When we’ve just seen more than 1,100 Chinese academics and students barred from the UK on “national security grounds,” it can be easy to forget that the over 151,000 Chinese students in British universities are rarely government spies.
In fact, many young Chinese students today are dissatisfied with their government, especially those who study abroad. The London Tab previously reported on protests outside the Chinese embassy in London by students and the disappearance of a Goldsmiths graduate last December after attending a public demonstration in China.
To understand more about why we shouldn’t hold assumptions about them based on the headlines, we spoke to some Chinese students in London about their thoughts.
‘I had a phase of defending China more blindly. It was because of hate crimes’
Monica* is a graduate from a London university. When she first moved to the city 10 years ago, she was “quite rebellious (against the Chinese government).” But it was the unfair prejudice she experienced here that made her feel protective towards her nation of origin, including its current government.
She told The London Tab: “I had a phase of defending China more blindly. It was because of hate crimes. For example, when I was at King’s Cross, someone would yell ‘fucking Chinese’ to me.” She has also been thrown eggs at.
Elena*, a graduate student in London, also told The London Tab she’s been subjected to uninformed assumptions as a Chinese student abroad.
“Many people complained there’s no point for Chinese students to study in the UK as they don’t talk much. Then I wrote an article explaining that our education system is very different from here, and it’s not liberal. That’s why we want to come here.”
‘The coverage is selective, but it’s also real’
For another London student, Evelyn*, these assumptions are of her political affiliation too.
“Some people here would assume I’m pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party). For example they would ask, ‘Isn’t the Chinese government great?’ I feel frustrated, but I understand. It’s true many people still take that stance,” she said.
Evelyn thinks how “biased” China is portrayed in the media and by politicians in the UK might have contributed to the way Chinese students are perceived here.
“They like to criticise the Chinese government, and so do we. But they won’t pay much attention to how to support us [Chinese activists]. So although our goal is the same, I don’t feel they are being very sincere.
She thinks “this is because the West still receives economic benefits from the Chinese government, and no one actually wants to overthrow it.”
“They just have to occupy the moral high ground and lead people to have a negative understanding of the Chinese government,” she said.
Elena added that while she feels ashamed when reading about China in UK newspapers, she thinks “the coverage is selective but it’s also real.”
“Our government does such shitty things. The British press is critical towards all governments and it’s not only targeting China. So it’s normal for them to focus on the negative side.”
But she also thinks it is up to individual Chinese students to rise up and change the narrative: “I think it depends on us. We have to speak up more, or we will be represented by our government.”
‘Who you need to know is not only Xi Jinping, but also us’
Evelyn, Monica, and Elena are amongst the generation of young Chinese activists they hope to see acknowledged more in the media here.
Their activism was accelerated by the White Paper Movement last year. It was the largest wave of protests in China, in which people held up blank sheets of paper in defiance against the government. It came after a devastating fire killed 10 people in an apartment building in Urumqi, and people have blamed the deaths on the Chinese government’s “zero-Covid” restrictions that prevented people from escaping.
Evelyn said the tragedy and movement made many of her peers “change in a snap.”
“[It was like] we all had poor eyesight. We could see something bad but it was in a blur. Now with glasses, we realise the problem is China’s political system.”
Elena was also glad the movement gained momentum and media traction here in London: “During the White Paper Movement, I attended a solidarity protest outside of the Chinese embassy. On the next day we were featured on newspaper front pages. Many fellow students came up to me and asked about it. I felt glad they were interested.”
Now, both Evelyn and Monica are participants of China Deviants, a pro-democracy group consisting of young Chinese people in the UK. Evelyn is hopeful about the future because of this group: “We have a community now. Those atomised individuals can finally find a connection, which hopefully can be expanded to China in the future.
Monica, who identifies as a “radical feminist,” also hopes to start a conversation of feminism within the Chinese community.
She told The London Tab: “There’s no country for women. Problems still exist even in a democratic society, but the situation is much worse in authoritarian China.
“I saw a Chinese feminist community holding an open mic in New York, so I think it would be great to have one here. One day we had an informal meeting at home and talked about it, then on the very night we registered an Instagram account for the open mic.
“I want to build an inclusive environment for transgender women, transgender men, married women with children, and people from many other backgrounds,” she told The London Tab.
Evelyn, Elena, and Monica are just some of the many Chinese students in London whose beliefs and values couldn’t have been further from what the news headlines suggest.
While UK prime minister Rishi Sunak just described China as “the biggest threat to global security,” Evelyn wants people to know: “Who you need to know is not only Xi Jinping, but also us. If you’re interested in what we are doing, please share some more love.”
*Names have been changed.
Feature photo credit: Han Zifei
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