for Foxconn workers, and activists stage hunger strikes and organize protests at Apple locations worldwide, the signs of transnational solidarity are inklings of a new phase of movement, where labor’s emancipatory potential may be realized through sustained, collective struggle.

* * *

At the end of the hour, a student suggested that we sing the Chinese national anthem one more time to close out the vigil. “Sing ‘The Internationale’!” another responded.

The organizers gave us a second to look up the lyrics. Unlike “Farewell” or “March of the Volunteers,” few of us knew “The Internationale” by heart. I learned the song in middle school music class. My friends and I always chuckled at the last line, where “L'Internationale” is transliterated as “ying-te-na-xiong-nai-er,” like a character from Greek mythology, revealing its alien origin. The verse was introduced to China in the early 1920s, as the country was debating the form of governance and contours of nationhood. A century later, questions that arose from the ruins of empire and amidst violent foreign encounters are still seeking answers. The final battle prophesied in the lyrics is still being waged.

“The Internationale” has appeared in over 80 languages. The Chinese edition was banned in Taiwan under martial law. In South Africa, it was translated into Afrikaans, an imposed tongue from European settlers—“the oppressor’s language”—to protest against state suppression of leftist politics. In the Anglophone world, the version in the U.K. varies from that in the U.S. At a lecture in London in 2019, the American historian Robin D. G. Kelley asked the audience to reimagine the anthem of global solidarity and proletarian revolution as a blues. Created by a people with a long tradition of struggle, from slave revolts to contemporary uprisings, the blues is more than a musical form. It invokes a different perception of time, a fluid temporality that rejects a uniform procession or preordained path. Blues time is open to contingencies and contains multitudes: past, present, and future.

The Chinese government has swiftly relaxed COVID restrictions while clamping down on dissent, blaming the unrest on “frustrated students” and foreign agitation. The days-old scenes of angry people storming the streets already feel like a fervid dream. One may wonder if the “blank paper revolution” has turned its last page. But change does not happen overnight. A movement has no set trajectory or guaranteed outcome. The future is contingent, brimming with possibilities. In October, a single protester unfurled a banner across a busy overpass in Beijing. Several weeks later, his gallant message has become one of the most popular refrains in the Chinese language, repeated across the world in calls for freedom. Most seeds of revolution are lost in the wind. Only a few may reach fertile ground. Among those that take root, it will be years before any blooms or bears fruit. But every seed is conceived in anticipation of a future harvest. It leaps into air in an incomparable act of faith.

Several Chinese parents brought their young children to the vigil. After the event, as the crowd dispersed, a father and his toddler son stopped by a sign, “Freedom for China.” Let’s light a candle here, the father said. He bent down. So did the boy. On this wintry night, beneath a canopy of blazing leaves, a child put out his tender palm towards a flicker of a flame, to touch the pulse of a nation.