The intensification of racial violence across borders since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020 has spurred into action a new generation of Chinese diaspora activists. They have organized rallies, drafted petitions, proposed institutional reforms, started reading groups, conducted virtual teach-ins, canvassed in Chinatowns, and initiated social media campaigns to counter diverse manifestations of racism in their home and host countries. Many have forged wider collaboration and community networks, and developed new, often experimental ways of thinking and action that can respond to and subsist beyond the state of crisis. This essay aims to document the coming-into-being of this new generation of Chinese diaspora anti-racist activists.1 I define activist loosely as those who act beyond their professional duties to bring about social change, primarily manifested as demands for racial justice in this case. I choose the term “Chinese diaspora” not with the intent to yoke together heterogeneous organizations and individuals under their putative national/ethnic/racial origins, but to highlight the specific conditions and constraints that characterize young Chinese (PRC) nationals on temporary study or work visas in white-majority societies, where anti-Asian racism and Sinophobia can be felt in distinct and entangled forms. Rather than absolute ruptures with previous generations or non-Chinese activists, what is new about this cohort of Chinese diaspora activists lies in the scale and visibility of their anti-racist commitments, and the mainstream neglect of their contributions and struggles that deserve recognition beyond a routine subsumption under a pan-Asian umbrella.
This cohort of young diaspora activists shares the following demographic features: mainland Chinese upbringing; currently pursuing or having recently completed a degree in the social sciences or humanities in Euro-American countries; concerned with a combination of social issues in China, e.g. labor, feminism, LGBTQ struggles, environmental protection, disability rights, and the Hong Kong movement; and predominantly women and feminists. Informed by transnational experiences and pressured by the competing demands for loyalty, they move at the confluence of big power politics and small acts of courage. Navigating white-majority societies as young adults during one of the most turbulent times for Chinese and Asians, they are identified through national and ethnic markers that claim them but do not necessarily appeal to them. They are gifted, but also burdened, with a third-sight. It is a triple consciousness that emerges from the interstices of the Chinese state and America’s Asia, their “double unbelonging” (Gao, qtd. in Zhou & Li). Both a vantagepoint and a liability, this triple consciousness renders Chinese nationalism and Asian Euro-Americanness inadequate solutions to the distinct experience produced by entanglements of Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism.
Their critical stance on many aspects of Chinese political and social life, coupled with their readiness to engage with local issues of their host country, sharply contrast with the apolitical and/or nationalist mentality for which Chinese international students have been known (Dong, 2017; Jiang, 2021). Unlike their peers who prioritize Chinese national identity and privilege a binary framework of Sino-U.S. comparison, progressive diaspora activists tend to pursue more nuanced, context-based, comparative analysis, engage in localized and transnational action, and display more complex patterns of group identification and community belonging. For example, whereas nationalist-minded individuals tend to be triggered by Western critics in ways that align with the Chinese state’s anxieties about territorial integrity, sovereignty, ethnic/racial relations, and human rights charges, young progressives are quick to point out the similarities between right-wing ideologues in the West and Chinese nationalists who discredit and stigmatize ongoing struggles of marginalized populations. While the former tend to view Sinophobia as a more serious and relevant problem facing the Chinese diaspora community, and would selectively repurpose or ignore Asian American experiences, the latter would point to the specificities of anti-Asian racism, and distinguish it from the vulnerabilities of Chinese international students and workers that are not necessarily race-based. Their transnational, comparative perspective can also be seen in the mobilization of young Chinese within and outside of China who formed @Sanyuanli, a semi-underground mutual aid network that collaborated with other community members and sought to address the needs of African residents evicted from their homes and put into forced quarantined in Guangzhou during March-April 2020. For some participants, the image of black Africans sleeping on the streets of a Chinese metropolis was the wake-up call: the anti-black racism they learned to condemn in the West was as alive and blatant back home.
