Wang Jixian: A Voice from The Other China, but in Odessa

“Hello, everyone. This is Jixian in Odessa. Just checking in to let you know that I’m okay; I’m still alive.”

This is the way that Wang Jixian, a 37-year-old software engineer originally from Beijing, starts most of his daily vlog updates posted from Odessa, the third-largest city in Ukraine and a famous seaport located on the Black Sea. Wang started uploading short videos as the army of the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine on February 24. Among a flurry of posts to his WeChat social media account in China and to YouTube, he included his last will and testament, a tearful farewell to his parents that he hoped his friends would preserve for posterity.

“What good does it do you if all that is left is rubble and corpses. This will be my last will. Keep it on your phones. After all this is over it’ll be proof that people like me existed. Remember, we weren’t wimps.”

On March 1, Wang Jixian explained why he stayed in Odessa, a city he has been living in since July 2021 after his U.S.-based AI company transferred him there from Macedonia. Although Belarus on the northern border of Ukraine offered Chinese passport holders visa-free entry, its army had joined in the Russian invasion and Wang refused to contemplate going there. He also decided against Poland and Moldova under the mistaken impression that he might be forced to forfeit his passport and end up as a refugee. “Anyway,” he told Voice of America’s Chinese-language service, “I didn’t want to abandon my colleagues, damn it: I want to be a decent human being (我他妈的做个人). I’m a legal resident here; this is where I live and this is my home. . . I don’t want to see people sacrifice themselves or die. That’s why I stayed.”

Given China’s prevarications on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its past declared recognition of the territorial integrity and sovereignty the country, Wang’s videos became an instant magnet for controversy, not least of all because he disputed claims made by China’s foreign ministry that its nationals had been seamlessly evacuated from the war zone. China’s online army of “hatriots” immediately denounced him as a traitor who was working for an alien power. Some were equally quick to claim he was an actor paid to disseminate anti-China misinformation. There were even calls for him to be repatriated, tried, and punished. Undaunted, Wang confronted the heated rhetoric in his daily postings, telling VOA that:

I’m dealing with a war on two fronts. The battlefield I’m faced with here is terrifying, but at least I can see the tanks; they are something that is tangible and I can avoid them. But the other battlefield lurking behind me is even scarier: damn it, although I know it’s there I can’t see it. I don’t know who’s in it, but they’re all telling me that they want me dead.

Reporting on his life in Odessa during the opening days of the war, Wang unwittingly became China’s newest citizen journalist. As Sebastian Veg, a scholar who has written on grassroots activism in China, has observed, “The public, losing trust in messages issued by the state, turned to sources of information that can be described as minjian, that is, unofficial, self-organised, originating within society rather than being generated by state institutions.”

During the first months of the COVID epidemic in China, through short video reports citizen journalists like Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, Zhang Zhan, and Li Zehua helped the public understand what was really happening on the ground in Wuhan. They were all soon silenced.

When his WeChat account was canceled on March 8, Wang joked that overnight he had gone from being an “unremarkable person” with a normal name (有名的人) to become a “marked man” for being famous (名人). With nearly 40,000 subscribers, however, the daily posts on “Jixian in Ukraine” (吉贤在乌克兰) get anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000 views, and thousands of likes.

Shortly after the air raid sirens fell quiet on the evening of March 4, Wang told his viewers that:

It doesn’t matter where I come from; first and foremost I’m a person, someone who respects human life and the right of others to live peaceably. I’m not some coward, none of us are: We’re not afraid; we’re outraged.

There I was going to work every day, enjoying a normal life when, out of nowhere, damn it, missiles started raining down on us. One landed right next to my office building. . . Regardless of what side you support, I hope you’ll stand on the side of life. Everyday people don’t want war. One of my colleagues, a programmer just like me, my lawyer and teachers, have all gone off to join the Ukrainian defense forces. They have responded to the call to mobilize so they can protect their mothers and their children. With their guns, they are not only protecting this country, they are fighting for their homes, homes that they have bought with hard-earned money or that they’ve inherited. Why should they be bombed? It’s just that simple; it’s got nothing to do with NATO. People just want to be able to live their lives.

