Since Shanghai’s lockdown in April 2022, China’s Covid-19 controls have gone from one extreme end of being exceedingly strict, to the other end of being so relaxed that it has led to chaos. In particular, while the recent outbreak saw increased deaths among the elderly, official daily Covid-19 deaths continued recording single-digit figures for quite some time. (NB: Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention later said that the number of critically ill patients in China peaked on 4 January at 128,000 cases and fell to 36,000 cases by 23 January. Meanwhile, the number of deaths in hospitals reached a daily peak of 4,273 on 4 January and fell to 896 by 23 January.)
With released data seeming unreliable, Western countries’ trust in China has further declined. And if Covid-19 figures cannot be trusted, what about official economic and military figures? Even the masses in China are lamenting: just stay alive, even if we are barely surviving.
Of course, criticising the latter [Chinese government] came only after months of mental struggle to overcome fear.
Dangers of criticism
In my 19 years in the UK, I have long been accustomed to individuals and the media criticising government policies. There is no need for praise because people expect results. Meanwhile, problems in society reflect flaws in the government that need to be criticised.
So when in Rome, do as the Romans do — I have taken to criticising the UK government as well as the Chinese government. Of course, criticising the latter came only after months of mental struggle to overcome fear.
My WeChat groups consist of nearly 200 first-generation Chinese immigrants — most are based in the UK, and some in Europe, the US and Canada. In the chat groups I often encourage people to speak up: “Besides food and everyday life, why don’t you share your true feelings? Even if you are scared, saying something is better than nothing. It won’t kill you to say something real. Collective silence means the death of the collective.”
Unfortunately, my pleas often fall on deaf ears — 99% of the first-generation Chinese immigrants in the UK do not heed this call, but they continue to share their everyday lives: about their children, good food and beautiful scenery. These Chinese are politically aware, never hesistating to criticise the mess that is UK politics, but they never share any articles about China’s Covid-19 situation.
Occasionally, a few people who feel the urge to speak up would send me an image tagged with a few words or emojis to show their sense of justice. Others who are fiercely patriotic might send random, “uniquely China” messages, such as: “Hello 2023! To the 1.4 billion children of China, no matter where we are, our hearts are with the motherland and our loved ones! Everything will get better!”
... it is deeply ingrained in the people to unconditionally defend China’s reputation and advocate that “China is always right. Even if it is wrong, it is also right.”
These nearly 200 Chinese have various reasons for keeping silent. Some are not well educated and are unable to grasp the situation — two people from our small town only finished junior high school and do not speak English. Most of the Chinese I know are overseas educated, but had experienced the China-style education drenched in patriotism, whereby it is deeply ingrained in the people to unconditionally defend China’s reputation and advocate that “China is always right. Even if it is wrong, it is also right.”
Furthermore, overseas Chinese students are well aware of the dangers of criticising Chinese politics, which could also land their family members in trouble. Most of these overseas students are now lecturers in the UK, Chinese language media workers, businesspeople and homemakers.
Speaking up for the disadvantaged
There are three types of highly educated Chinese who remain silent despite their experience of democracy and freedom in the UK.
The first group hates politics and steers clear of it. A traditional Chinese medicine practitioner from Beijing told me that they feel that politics is a dark business and they want no part in it. The second group are aware of the problems with Chinese politics, but choose to avoid them — they are willing to turn a blind eye to what is happening. The third group keeps up with news about China every day and is well informed of everything that is happening, but still remains silent.
Among this last group, two people have told me that they look at what I share in the chat groups, but do not dare to hit “like”. A friend who was previously indifferent to politics said, “No Chinese with a conscience can keep turning a blind eye. China’s Covid-19 management made me see what democracy is. One has to make a choice in the face of right and wrong.”
Another friend said, “I read all your posts. I support you even though I do not agree 100%. While I don’t click ‘like’ on everything, I am often stirred and inspired. I just want to say thank you.”
Not every Chinese person empathises with China’s pain like my two friends. Putting oneself in another’s shoes requires compassion. Over the past 30 years of Chinese education, chasing after money and power has become the mainstream culture of Chinese society, and the rural society and disadvantaged groups have been cast aside.
Many of the Chinese people around me act like 19th-century British people who are fixated on climbing the social ladder, making a name for themselves, and honouring their families.
Most Chinese new immigrants in the UK neither cherish the country’s democracy and freedom nor question why they as immigrants get to enjoy such a high standard of human rights instead of racial discrimination. Many of the Chinese people around me act like 19th-century British people who are fixated on climbing the social ladder, making a name for themselves, and honouring their families. Of course, they would not be able to see the pain that the Chinese are experiencing in China or they simply ignore it. This is in stark contrast to the UK’s mainstream culture — caring for every disadvantaged group and fighting for equality.
Inexplicable subconscious fear
But why do people still choose to remain silent even though they are aware of China’s problems?
One, because they are only concerned with themselves. Again, this is in stark contrast to British society where people from all walks of life — the individual, charitable organisations and the government — come together to speak out against social injustices. The majority of first-generation Chinese immigrants find it difficult or impossible to accept these British values, and hold fast to their Chinese values while living in the UK. They often think that it is enough just to have money and their family safe.
Two, because of fear. On one level, they are afraid that their WeChat account will be blocked, which is commonplace. My first WeChat account was blocked multiple times, for three days, then a week, a month, and finally permanently.
I later created my second WeChat account, which has already been blocked twice. I only realised that my account was blocked when I noticed that my friends were no longer responding to my posts. WeChat did not specify why I was blocked on either occasion; I will never know why or which posts or words of mine offended the platform.
I live in a free Britain, but if I fail to exercise my right to freedom of expression, wouldn’t I be living my life in vain?
On a higher level, there is an inexplicable subconscious fear that only the Chinese understand, stemming from their past living and learning experiences in China. While Chinese law does not prohibit the use of specific words or phrases, the Chinese have formed a lifelong habit of avoiding saying anything that the officials do not like to hear, which is why first-generation Chinese immigrants have the pathetic need to self-censor. They may be living in England now, but they continue to imprison themselves.
I used to be afraid too, until I read about the woman chained by the neck, Shanghai’s lockdown, the Tangshan assault case, and the fire at a residential building in Urumqi. Call it anger or a sense of justice, but I decided that enough is enough; 2023 would be the year that I spoke out.
I have now overcome my fear and released myself from the prison of self-censorship. I live in a free Britain, but if I fail to exercise my right to freedom of expression, wouldn’t I be living my life in vain?
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “第一代英国华人移民为何沉默？”.
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