It is not surprising that diaspora activists also actively participate in a wide range of social movements in their host societies. Unlike their apolitical/nationalist-minded counterparts, these progressive activists tend not to see social movements concerning non-Chinese as “none of our business.” Several have expressed disappointment and even contempt for those who only speak up when their own interests are at stake, citing the neglect of the Black Lives Matter movement as proof of hypocrisy and myopia. Their readiness to practice cross-racial solidarity thus also distinguishes them from Chinese American conservatives who support pro-police, anti-affirmative action agendas that perpetuate anti-blackness. In contrast to nationalist-minded youths or conservative first-generation immigrants who may prefer to act with and for their own communities, these young activists readily participate in campaigns led by and focused upon other marginalized groups, and they collaborate with non-Chinese community members to promote social justice in general. In working with activists of diverse backgrounds, many of them have developed a deeper understanding of how racism affects different populations differently, and how racism intersects with gender, sexuality, class, and immigration status. During our conversations, some of my interviewees would casually bring up inspirations they drew from the works of black feminists, such as Angela Davis and Audre Lorde. They have also acquired new tools of community organizing and political participation. If activists who matured under the repressive climate of the PRC found that local social movements of their host countries seem overly institutionalized and lack a sense of urgency, those who became activists abroad tend to find the local activist culture inspiring and empowering.
Regarding their dissimilarity with their Chinese peers, many of my interviewees responded that they feel it is “natural” to support general social justice struggles, and thus have difficulties understanding why their peers do not feel the same way. But there are some concrete conditions that shape these different political subjectivities. First, most of these anti-racist diaspora activists are not trained in the STEM fields. They are typically pursuing or have completed a degree in the social sciences or the humanities, fields that indeed account for a minority of all Chinese international students. Some entered these fields with existing aspirations for social change, and the relevant academic training (e.g. gender studies, journalism, social work, anthropology, political science) further equipped them with the necessary analytical and practical tools for public engagement. Others credited internships at non-profit organizations, including university women’s resource centers, for exposing them to and familiarizing them with ideas and action plans for promoting social justice. Still others found their academic training and institutional environments counterproductive for social engagement and political participation and falling short of the alleged ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion, both in terms of Asian representation and international student support.
Universities and the academia in general were thus the main targets of the organizing work of some of these activists. Campus-based demands have included curriculum reform, anti-racist training, institutional support for the racialized, non-native speakers, and international students, etc. Besides proposing institutional reforms, scholar-activists also challenged the ways in which scholarship makes a public impact. The Chinese-language public anthropology platform TyingKnots, founded during the COVI-19 pandemic by young anthropologists, seeks to transform the “temporality of academic writing” by translating and writing about the latest manifestations of power, oppression, social change, and mass movements around the globe. Scholarly interventions are introduced for opening up alternative forms of knowledge production, connecting communities, and building international solidarity.
Socio-economic background also makes a difference in making a Chinese diaspora anti-racist activist, but in more than one way. While some of these activists were from more humble backgrounds, whose academic training in the U.S. was possible only by getting into PhD degrees with university funding, others could afford to self-sponsor their education and chose less stable and lower paying careers. Their attention to labor issues and struggles of the working class also varies. While a few were active union members or had some experience organizing with low-income immigrant workers, many others, especially those who recently joined social movements, worked with a liberal multiculturalist “diversity and inclusion” framework.2 Their most notable disagreement with activists with grassroot demands include the attitude toward the police and the reluctance to antagonize the propertied class and the establishment and to call out white supremacy.3
Several of my interviewees were aware of the criticism that their campaigns were not radical enough. Some may even subscribe to a more radical standpoint in private. But they chose a moderate approach due to a combination of the following factors: the views of their co-organizers; the wish to appeal to a wider public; they needed the city government, university administration, or other institutional leadership to endorse their proposals; or they chose to step back from more vocal positions due to safety concerns. Although it is unclear if the present momentum for anti-racist activism can translate into more attention to and participation in labor organizing, engaging in social movements did expose those involved to a wider range of political positions, mobilization strategies, and activist networks that provide greater opportunities for further engagement. If those of working class background shared the keen awareness that they are not the beneficiaries, but rather the exploited, of the current systems, those who are better off were also prompted to reflect on their privilege and complicity in a transnational regime of capitalist globalization that demands and relies on the reproduction of a disciplined, multi-cultural, and mobile labor force.
