Xinjiang. Hong Kong. Democracy. Racism. How does an American-educated Chinese talk to her mainland Chinese friends about these subjects? Connie Mei Pickart tried, and found that her companions were far from brainwashed in their views.
The reality was more worrisome.
Illustration by Derek Zhang
I was the one who brought up Xinjiang.
In the middle of dinner, our conversations turned to international politics, and someone lamented that the world just couldn’t see how awesome China really was. I said if I had to pinpoint a single reason for China’s image problem, at least in the last few years, it had to be Xinjiang.
As soon as she heard the X word, Mingjun looked up, her face turning dark. “What do you know about Xinjiang?” she asked.
I was taken aback by her reaction. “So you know about Xinjiang? What do you know?”
“You go first. You’re the one who brought it up.”
Mingjun didn’t like what I said, especially the last part. “See, this is what we call 站着说话不腰疼 (zhànzhe shuōhuà bù yāoténg)!” She lifted her right index finger, pointing tentatively at me.
The phrase 站着说话不腰疼 literally means “stand straight and talk without hurting your waist.” It describes a person who talks the talk without experiencing the walk. In this case, my classmate Mingjun was accusing Western journalists of criticizing China’s Xinjiang policy without understanding the issue’s complexities. “Why don’t you give it a try? Do you have any better solutions?” Her pitch kept going higher as she hurled each rhetorical question.
As it turns out, Mingjun came from a military family — a fact I was unaware of. In the past few years, some of her family members had been dispatched to Xinjiang to help maintain the region’s security. “Many people had died,” she said, referring to the Han Chinese victims of the 2009 Urumqi riots as well as subsequent attacks in 2014. She said the police patrolled the streets 24/7, and anyone with a slightly higher nose than a typical Han Chinese would be stopped for inspection.
“Isn’t that targeting the entire ethnicity?” I retorted.
“Mei ban fa!” She exclaimed. There’s just no other way.
“But see, that’s exactly why the West has been critical,” I said. “They come from a human rights perspective, and these innocent people have been deprived of their basic human rights. They’re humans, too, you know.”
“Yes, they’re humans, but what about the bigger population beyond the region? What about people of the entire country? Who’s accounting for their security?” At this point, Mingjun had become very agitated. To ease the tension, others around the table started agreeing with whatever she said in order to calm her down.
“And Western media just don’t understand China. If they don’t have a better solution, they should just shut up!”
“It’s not their job to provide solutions,” I continued. “Their job is to point out malfeasance when they see any…And to be fair, they criticize their own government just as harsh. Look how they treat Donald Trump!”
“Well I don’t think they’re so bad to him,” Mingjun smiled dismissively while looking away. She didn’t seem so confident about this one.
One person responded immediately: “You Americans aren’t any better! How long has the world endured America’s hegemony?”
When I came back to China four years ago, I was excited to finally be home. Even though I had become a U.S. citizen, I had always felt like a foreigner in America. Upon returning to China, I relished the fact that I no longer stood out from the crowd. Everyone around had my skin color, they spoke my language — finally, I’m back in my own land with my own people, I thought. Wasn’t that so?
Not quite. It turned out that my new American passport, along with my new perspectives on China, would alienate me from my old friends. Jokingly, they called me a foreigner, and while they accepted me back into their circle, there were few things we shared in common. After all, I had spent my entire adult life (minus college) in a foreign country, where I went to grad school and joined the workforce, whereas my friends had been institutionalized in the Chinese system.
But at least there was WeChat. I was happy when one of my friends pulled me into this WeChat group where the most interesting classmates from my elite middle school shared juicy gossip about everything and everyone. Most of them lived in Beijing. All of them had established successful careers in various sectors. I was delighted to join them, and even though I lived in Shanghai, I thought this was a great way to reconnect with friends whom I cherished. And talking online via social media wouldn’t be so bad — it would act as a buffer to my inadequate knowledge about today’s China.
Topics of our chats varied, but politics was a favorite. My friends often talked in coded language about political leaders that completely threw me off. Over time, I learned a few things. 长者 (zhǎng zhě), or “the senior,” refers to former president Jiang Zemin. 今上 (jīn shàng), “the present emperor,” refers to current president Xi Jinping. When I got information-hungry and asked questions such as, “How is the relationship between the senior and the present emperor?” everyone gave me a face-palm and stopped talking. Other times, when my questions weren’t so sensitive, they would humor me by explaining the social context which I had missed from being abroad. The men especially enjoyed explaining things to me. Back in school I had been the academic overachiever and class monitor who always seemed to know better, and now the roles were reversed.