Wang Jixian’s posts soon brought to mind an essay by the noted writer Wang Xiaobo titled “The Silent Majority,” in which he wrote:

. . . people keep silent for any number of reasons, some because they lack the ability or the opportunity to speak, others because they are hiding something, and still others because they feel, for whatever reason, a certain distaste for the world of speech. I am one of these last groups and, as one of them, I have a duty to speak of what I have seen and heard.

For more than two weeks, Wang has in effect been recording an audio-visual conversation with China. In it, he describes his circumstances, his hopes and fears, the on-the-ground sense of what is happening in a fabled coastal city that is increasingly under military pressure from a pitiless invader. He talks about his work, his loves, his neighbors, and his colleagues. Wang’s posts are unaffected; he addresses his viewers directly, and he responds to online comments he has read and chats with his invisible audience. His monologues are factual—the weather, the atmosphere in the city, shopping—by turns phlegmatic, engaging, humorous, angry, sometimes tearful, always compelling.

Wang speaks in the mild cadences and with the understated demeanor of someone born and raised in Beijing. It is the kind of clear and unaffected voice with which anyone who has come to understand the hopes and fears of Chinese people, and empathized with the complex realities of that country, will be familiar. Although the vlog reports that Wang Jixian posts are recorded in Odessa, he is speaking from a place I call “The Other China.”

This is not the China of stentorian slogans, cutting barbs, sarcastic put-downs. It is not the China of clichéd patriotism and exaggerated public performance; nor is it the China of crude stereotypes and bottomless grievance. It is a China of humanity and decency, of quiet dignity and unflappable perseverance. It is a China that finds expression in myriad ways in a country dominated by a political party that would bend all to its will; it is a China that survived the depredations of the Mao era (1949-1978) and increasingly flourished during the decades of reform from 1978 to 2008.

The Other China is not limited to the People’s Republic of China, for it is part of a global culture unique to itself but also with universal aspirations and appeal. It resonates in Wang Jixian’s videos. The tenor of Wang’s posts, and that of his fellow vlogger Lao Zhao, who escaped from Kharkiv and billets with Wang, was not born of this war overnight. In his conversation with his homeland, Wang is not simply responding to his viewers (many of whom are in the People’s Republic and follow him using a VPN that allows them to straddle China’s Great Firewall); he is letting us join his private world, embracing us in the kind of intimate exchange shared among Chinese friends, often sotto voce and away from prying eyes and ears.

The art of the guarded conversation has flourished once more during the Xi Jinping decade, and people from Beijing, known as quick-witted raconteurs, are also masters of off-the-cuff analysis; many react to unfolding political events with rapid-fire repartee. Like Wang Jixian, they can readily turn tears of sorrow into sardonic observations on life. Every time Wang heaves a sigh, whether it be due to frustration with the situation in Ukraine or in response to the flood of online abuse and Chinese media inanity, viewers recognize the temper of what is often referred to as being that of “Old Peking,” a world-wise but not world-weary sensibility honed over decades, if not centuries.

On a number of occasions, Wang has quoted Zhang Hengqu, an 11th-century thinker famous for his “Teaching in Four Sentences”:

“Nurture a heart that can embrace both Heaven and Earth; devote yourself to the betterment of all; inherit the teachings of sages past lost to the present; contribute thereby to lasting peace.”