It is likely that, apart from the hegemony of the mainstream liberal multiculturalist discourse, the choice among some activists to adopt politically moderate programs also had to do with the perceived lack of support of more radical views and actions among their peers and the wider Chinese diaspora community. The activists I interviewed shared the belief that, as fighters for social justice, “we are the minority of minority [among the Chinese diaspora].” Many said that they were the only or one among very few Chinese they knew in real life who joined social movements. Some expressed disappointment in the lack of response or attendance to events they organized. Some felt a strong sense of isolation and alienation from the Chinese students around them who seem to be content with living a life of material comfort without political longing or visions of social change. One factor that contributes to their feeling of alienation from other Chinese students lies in the power asymmetry of discursive fields. Several interviewees complained that patriotic social media accounts could willfully spread misinformation in Chinese, but those who rightfully demand justice, including the social media accounts of vocal feminists and labor activists, were censored and even erased from internet memory. Activists who were more involved in issues that are considered sensitive in the PRC also had to switch between multiple communication apps, use pseudonyms, and strategically self-censor to protect their already very limited space of speech and action. They may also choose to refrain from speaking up against nationalists in public or semi-public spheres where anonymity cannot be guaranteed. These choices, while preserving an alternative space of engagement, add to their logistical burdens and psychological fatigue. The inability to fully inhabit and exhibit their political selves further hinder the building and cultivation of activist sociality.
Against this backdrop of fragile and fragmented space of Chinese diaspora activism, it is worth pointing out that the majority of the anti-racist activists I know of are women and feminists. The factors contributing to diaspora Chinese women and feminists’ political participation include the following: 1) While gender inequality should not be conflated with racial injustice, the daily experience of structural oppression makes women more attuned to other forms of oppressions. Feminist vigilance against discursive and epistemic violence is also transferrable to anti-racist awareness.4 2) The continued presence and mobilization of feminist activists in Chinese-language cultural spheres had far-reaching influence on the politicization of young Chinese women. 3) Transnational Chinese feminist networks effectively served as platforms for discussing racial issues, mobilizing for anti-racist actions, and cultivating activist capacities. Those who were mere participants in an earlier campaign could take up more central roles in later campaigns. The communal dynamics of these groups, reflected in decentralized structure of #Chinese4BlackLives campaign, also enabled canvassing actions to spread quickly among activists based in different North American cities. 4) It is also likely that women’s tendency to undertake more unpaid labor, including logistical and communicative tasks as well as care work, by choice and by circumstance, has contributed to building and maintaining activist communities. Several interviewees mentioned that timely emotional support by their friends or organizational support by their collaborators at critical junctures had sustained their momentum to act.
If feminist networks served to connect and empower aspiring activists, language and cultural proficiency allowed Chinese activists in the diaspora to connect with first-generation Chinese Americans in unexpected ways. According to Chinese4BlackLives participants who canvassed in Chinatowns across New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Vancouver, and other cities, some members had doubted if Chinese international students were qualified for the job, and if the children of these immigrants and other Asian American organizers were not more up to the task. But they soon realized that their familiarity with Mandarin, mainland Chinese culture, including social media tools such as Wechat, and perhaps most importantly, their willingness to make person-to-person contact, connected them to first-generation restaurant owners and vendors far more easily than they had thought. Their capacity for English-to-Chinese translation, the use of bilingual print materials, and the efforts to finetune slogans to suit the language habits of Cantonese and older folks, made progressive content more accessible to first generation immigrants, who most likely had been receiving anti-BLM commentaries from conservative Chinese-language sources. Putting up bilingual posters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and posting them on social media further transformed these Chinatown spaces into physical and virtual symbols of anti-racist solidarity.