The first time they ganged up on me was over the issue of U.S. deployment of THAAD in South Korea. China reacted strongly, seeing it as a threat to its national security. To put pressure on South Korea, the Chinese government orchestrated a series of boycotts against Korean businesses in China, including retail giant Lotte. Some Lotte stores were reportedly ransacked by nationalistic Chinese citizens. In our WeChat group, I expressed frustration with this tactic, calling it 土豪外交 (tǔháo wàijiāo) — “new-money diplomacy.”
One person responded immediately. “You Americans aren’t any better!” he said. “How long has the world endured America’s hegemony?” My response to that was, just because America did similar things doesn’t make it right. Lots of countries have corrupt leaders. Just because countries A, B, and C all have them doesn’t make the problem go away. He saw my point.
The second person, whom I’ll call Tang, thought I was gulled by media reports. According to him, there really weren’t that many boycotts. To prove his point, he contacted a travel agent while we were talking, asking her if recent trips to Korea had been cancelled. She said no. “See? Rumors can be easily dismissed. It’s the media that hypes things up,” Tang said. He also thought the nationalistic behaviors were among the few and didn’t represent the majority.
I responded by saying that one travel agency could hardly represent the whole picture, and that many media reports were indeed based on facts. Whether the boycotts were overwhelming or not, I said, the behavior should still be called into question.
As for the level of nationalism, many others weighed in. Some believed it was overwhelming, an act of group instinct that is often evident among the Chinese. One person pointed out that under China’s current education and propaganda systems, nationalism was inevitable.
I agreed. This is a sure way to cultivate ignorant masses which the government then manipulates according to its agenda, I said. The only way out is through proper education, by encouraging critical thinking.
“Yes, critical thinking is indeed lacking in our country,” someone commented. From there on, the conversations switched to how to educate our children at home. Most of my friends in the WeChat group had started families, so the discussion on education was personal. Since I did not have children of my own, I quietly left the conversation. But I was happy that my friends were willing to hear me out.
About a month later, I was notified by WeChat administrators that I had violated regulations. I was blocked for three days. I was never told what my violation was, but the conversation about THAAD was the closest thing I could think of.
The American scholar James Carey proposed that communication is a construction of a symbolic reality, a ritual through which shared beliefs are maintained, strengthened, and transformed.
On August 4, 2018, during a soccer game between Shanghai Shenhua and Changchun Yatai in China’s top league, a fight broke out between two players. Demba Ba, a French-born Senegalese player who signed a lease with Shanghai Shenhua three years earlier, accused Zhāng Lì 张力, a Chinese player from the opposing team, of hurling racist insults at him. According to Ba, Zhang kept shouting “You black!” at him, which spurred his immediate reaction. The dispute was handed over to the Chinese Football Association, and Zhang was punished for “disturbing regular orders of the game.” No word of racism was mentioned in the verdict.
In our WeChat group, discussions broke out over the issue of racism. Tang led the discussion. He said the West had a history of racism against blacks, but the Chinese simply weren’t racist.
I gaped. Just six months earlier, an Africa skit during the Chinese New Year Gala on CCTV had featured blackface and equated Africans with monkeys. A few years back, a laundry detergent commercial had featured a black man who was fed the detergent and pushed into a washing machine by a Chinese woman. When he came out, he was a light-skinned Asian. I brought up these two examples to support my counterargument.
“Fine,” Tang replied with a face palm. “Maybe there are racist Chinese, but I’m not one of them.”
“The point is not to judge,” I continued, “but to reflect on our cultural psyche and see how we can do better.”
For a moment, no one said anything, and I dropped my phone to carry on with my life, leaving WeChat on mute. Then Tang came back. “Black soccer players have been paid very well in China. For many Chinese, we just find their looks interesting, that’s all…And maybe this had nothing to do with racism at all. Maybe it was a cover for a foul.”
During that disputed game, before Ba and Zhang went after each other, Ba was fighting for the ball with another Chinese player on the opposing team, and the latter fell to the ground after the two collided in the air. That was when Zhang came to his teammate’s defense, allegedly calling Ba “You black.” Tang was referring to the collision before the conflict broke out.
Several others agreed with Tang. “The blacks in the league have a history of doing that,” one person said. “They commit nasty fouls.”
