Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 8 August 2023


Bri­tain’s Chinese stu­dent dia­spora is liv­ing in fear

Fear and appre­hen­sion stalks Chinese stu­dents in the UK, where the Chinese Com­mun­ist party’s influ­ence is rap­idly grow­ing. As a mem­ber of this dia­spora, I know that though many of us remain deeply com­mit­ted to our cul­ture and her­it­age, we are also highly anxious about the extent to which the party is sur­veilling our actions over­seas.

There are lay­ers to this. Some Chinese uni­versity stu­dents of my acquaint­ance are under pres­sure from rel­at­ives back home to stop mak­ing com­ments that could be inter­preted as dis­loyal to the party. The fear is that an entire fam­ily could be made to suf­fer for one mem­ber’s mis­deeds abroad.

Last year, a secret group of Chinese stu­dents asked me to help them organ­ise an event at the Uni­versity of York. They wanted to draw atten­tion to the A4 Revolu­tion last Novem­ber, in which young people staged peace­ful demon­stra­tions across China by hold­ing up blank sheets of paper to protest against Covid con­trols and threats to free­dom of speech.

Two stu­dents asked to meet at an offcam­pus pub. “We assume there will be fewer Chinese people fre­quent­ing pubs, so it will be safer for us to speak there,” one explained. When a Chinese-look­ing per­son walked in, they abruptly sus­pen­ded our con­ver­sa­tion for fear of being over­heard.

Later, I sug­ges­ted that NGOs and the media might help provide some pro­tec­tion. But they were wary of being asso­ci­ated with “for­eign influ­ences”, which are cast by the party as China’s greatest foes, respons­ible for every crisis, from social tur­moil to nat­ural dis­asters. This may seem bizarre, but cit­izens know they must play within the rules of what is polit­ic­ally accept­able.

“We are the only chil­dren in the fam­ily, and if we get dis­covered demon­strat­ing over­seas, our par­ents may lose their jobs or even their pen­sions,” one said. “We just want to do something because . . . the cour­ageous efforts of those in China com­pel us to take action in sup­port.”

It is not just young people who are afraid. I used to chat often with the owner of a Chinese res­taur­ant in my uni­versity town. One day, he was express­ing his dis­gust at the party’s cor­rup­tion and ruth­less­ness. But when another Chinese stu­dent entered, he fell silent, fear­ing that some in the Chinese stu­dent pop­u­la­tion might be pres­sured to boy­cott his eat­ery if it emerged he had been over­heard talk­ing in this way.

Pub­lic cri­ti­cism of the gov­ern­ment from over­seas has had con­sequences in the past. Last year, a demon­strator at a peace­ful protest against the sup­pres­sion of demo­cracy in Hong Kong, out­side the Chinese con­su­late in Manchester, learned this les­son bru­tally. Dip­lo­mats dragged him off the street and beat him up. Foot­age of the incid­ent showed the con­sul-gen­eral, Zheng Xiy­uan, par­ti­cip­at­ing in this attack. Zheng had pre­vi­ously told Chinese stu­dents in the UK that they should “refrain from dis­tort­ing” China’s policies.

Such intim­id­a­tion has led to self­censor­ship, espe­cially on sens­it­ive top­ics such as Taiwan or Xinji­ang. The situ­ation has not been helped by prom­in­ent media out­lets asso­ci­ated with the CCP estab­lish­ing offices in Lon­don.

Chinese stu­dents who choose to speak out should be given spe­cial assist­ance, legal pro­tec­tion and even men­tal health sup­port for the trauma that res­ults from strug­gling between loy­alty and free­dom of expres­sion.

Many of us who come to Bri­tain admire the great liber­ties that the coun­try offers in com­par­ison with China. But our right to such free­dom is lim­ited by CCP intim­id­a­tion and bul­ly­ing.

No one, regard­less of who they are or where they are from, should be forced to live in fear of express­ing their ideas. The Brit­ish gov­ern­ment has a role to play in ensur­ing this is true for the Chinese dia­spora liv­ing in its bor­ders.

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