Photo: Free Xuebing and Jianbing Concern Group

Campaigning from the outside: Reflections from two Chinese activists

Without efforts to document the history of Chinese social movements, there is no future for Chinese activism.

Interviewer’s note: The campaign to free the feminist activist and journalist Huang Xueqin and the labor campaigner Wang Jianbing has been ongoing since September 2021, when they were both detained for hosting gatherings to discuss current affairs. While in detention, the pair were charged with inciting subversion of state power. Since then, their friends around the world have organized campaigns and actions to support them, starting petitions, sending postcards to them in jail and organizing demonstrations. 

Here, Yaya and Tony, two activists in the global campaign group—one new to activism and one veteran organizer—share reflections on their work with the group and what it means for the future of Chinese social movements. As the movement in Hong Kong faces increasingly similar challenges, the lessons shared by these activists will no doubt help Hongkongers strengthen their movement, offer better solidarity to mainland allies and weather the storms to come.

Read more about Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing here

Uchiyama: What motivated you to become involved in the campaign to free Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing?

Yaya: Xueqin’s experiences as a woman, as a journalist who reported on the #MeToo movement and other women’s issues in China, and finally as a student who was intending to come to the UK to study caught my attention. From the start, her case resonated with me because I believe the bond of solidarity with other feminists is very important. Then, as I started learning more about her case, I started to feel resentment about what the PRC government did to them so I decided to join the campaign to free Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing. I wanted to try to do something for them.

Tony: I have been a friend of both Xueqin and Jianbing for a long time and I was also a frequent attendee of their weekly gatherings. They would hold gatherings every week and I would attend at least three times a month. The government considered those gatherings to be illegal assemblies with so-called political purpose, which is why they were detained. I feel that it is my obligation and duty to support them, as their friend and as an activist as well. People like me who have many years experience of activism know how to deal with the fear of being targeted by the government, and we understand how the authorities work, so we can understand the risks better. So I feel that I am in a good position to stand up for them.

Uchiyama: Has your work with the Free Xueqin and Jianbing group changed your perspective on the #MeToo and labor movements in the PRC, or elsewhere?

Yaya: In the process of following their cases, I have understood more about the dangers and risks for activists in PRC. I feel that the political oppression they faced is getting closer and closer to me and the things I care about. That fear inspired me to respond more actively and take more responsibility to try and change this situation.

Tony: Over the past ten years, half of my friends in civil society groups have been arrested. Like Xueqin and Jianbing, many of them are now in jail and it has become a normal, routine thing in my life to campaign for them. This is a reality that I need to accept—that in the PRC, civil society has broken down and that we cannot organize now the way we did before.

Previously I could work on migrant workers’ rights or other disadvantaged communities. But now, most of my time has been taken up by supporting my arrested friends. The government’s monitoring is very frequent and sometimes you would be told to report to the police every week to be questioned. Of course, dealing with that takes a lot of time. Because I spend so much time supporting my detained friends, I don’t have as much time to work on other issues—the issues that led me to get involved in civil society groups in the first place. 

Censorship online has become more difficult to work around too. In the past, messages of support for activists like Xueqin and Jianbing were shared on Weibo or WeChat. Now, however, this is no longer possible. People are more fearful than before, and it is hard to stay in touch with individuals and grassroots organizing generally. Being outside of China, we do not have to fear being censored in the same way. We have more freedom to speak out so it is our responsibility to coordinate and support the campaign. It is a strange kind of luck, because being overseas means we are also disconnected from the movement and the communities facing repression.

Uchiyama: There are countless long-running campaigns in other states to free political prisoners. Are these movements connected to campaigns to free Chinese activists like Huang and Wang, and if so, how? 

Yaya: They are closely related. All these campaigns are fighting for the human rights of the most marginalized people. The circumstances that landed these political prisoners in jail are universal, and don’t only exist in one country. I think these cases, including Xueqin and Jianbing’s, could become the source of a solidarity to resist oppression by government authorities around the globe, together. So we have to be careful when these detentions are used by nationalist forces and media to spur bias and hate between people. 

Tony: When we talk about transnational campaigns as Chinese activists, we always think that we need other people’s help. In China, we can provide so little support to the global community—we are the ones asking for help. But transnational means that we help each other and engage with each other’s movements. Just like in other big countries, Chinese people are very China-centric. We do not have a very strong international perspective, so we do not have a proactive approach to connecting with other movements globally. It is also true that we have already spent so much energy to advocate local political issues that we do not have much left over to connect with international groups. 

The kind of support we receive from international friends also depends on how much interest there is. For example, in the US, it is hard to get people to care about China, especially small figures who are detained. Many western activists ask me if our efforts overseas are actually useful. Many people here are hesitant to support us because they aren’t sure if supporting Chinese activists overseas is useful. We need to persuade them that what we are doing is useful. 

But it is hard for us as activists to do so, especially when we don’t have any positive cases or successes to show them that their efforts pay off. In the west, activists have freedom of association, they can communicate with their elected representatives or they can launch protests or marches which will pressure elected officials. But these tactics cannot really be used to support Chinese activists. It is hard to pressure the Chinese government directly, and even if pressure was exerted from overseas, we’ve seen many times that the Chinese government simply does not care. Another concern westerners have about supporting Chinese movements is that they fear their Chinese comrades they associate with will be charged with being foreign agents. This is frustrating, because it puts Chinese activists in a corner. We want solidarity, but it is so hard for grassroots Chinese voices to be heard in the west.