When I read this part of the discussion the following morning, I felt sick to my stomach. I understood that our WeChat conversations were casual and not to be taken too seriously, but I also saw the danger of such casual talk about another race — stereotypes sustained and cultural superiority reaffirmed. So I decided to speak out once again. I gave historic reasons for why we should be more sensitive toward Africans. Of all people, I said, we Chinese should be more sympathetic and empathetic to people in Africa, as we were both victims of colonialism. Empathy requires us to not see a country and its people through a lens of power, but to put ourselves in their shoes and to try and understand their struggles. Knowing my audience, I also added a buffer at the beginning of my response to save my classmate’s face. I applauded Tang for his kindness — “I fully believe that you’re not racist under any circumstances,” I said, “for I know personally that you’re a kind-hearted person.” I made my point general, not targeting anyone in the conversation.
After a few hours, Tang responded. “Whether this whole thing has to do with racism is beyond us,” he said. “Let’s not talk about this anymore.” Immediately, three other guys — also the opinion leaders of the group — gave him their thumbs up.
For the next few days, people kept chatting in the group about various topics. I chimed in once but was ignored. Amidst their conversations, the word empathy was used several times, always sarcastically, as if they were subtly mocking the person who brought it up first.
We paused for a few seconds, both of us looking away, perhaps realizing the unbridgeable gap widening between us. Then we perked up at the same time, both realizing it was time for a change of topic.
After the racism discussion, my friends became less responsive to any of my comments in the WeChat group. There were many times when I basically spoke to myself — even casual remarks over non-sensitive topics would go unanswered. The only person who regularly responded to me was Zoe. A human resources manager, Zoe had been living and working in Hong Kong for many years. Her husband owned a business in Shanghai, so she traveled frequently with her son back to the mainland to see him. I found Zoe to be one of the easiest classmates to talk to since returning to China. Living in Hong Kong, she was exposed to Western media without internet censorship, and that seemed to be the grounds for our mutual understanding.
After the Hong Kong protests broke out in June, Zoe began feeding our WeChat group with updates. She was against the protests from the beginning. Everything she shared with us proved that the protesters were ignorant and destructive. Even just through WeChat, her anxiety was hard to miss.
Over the weeklong October holiday on the mainland, Zoe fled Hong Kong with her son. She spent the week in Shanghai with her husband, reveling in the peaceful and glamorous night scenes along the Bund. “Shanghai has developed so much in the last few years,” she lamented when we had breakfast together. “Life is so rich and convenient here. You have all kinds of entertainment for kids, and they’re all accessible. The Hong Kongers just don’t get it. They live in their own little bubble.”
By then the protests had been going on for four months, with tensions escalating between the young protesters and the Hong Kong government and police. While mainstream Western media had shown solidarity with what they considered the liberal fighters of Hong Kong, the Chinese media had built a different narrative. The protests were defined as a separatist movement. State media also pointed fingers at external forces, such as the United States, which allegedly were meddling in Hong Kong affairs. Meanwhile, commercial media joined in to solidify public opinion on the mainland. A number of in-depth analyses were widely circulated on social media, the gist of these being that a socioeconomic divide within Hong Kong society was the real culprit behind the public discontent. Real estate moguls like Li Ka-Shing (李嘉诚 Lǐ Jiāchéng) had driven up property prices for their own gain, leaving common citizens economically trapped. The mainland public appeared to have reached a consensus, that the Hong Kong protesters were ignorant and had wrong assessment of the situation: They think they are oppressed by an authoritarian government, but they are actually oppressed by the rich people amongst themselves.
Zoe agreed with this narrative. “The Hong Kongers just don’t see it. They love Li Ka-Shing over there!” In our WeChat group, Zoe sarcastically painted the protesters as ignorant youngsters who naively believed democracy could bring them bread and butter.
“But don’t you think they’re also fighting for their identity?” I asked, bringing up the sociocultural differences between Hong Kong and the mainland, the same differences that had drawn Zoe to Hong Kong in the first place. “See, I can understand the Hong Kongers,” I said. “They have been living in a different system. They’re different from the mainlanders. But all the changes from Beijing are stoking fears among them. When you have plainclothes police from the mainland arresting people from Hong Kong’s hotel, how would the general public feel?”
Zoe laughed. “What plainclothes police? I don’t know anything about it,” she shook her head dramatically. “I’m just an innocent citizen, haha.”
I was referring to the secret arrest of billionaire Xiào Jiànhuá 肖建华 by mainland agents from Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel in 2017, which Zoe was clearly aware of. She jokingly appeared unaware, as if to steer clear of political trouble, a routine act we had grown accustomed to within the mainland. “But seriously,” she said, “those things have nothing to do with the general public. As long as you’re not in trouble with Beijing, why would you worry about mainland agents?”
