Shut up international Chinese students!

by Q Cherrie

There is a huge gap between mainland China and the outside world. This leads to international Chinese students facing strong pressure from their often ignorant and fearful domestic society. This pressure is particularly reflected by the rise of unofficial nationalist media in China, which silences the voices of international Chinese students.

Earlier this month, several unofficial Nationalist Chinese media rushed to report on the ‘sex worker session’ at Durham University. I was not surprised by the cunning rhetoric employed by these journalists: they translated the title of Durham’s Zoom event ambiguously, misleading the Chinese readership into thinking that Durham had set up a degree called ‘Masters in Prostitution’.

As expected, the story spread massively on social media. On Bilibili, a popular Chinese video streaming platform, a news video uploaded by one such news outlet attracted more than 800,000 hits. Thousands of Bilibili users (mostly middle school teenagers), as well as netizens from other platforms, have enjoyed ridiculing what they see as the moral decay of Britain. For these nationalist Chinese media, this was considered a victory.

What appalled me was the outpouring of anger that came from many netizens, who also delighted in humiliating international Chinese students (especially female students) in the UK. In particular, commenters under the news video claimed that international Chinese students had been ‘contaminated’ by British culture, which they believed was defined by anti-traditionalist views, indecent knowledge and immoral behaviour. A few international Chinese students tried to refute these fanatic claims, but they received mostly hateful comments in response.

While I am glad to hear that Durham’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association strongly protested against these false reports, I am saddened by the lack of solidarity on the part of other international Chinese students, most of whom stayed silent.

This is by no means an isolated incident. Chinese students abroad have repeatedly been a target of choice for unofficial nationalist media in China. Just last year, some Chinese LSE students were labelled as ‘Taiwan supporters’ on WeChat and Weibo simply because the current Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen had graduated from LSE. Once again, most international Chinese students kept silent, making no effort to discredit these claims. When I personally attempted to combat this opinion on WeChat by listing the members of the mainland Chinese government who had graduated from LSE, the responses I received were dismissive. After being repeatedly told to shut up, I chose to delete my comment.

I have discussed this with my Chinese friends from the mainland, Hong Kong and Australia. They all shared the opinion that no overseas Chinese student has enough power to openly criticise the unofficial nationalist Chinese media’s tendency to produce misleading and distorted reports. One of them suggested that the Communist Party may own these nationalist media corporations and, as a result, international Chinese students may fear challenging the party’s authority. However, the truth is that such private media corporations are a far cry from the party, which has publicly criticised the capital power behind these organisations. Indeed, the failures of these private media corporations in legal disputes further demonstrate their lack of strong support from the party. Most importantly, as the party already has influential official media channels with countless subordinate local outlets, the party has no reason to care about the successes or failures of these private companies.

This then begs the question, what really makes international Chinese students reluctant to speak out?

I have observed unofficial nationalist Chinese media’s ploys to associate Chinese nationalism with repressed sexual cultures, anti-foreign sentiments, and hatred of wealth. By focusing on topics that are sensitive in the mainland, such as sex education and citizen activism, they encourage their readership to shame other cultures. By selecting international Chinese students as targets, these corporations have been able to subtly create tension between Chinese and foreign cultures, under the guise of ‘defending the Chinese nation’. Perhaps the readers of such news voluntarily interpret the message to criticise other cultures, or perhaps they just want to release their repressed personal desires for sex, violence, and to challenge the upper class. Either way, overseas Chinese students are their first victims.

There is an old Chinese fable that I heard when I was a child. It goes something like this: when a man wants to feed paprika to a cat, the best way is neither to forcefully feed the cat nor to feed the cat a dumpling with paprika. The first method will make the cat feel passive, and the second will make the cat feel deceived. The best way is to apply paprika to the cat’s body and let the cat lick the paprika off itself.

Many private Chinese media corporations never directly attack international Chinese students. Instead, they manipulate domestic Chinese society to hate on and alienate these overseas students. Under the noble coat of ‘Chinese nationalism’, journalists cunningly take advantage of the sensitivities of China’s high-pressured and high-disciplined society. Thus, rather than fearing these media corporations or the Communist Party’s authority, it seems that what international Chinese students truly fear is the duress of a misled domestic society, where millions of people have not been overseas and have no connections with the outside world. Moreover, the lack of support from other students, who are also reluctant to combat these distorted claims, makes speaking out even harder: facing thousands of irrational attackers alone would make anyone silent.

When I discussed the Durham incident with a Chinese friend, she said in astonishment: “My mom told me to watch out for classmates around me who learnt to be prostitutes!” I honestly was not surprised by her mother’s horrible impression of the UK. Though most international Chinese students do not believe in these distorted reports, they still face pressure from their friends, families and others back home. If they associate too closely with foreigners, they may be shamed. As a result, Chinese students may often be perceived as overly shy – not only on account of poor language skills, cultural differences, and social network issues, but also because they fear the backlash they may receive from home.

Perhaps, then, international Chinese students feel they must stay neutral by keeping silent and smiling at others. As Iris Johansen said, silence and a smile are two powerful tools for avoiding many problems. I am certain that many international Chinese students have very kind and tender minds under their taciturn appearances, but this context prevents them from speaking out about their anxiety and discomfort.

But not every overseas Chinese student maintains silence. Currently, like hundreds of other overseas students, I am streaming my daily life in London on Bilibili, where we gain the support of many young Chinese viewers. Changing mentalities is a difficult yet necessary endeavour. I will continue to try, even if it means occasionally receiving “shut up international Chinese students!” in reply.


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