Uchiyama: How would you describe the treatment of Huang and Wang and activists such as yourself in western media? 

Yaya: First of all, I am glad for the attention we have gotten in some western media. But on the other hand, as campaigners, we also question their reporting methods and the relationship and interactions they have with the interviewee and other participants, especially when it comes to talking about China’s political issues. Often, western media come with stereotypes or they treat issues in China as a kind of spectacle, much in the same way they do war in the Middle East. This kind of perspective can potentially lead audiences to become numb or feel distanced from these issues, even when these issues are actually more universal and do not only affect Chinese people. It might raise nationalistic feelings or bias and hate against others which can lead to hate crimes against Asians and Muslims. 

Tony: The whole western world tries to characterize the Chinese government as an evil machine and Chinese people as their victims. So, when it comes to Chinese social movements, they are only interested in using these cases as evidence for how evil the Chinese government is. 

This propaganda is very powerful. For example, when I came to the US, everyone told me how lucky I was to be out of China and how China is so scary. They said, “you can’t bring your phone or computer to the Winter Olympics,” or they would ask about the social credit score. I asked them, “if everything is so scary, why do you think I was very active in the social movement and how could I have survived there for so long without being attacked?” I did face some political attacks, of course, but not physical ones. Even then, the attacks were not as scary as I imagined, and most importantly, it reminded me that we the activists have the agency to fight and survive.

This is one reason why people do not think we have much power to control China’s fate or put pressure on our government. People outside of China think of us as victims, and they think, falsely, that there is no movement in China. Western media narratives simplify China’s government as an evil machine, and its people as robots who all share the same ideology. Of course, we also disagree with the government, but that does not mean that Chinese activists should be used as a tool by western media for its propaganda. On the other side of things, there are people who are only focused on fighting western imperialism. They use Chinese people in their arguments and steal our voices. In the west, it seems like the entire war is between people who think the Chinese government is an evil regime and people who think it is a paradise. Where is the space for the voices of Chinese activists? We need to hear more voices from the grassroots. 

This is doubly hard because the censorship on Chinese social media means that there is no space for activists to survive. This is the same as in the west, especially when you are activists rather than academics, and if your English is not fluent. Relying on western media and intellectuals to speak up on our behalf is not ideal, either. In my personal interactions, I try to explain the difference between the government and its people to my western friends and the media. But it is frustrating when I see that they are simply using our struggles to push their own agenda. By ignoring the agency we have in China, people in the west lose the motivation to care about Chinese people, let alone try to support our movement or try to inform themselves properly about it.

Uchiyama: How can feminists and labor activists outside of the PRC support their friends in the PRC? 

Yaya: I think the first thing is to pay attention to them and listen to them. Don’t pretend the elephant does not exist. In official propaganda especially, activists and related issues are more easily disappeared. Secondly, keep speaking out on social media or in your daily life, especially when some people are forced to be silent. Third, those of us who are overseas need to use the resources around us as much as possible. For example, we can use academia and the media to inform more people about cases like Xueqin and Jianbing’s, and encourage them to pay attention to feminism and labour issues. Last, I think it is important to build solidarity with different groups, whether they are feminists, labor activists, or environmental activists. Ultimately, we are all fighting for the same thing: to have a better future for everyone. We cannot watch the fire from the other side (隔岸观火) and pretend that we can be safe by choosing to be silent, obedient and isolated. We are entangled in this world.

Tony: I consider our campaign [to free Xueqin and Jianbing] a means of leverage and education. But to support Chinese activists, it is important to first adjust our expectations about what is possible. You cannot use your expectations in the western world in the Chinese one. In the west, we wish that people will be released. But in China, we cannot expect that. We know that it is very difficult to persuade powerful people in government to react to pressure from Chinese people or the international community. Despite this, it is still important to support Chinese activists. 

Although we can’t expect them to be released or the most important people in government to care, on the local level things are different. Local authorities will know and people in their communities will remember them. If any harm comes to the detainees then the local authorities will be in trouble with the higher ups. So that protects them physically, if not psychologically, in prison. Even if they cannot be released earlier, at least they will not be beaten or tortured as much in detention. (Before 2010, activists were sometimes released earlier because of public pressure, but this is no longer the case.) 

The other reason we should still support Chinese activists is to give the activists leverage to negotiate with their jailors. From my own experience in prison, I know that outside support can help boost your morale. Of course, prisoners will never receive the postcards their supporters send them, but the police do. Even though the postcards are addressed to our friends, we are really writing them for the police to read. In interrogations, the police might mention that there are many people outside, demonstrating for you or there might be a sudden, inexplicable improvement in your treatment. If, as a prisoner, you know that the police are worried about the publicity your case is getting, then you would be in a better position to negotiate for a shorter sentence or bargain for better treatment. Everything we do outside the detention centers is to give prisoners more leverage indirectly.

Finally, when we continue to talk about Chinese activists, we allow the Chinese movement to be seen and we write its story. We remind the world and ourselves that there are still so many people fighting within China for justice. This is important because we are amplifying the voices of Chinese activists, but also because these activists can be inspirations for other movements. If these activists cannot be remembered domestically, then they need to be remembered internationally. 

This remembrance is also a form of education. I believe more and more people in China will become activists in the future. Issues like workplace justice, the lack of protections for gig workers and the plight of students who face economic crises are major issues right now. When their consciousness is raised, they will need to learn the tactics for social movements from the activists now. Without efforts to document the history of Chinese social movements, there is no future for Chinese activism.