Zhang’s ancient dictum was revived in China in the late 1970s just as in Europe Václav Havel formulated a similar sentiment that he later summed up in his address to the United States Congress in 1990: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Zhang Hengqu’s ancient teaching had resonated with people during an earlier conflict: the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). When the Japanese Empire invaded China in the late 1930s, Ma Yifu, a celebrated Confucian scholar, frequently quoted Zhang Hengqu’s lines in his public lectures. Ma told his acolyte, the artist Feng Zikai, who was fleeing the Japanese army with his family, that for China to survive in the long run, apart from armed resistance it was crucial to embrace the sentiment expressed by Zhang Hengqu. Ma said that, if China failed to survive the Japanese invasion with its cultural heart and spirit intact, militarism and hate would have won out, even though the enemy had been defeated. Feng Zikai praised Zhang Henqu’s teaching and echoed Ma’s sentiment when, at the height of the war, he wrote:

. . . warfare can never be more than a short-term remedy, and we should be wary of becoming addicted to it. As the virus is eliminated and we regain our health it is essential that we take proper nourishment. And what kind of nourishment is crucial to our long-term well-being? Peace, happiness, and universal love, and the basic ingredient for “preserving life” itself: art.

The essence and appeal of Wang Jixian’s online “wartime art” lies in softly spoken humanity and unabashed honesty.

Wang quotes Zhang Hengqu’s ancient dictum just as he repeats his modest ambition: to be a decent human being (做个人). It is an aspiration that has echoed throughout modern Chinese history; the desire to be a decent person who is treated with consideration and whose dignity is respected. This is the essential message of The Other China and one that, like a vast subterranean sea of human self-esteem, has long been a wellspring for a country that itself has been ravaged by war, rent by social conflict, and repeatedly suffocated by ideology. In March 2022, Wang Jixian shares his aspiration not only with the modern Confucian thinker Ma Yifu (persecuted to death by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution), and the artist Feng Zikai (who died a broken man in 1975), but also with Lin Yutang, one of modern China’s greatest essayists and publishers who, in 1934, declared that:

“There are Proles to the East and Fascists to the West. None of that holds any appeal for me. If you really want me to champion a particular ‘ism,’ I can only say that I just want to be a decent human being.”

Wang Jixian often begins or ends his daily messages with the words: “We’ve made it through another day (又活过了一天).”

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As this essay was going to press, Wang Jixian posted a new video to his YouTube channel. The following is a translation of its opening minutes:

I’m Jixian and I live in Ukraine. Who are you? What are you afraid of? Why are you so scared of my being able to speak? I do not utter any threats; I don’t advocate murder. All I do is make a plea for people to respect life and end this war. Why are you so afraid of people knowing what’s really going on? We don’t have nuclear weapons; we don’t have any guns. Why do you only want the voices that advocate murder to be heard? Why is it that you only want me to say: “I’m here. I’m afraid. Save me, please!” Why do you only let voices that spread fear get posted? We here are determined, peace-loving, and on the side of justice.

People tell me this is a time when the weak simply have to submit to the strong, that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. Who says so? What kind of logic is that? I’m not some sea creature, a small fish waiting to be devoured by a larger fish. I am a human being.

Let me respond to you with the kind of language you’ll understand: Would the things you’re telling me be acceptable to Mr. Chen Duxiu or Mr. Li Dazhao [early leaders of the Chinese Communist Party]? Is that what they taught you? Who were they? What Party did they belong to? Just take a look in the textbooks that we studied at school.

“Nurture a heart that can embrace both Heaven and Earth; devote yourself to the betterment of all.” Even if you don’t understand true Confucian thinking like this, then at least look at what Mr. Li Dazhao did back in the day. Was he scared when he was confronted with oppressors and killers? [Li was executed by a warlord aligned with the Nationalist government in 1927.] He was one of your leaders.

I have no party affiliation and I have no love for “that party.” Does that make me wrong? You love it with all your life; you think of it as your wife. Well, I don’t like your wife. Is that my fault? You want to kill me just because I don’t like your wife, your mother? Does that make your cause the righteous one? “Where are our dead heroes? When will justice prevail? The enemy’s time is up and we are at our glorious noon.” [The last lines of a famous Song dynasty era poem by Chen Liang, about resisting a foreign invader.] You would have me turn reality and falsehood on their heads—I’ll never do it. Just because you have your lousy guns, you think that I’ll submit to you. That will never happen.