While many Chinese diaspora activists also joined AAPI-led campaigns, their non-citizen status allowed them to discern and interrogate the U.S.-centrism of certain AAPI-focused campaign rhetorics. Typically, mainstream liberal anti-racist discourse seeks to combat anti-Asian racism by highlighting the American-ness of Asian Americans, which in some cases would also invoke both legitimate and overgeneralized, or even exaggerated, criticism of “China.” Perhaps needless to say, mobilizing one’s citizenship status to combat racism reproduces the assimilationist logic of the neoliberal and racist immigration regime that proportions immunity to state violence to an already racialized concept of citizenship. The obsession with national belonging underlying the U.S. multiculturalist project is hegemonic in its assumption of the desirable passage from non-citizen to citizen, and is simply at odds with the self-perception of those who are unapologetically foreign. At best, activists demanded their U.S.-centric allies to expand their visions of anti-racist solidarity. But more often, U.S.-centric rhetoric, coupled with an actual or perceived Sinophobia, silently turned away potential sympathizers among their Chinese student audience, and even triggered them to more strongly embrace Chinese nationalism, often presented as the only other option in a false binary. It is also insensitive to demand Chinese nationals to publicly profess an anti-CCP stance or a clear position on issues considered highly sensitive in China. Such gestures not only risk exposing Chinese activists to state surveillance with potentially grave consequences, but also effectively exclude them from political participation as the complex, burdened subjects that they are.
Not taking the immigration mechanisms and the conditions of non-citizens seriously further risks perpetuating racism despite ostensible anti-racist efforts. For Chinese nationals without family or spousal connection to U.S. citizens, education-, employment-, and investment- based visas, e.g. F-1, J-1, OPT, H-1B, EB-1, EB-5, determine the conditions upon which they may lawfully enter and stay in the U.S. Visa types specify not only the duration of stay, but also the educational, professional, financial, and legal expectations for non-citizens. Education- and employment-based visa statuses in particular have the power to induce a neoliberal mentality highly susceptible to anxieties about security, productivity, and recognition. Multiple activists told me that, unlike their Asian American counterparts, they not only lacked the political rights to participate in electoral politics, but also felt that they could not afford to spend more time and energy on escalating or even sustaining their campaigns. The canvassing action of #Chinese4BlackLives in fact benefited from the large number of international students with “free time” because they were held up in the U.S. during summer 2020 due to travel restrictions. An interviewee, who was detained in a BLM protest on student visa a few years ago, said she had not join public protests again, and may not do so until being granted permanent residence. As another interviewee perceptively points out, without interrogating the immigration regime and its functions of selecting and shaping foreign subjects, anti-racist analysis may perpetuate the model minority myth and cast Chinese and other “lawful” immigrants as naturally well-off, diligent, and subservient.
Some young Chinese diaspora activists became increasingly convinced that blending in with other anti-racist progressives is not enough. They believe that the specificities of being (in) the Chinese diaspora is worth reclaiming because it allows them to better articulate and make visible their experiences and struggles. It can also serve as a “light source” that attracts and connects those separated in the dark. As one young activist says, “my very being is transnational…We shoulder an important responsibility in this increasingly closed and populist world, because our resistance must also be transnational.” Therefore, “reclaiming the identity of Chinese international student is far from embracing statism. It is to broaden an ever growing community, to become a concrete and vivid member of transnational solidarity” (Gigi, 2021). If being on a temporary visa in a foreign land remains a temporary condition for any particular individual, the political possibility and activist potentiality it presents is not. Much as these Chinese diaspora activists needed, discovered, and continued to explore their anti-racist politics, racial justice movements should attend to the voices and actions of Chinese diaspora activists.
(The author wants to thank all the brave and loving activists for generously sharing their experience, thinking, and artifacts from their organizing labor. All faults, omissions, and misrepresentations are mine.)
Kun HUANG is PhD Candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature of Cornell University. Her dissertation explores the afterlives of racial blackness in modern Chinese literature and culture in the long twentieth century.