In regards to the student activists, Zoe held a cynical view. She spoke of Joshua Wong, one of the protests leaders, with obvious contempt, remarking that he had been a “talented instigator of public emotions” since he was a child. She believed that only the high-profiled student leaders could gain something out of the protests, such as international sympathy and/or a political career. On Nathan Law, another student activist who had left Hong Kong to study at Yale, she said it was typical that leaders like him benefited personally at the expense of other protesters’ blood. “I go to Yale; you go to jail,” she sneered. “Humans are all the same. They’re after the same things.”
At this point, I began to feel the barricade between Zoe and myself. I had hoped for a balanced view on the Hong Kong issue, and I thought of all people Zoe would hold such views. On many accounts I agreed with her — we were both against violence by the protesters, for example. But her overall tone was dismissive, and her condemnation of the protests went beyond a resident’s anxiety. When I brought up the fact that many of the protests were indeed peaceful, she rolled her eyes. “Of course you can make them to be,” she said.
Zoe’s son enrolled at a public school in Hong Kong a year ago and was now in second grade. She was concerned about the messages he received at school. There were rallies in support of the protests initiated by both teachers and parents, and in such an environment, she worried her son might be singled out. At first, I thought she would worry about her son being influenced by his school environment, but apparently that was not an issue. “Whatever brainwashing he gets at school, I de-brainwash him at home. That’s just the way it is. A child’s mind has to be filled with something, and I make sure it’s filled with things that will help him survive in the future.” Over the 20-some years I had known Zoe, she had always been a realist, shrewd to discern what’s in her best interest, and it only makes sense that she’s passing on her realism to her son. She frequently brings her son on short trips to different parts of the mainland. “I want him to know China. After all, it’s China that’s going to feed us.”
We paused for a few seconds, both of us looking away, perhaps realizing the unbridgeable gap widening between us. Then we perked up at the same time, both realizing it was time for a change of topic.
“So I saw some of our classmates recently,” I said.
“Oh that’s right! Mingjun was there, right?” Zoe was aware of the dinner I had with Mingjun and company, whom she had also met up with on a recent trip. “What was the heated discussion about again?”
I had mentioned to Zoe about the tension over dinner. I recounted our discussion about Xinjiang.
“Mingjun is considered someone within the system, so you can’t blame her for taking the official stance on Xinjiang,” Zoe said. She was right. During our discussion, Mingjun had more than once claimed — proudly — that she was a child of the Party.
“Yes, I understand that,” I replied. “But what made me uncomfortable was her disregard for the Uyghur lives that were affected.”
“See, that’s the thing,” Zoe sipped her coffee while she continued. “What exactly is happening within those camps? Personally, if all they’re doing is just reeducation, I can accept that.”
Another pause. I decided not to ask the question on my mind. What I wanted to know was, if it happened to your family, would you still accept it? Zoe was herself a Muslim.
It was past noon when Zoe’s husband called. He was waiting for her to join him and his business friends at a hotpot restaurant nearby. As we walked out together, she lamented how much life had changed within three generations. “My grandparents had received honorary medals from the government,” she said. On the eve of the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary this year, the Beijing government had awarded commemorative medals to people who had contributed to the founding of the country. Apparently Zoe’s grandparents were among the honorees. “And here I am living in capitalist Hong Kong!” she chuckled. “My grandma had a hard time when I first moved to Hong Kong. She said how dare you go on this deviant path of capitalism! But I’m still not that deviant compared to you. If I were you, she’d probably kill me!” She looked at me and laughed.
We reached the restaurant, where we hugged goodbye. “Be safe,” I said.
“I will.” She gave me a long hug, as she always did. Then she said: “I will be back soon, permanently.”
“What is democracy in the end? It’s the powerless and the dispossessed fantasizing power and money being shared with them. In a sense, it’s very much like Communism.”
My meeting with Zoe lingered on my mind for a long time. I thought about what she said, and I realized I had not been sensitive enough in my discussions with my classmates. The bottom line is, we stand at different vantage points when we view China. I approach it from a liberal and humanist perspective, while my classmates view China from inside the system, into which they have been integrated and are expected to conform. For me, it’s natural to draw the line between the country and the ruling Communist Party, rooting for the former and critical of the latter. But I cannot expect the same from my friends. The CCP is, after all, an organically integrated part of Chinese history and reality. Its path is intertwined with so many individual lives that to separate the Party from the country is to cut a piece out of a wood box. For people like Mingjun and Zoe, whose families are part of the establishment, how can anyone expect them to place liberal values above party loyalty?
