Immigrants create an alternative China, one bookstore at a time

Immigrants create an alternative China, one bookstore at a time

Immigrants create an alternative China, one bookstore at a time

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in central Tokyo, around fifty Chinese people crowded into a gray, nondescript office that doubled as a bookstore. They came for a seminar on Qiu Jin, a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who was accused more than a century ago of conspiring to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

Like them, Ms. Qiu had lived as an immigrant in Japan. The title of the conference, “Rebuilding China in Tokyo,” says as much about the aspirations of those present as it does about Ms. Qiu’s life.

Public debates like this used to be commonplace in major Chinese cities, but they have been increasingly stifled over the past decade. The Chinese public is discouraged from organizing and participating in civic activities.

Last year, a new type of Chinese public life emerged – outside China’s borders, in countries like Japan.

“With so many Chinese moving to Japan,” said Li Jinxing, a human rights lawyer who organized the event in January, “it is necessary to create a place where people can express, share their grievances, and then think about what to do next. » Mr. Li himself left Beijing for Tokyo last September, fearing for his safety. “People like us have the mission to lead China’s transformation,” he said.

From Tokyo to Chiang Mai, Thailand, Amsterdam and New York, members of the Chinese diaspora are building a public life forbidden in China and training to become civic-minded citizens – the type of Chinese whose Party Communist doesn’t want them. be. They opened Chinese bookstores, held seminars and organized civic groups.

These immigrants are creating an alternative China, a more hopeful society. In doing so, they are redefining what it means to be Chinese.

Four Chinese bookstores opened in Tokyo last year. Monthly feminist open mic comedy show which debuted in New York in 2022 has been so successful that feminists in at least four other U.S. cities, as well as London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, British Columbia, are putting on similar shows. Chinese immigrants in Europe have created dozens of nonprofit organizations focused on LGBTQ, protests and other issues.

Most of these events and organizations are not overtly political and do not aim to overthrow the Chinese government, although some participants hope to one day return to a democratic China. But the immigrants who organize them say they believe it is important to learn to live without fear, to trust oneself and to pursue a life of purpose.

Far too many Chinese, even after leaving, for years were too afraid of the government to attend public events that did not conform to the dominant rhetoric of the Communist Party.

But in 2022, White Paper protests that erupted in China to oppose the country’s pandemic restrictions sparked demonstrations in other countries. People realized they were not alone and started looking for like-minded people.

Yilimai, a young professional who has lived in Japan for a decade, said that since the 2022 protests, he has been organizing and participating in protests and seminars in Tokyo.

Last June, he came to a talk I gave on my podcast in Chinese: “I don’t understand”, and was surprised to find that he was one of about 300 people. (I was surprised, too. Who wants to listen to a journalist talk about her podcast?) He said he met and stayed in touch with about a dozen people at the event.

“Engaging in public life is a virtue in itself,” said Yilimai, who used his nickname online because he feared government reprisals. It means “a grain of wheat,” a biblical reference to the resurrection.

China once had, in the 2000s and early 2010s, what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called a public sphere. Authorities allowed room for lively, albeit censored, public debate alongside state-sanctioned cultural and social life.

In bookstores in major Chinese cities, “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville and “The Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Hayek were bestsellers. A book club founded in Beijing by Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon, has attracted China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and civil servants. Shanghai Pride, an annual celebration of LGBTQ rights, attracted thousands of participants. Feminist activists organized movements such as “occupy the men’s bathroom” and official news electrical outlets covered as progressive forces. Independent films, documentaries, and underground magazines explored topics that the Communist Party disliked but tolerated: history, sexuality, and inequality.

In the decade since Xi Jinping took office in late 2012, all of these initiatives have been crushed. Investigative journalists have lost outlets for their work, human rights lawyers have been imprisoned or disbarred, and bookstores have been forced to close their doors. Ren Zhiqiang, the real estate tycoon who started the book club, is serving an 18-year prison sentence for criticizing Mr. Xi. Nongovernmental organization organizers and LGBTQ and feminist activists have been harassed, silenced, or forced into exile.

In turn, increasing numbers of Chinese fled their home country, its government, and its propaganda to places that granted them freedom. They can now connect with each other and provide platforms for Chinese people inside and outside the country to communicate and imagine a different future.

Anne Jieping Zhang, a mainland-born journalist who worked in Hong Kong for two decades before moving to Taiwan during the pandemic, opened a bookstore in Taipei in 2022. She opened a branch in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in last December and plans to open in Tokyo and Amsterdam this year.

“I want my bookstore to be a place where Chinese people from all over the world can come and exchange ideas,” Ms. Zhang said.

His bookstore, called Nowhere, issues Republic of Nowhere passports to its valued customers, who are called citizens and not members.

Nowhere’s Taipei branch hosted 138 events last year. The Chiang Mai branch held around 20 events in its first six weeks. The themes were very varied: war, feminism, protests in Hong Kong, cities and relationships. I have spoken at both branches of my podcast.

Ms. Zhang said she did not want her bookstores to be just for dissidents and rebellious young people, but for any Chinese who was curious about the world.

“It’s not what you object to that matters, but what kind of life you want,” she said. “If the Chinese or the Chinese diaspora cannot rebuild a society without restrictions imposed from above, even if we change the regime, we certainly will not be able to lead a better life. »

Ms. Zhang and Mr. Li, the human rights lawyer better known by his pseudonym Wu Lei, said Chinese immigrants were very different from their predecessors in the 1980s, who were mostly economic immigrants. New immigrants are better off and better educated. They care about their economic well-being as well as their sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.

Ms. Zhang and Mr. Li started their business with their own money. The monthly rent for Mr. Li’s roughly 700-square-foot space, which he uses primarily for events, is about $1,300. He said he could afford it.

Ms. Zhang, currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, subsidizes the Chiang Mai branch with her savings. The Taipei branch made a profit last year. A growing source of its income is sending books to Chinese people around the world.

On the same Saturday in January as the seminar at Mr. Li’s bookstore in Tokyo, eight young Chinese people sat around a table in the home of a Japanese professor to discuss Taiwan’s elections that took place over the weekend. previous end. They have been meeting at public and private events since last year.

“We are preparing for the democratization of China,” said Umi, a graduate student who moved to Japan in 2022 and participated in the White Paper protests. “We have to ask ourselves,” she said: “If the Chinese Communist Party collapses tomorrow, are we prepared to be good citizens?