If there’s one thing I’m certain about, it’s the fact that none of my friends, however nationalistic, blindly follow propaganda. They choose to conform on their own. For many, it’s about economic interests, the old unspoken pact between the government and civilians that “I’ll make you rich if you accept my authority.” The tradeoff is evident in Zoe’s attitude toward Hong Kong and the mainland. But underneath the tradeoff is a blend of pragmatism and cynicism. Last month, when Zoe once again updated our WeChat group on the latest in Hong Kong, one person said that Hong Kong was now causing “aesthetic fatigue.” Instead, “let’s talk about Double Eleven” — China’s Black Friday-like online shopping bonanza.
“Yes,” Tang agreed. “What is democracy in the end? It’s the powerless and the dispossessed fantasizing power and money being shared with them. In a sense, it’s very much like Communism.”
“Indeed,” another person said. “Democratic or socialist, each system has its own way of fooling people, but we’re past the point of believing in any of them. Don’t just draw the bread on paper. Give us real bread.”
Cynics abound in other countries too, and indeed some of America’s best cynics, who are highly critical of their own government, make liberals like me proud. But for whatever reason, cynicism doesn’t deter my friends from siding with the government. Per our Hong Kong discussions, many in our WeChat group questioned the validity of “One Country, Two Systems.” They said it should be abandoned sooner than later, and that Beijing should clean up Hong Kong with an iron fist. “Back then, we didn’t have a choice.” Tang said. “We had to kneel and lick the boots of the British. But things are different now. We’re much stronger.” It seems as if my friends, like many other Chinese citizens, have adopted the country’s newfound strength for their own, and siding with the government gives them a sense of belonging. As China’s social environment becomes increasingly stringent, nationalism seems the only currency to prove one’s devotion to the country. Any criticism, either from within or beyond the borders, is deemed deviant or malicious.
On October 1, as China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the PRC, my WeChat moments were filled with patriotic sentiment. Many of my classmates posted pictures from the awe-inspiring military parade on Tiananmen Square. “The Republic has walked past 70 tremendous years, and we’ve come a long way. Proud of you, my dear motherland!” one person remarked. While the parade was being aired on state-owned television, our WeChat group was also filled with festive messages. Everyone weighed in on the spectacle: the uniforms, the weaponry, the female soldiers, President Xi’s speech his makeup…
Amid this chatter, one person in our group commented on a recent experience on Twitter. Despite the social media platform being blocked in China, she often climbs the great firewall with the help of a VPN. On Twitter, she said she had been fed outrageous messages by Chinese dissidents living overseas. On this special occasion, she said, they were ready to make trouble, their attacks on China fiercer than ever.
“Why is that?” Tang responded. “Why are these yellow-skinned, Chinese-speaking, highly educated people so bent on demonizing their home country?”
I observed their discussions from my phone, uncomfortable about joining in. I thought of the American scholar James Carey and his seminal theory on communication, which I had learned in grad school. Rather than viewing communication as a transmission of information, Carey proposed that it is a construction of a symbolic reality, a ritual through which shared beliefs are maintained, strengthened, and transformed.
This projection of community ideals and their embodiment in material form — dance, plays, architecture, news stories, strings of speech — creates an artificial though nonetheless real symbolic order that operates to provide not information but confirmation, not to alter attitudes or change minds but to represent an underlying order of things, not to perform functions but to manifest an ongoing and fragile social process.
I believe I was witnessing one of the largest rituals of the century, a manifestation of a country’s newfound strength and power. It is exactly through participation in such events, whether in the streets of Tiananmen or at home in front of a television, that Chinese citizens come to unite under the Party’s vision for the country. To share in its vision means to conform, to personify the country’s increasingly sharp edges, and to ostracize dissent.
But does it have to be this way? I keep asking myself these days. Is uniformity the best way to tap the potential of 1.4 billion people, or is it to cover up the dire problems that China must resolve in order to fulfill its ambitions? And are people really as unified as the Party claims?
Toward the end of my dinner with Mingjun and other friends, she suggested I download an app called Xuéxí Qiángguó 学习强国. Literally translated as “study to strengthen the country,” the platform is overseen by the government’s propaganda department, which produces instructional content for the general public and party members in particular. The app’s content ranges from CCP history to Xi Jinping’s most recent speech, from Chinese medicine to tourist attractions. “This way,” Mingjun told me, “you can familiarize yourself with China’s perspective and hopefully correct your Western bias.” As a party member, Mingjun was required to earn a certain amount of study points each month. She pulled out her phone and swiped through the app. She asked the person across the table — a fellow party member — how many points she had earned this month.
“I’ve earned more points than you!” Mingjun exclaimed.
Then she turned to the person sitting next to her. “But to be honest, everything is ‘Xi Jinping says.'” She lowered her voice, her hand hovering over her mouth. “I think it’s a bit excessive.”
(All names in this article have been changed.)