Updated: May 20
This piece is Part II of a two-part essay. Read Part I here.
In the summer of 2021, I arrived at the University of Chicago to pursue a master's degree in history. Shortly after I arrived at UChicago, the murder of Dennis Zheng and the ensuing controversy within the Chinese community occurred. When the news of Dennis Zheng's death came, some Chinese students organized the “We Want Safety” rally calling for campus safety. At the same time, some Chinese students and parents began to call for increased police presence and even showed hostility and discrimination against the Black community. During that time, a large part of my course reading material was the monographs of bell hooks. While reading hooks' teachings on love, I saw pro-policing posts and anti-Black rhetoric on social media and thought about the anti-police brutality protests in 2020, and my awakening and growth during that movement.
In a WeChat group of Chinese students at the University of Chicago, there were heated discussions about whether the school should increase its police presence, and racist comments came out of some people's mouths with impunity. In the face of Dennis Zheng's death and the ensuing debate within the Chinese community, I was reminded of the Trump regime's discrimination against the Chinese community, the BLM movement in the summer of 2020, and the Stop AAPI Hate movement in the spring of 2021. I asked myself: Am I angry in the face of Dennis Zheng’s death? Am I fearful? I think the answer is yes. But what is the root cause of all these? The root cause of the rising crime rate is the systemic racial discrimination caused by white supremacy, the poverty crisis caused by economic inequality in a capitalist society, and the proliferation of guns fueled by right-wing politicians. Can these problems be solved by increasing police or even provoking a confrontation between Asian people and Black people? Ignoring the dangers of systemic white supremacy and blaming a lack of policing for the death of Dennis Zheng will only make the situation worse. In the end, I decided to attend the “We Want Safety” rally and express my views.
On November 16, 2021, at the "We Want Safety" rally, I again created my banner emphasizing the intersectionality of issues and came to the rally to express my advocacy. I wrote "Ban all guns" and "Black Lives Matter" as well as "Smash the patriarchy" and "Smash white supremacy" on my banner. The message I hoped to send to the public is that the essence of the problem of campus security is structural inequality that leads to discrimination, poverty, oppression, and exploitation.
After the rally, I was again cyberbullied by far-right groups. This time, the group that cyberbullied me was not the far-right group on campus but a group of Trump supporters from mainland China who were active on Twitter. These online accounts, with whom I have no connection, reposted Chicago Maroon's coverage of me, insulted and abused me in the most vicious, racist, and sexually offensive language, and tried to dox me. They accused me of being a spy from China and cursed me to be the next victim to be shot.
I skimmed through the previous postings of the accounts that perpetrated cyberviolence against me and attempted to use the death of Dennis Zheng to incite racism. The vast majority of these accounts claimed to be opponents of the Chinese Communist Party and supported Trump. They were anti-vaccine, claimed fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, accused social justice movements of being riots, and advocated a police state to defend so-called "law and order." In short, the holders of these accounts lived in a distorted world of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and extreme right-wing ideology.
After a brief period of anger and fear, I refused when the administration asked me if I would have the Chicago Maroon remove my photo to ensure my safety. I felt if the media removed my photo because I had been cyberbullied, these fascists would think they could censor all the progressive voices they disliked through cyber-violence. If this ridiculous assumption became a reality, more people with progressive views would be victimized.
I have been a victim of cyberviolence because of my involvement in the social movement against racism. What's even more bizarre is the people who inflicted cyberviolence on me are from the same ethnic minorities as I am. These Chinese far-right groups were hysterically supporting a fascist who called them the "virus" while using racist words to torment a Chinese student who advocated to "Stop Asian Hate." This absurd reality did not deter me but rather convinced me of the need to stand for progressivism, especially to deconstruct, critique, and dismantle the cultural hegemony constructed by white supremacy.
For a long time, all transnational issues, such as the worldwide anti-racism and feminist movements, have been reduced to “games” between two superpowers by right-wing forces from China and the United States. In the narrative of right-wing nationalists, the state is portrayed as an absolute, essential, and exclusive community. All debates on social issues must choose sides according to the binary model of "pro-China" and "pro-U.S." According to this nationalist, populist, right-wing rhetoric, the traditions and status quo of the United States, China, or any other country are the essential characteristics of that country. The structural critique of tradition and the status quo adopted by progressives – which questions the rationality of tradition and the status quo – naturally stirs the sensitivities of right-wing nationalists, who will be seen as standing in opposition to the nation they embrace.
At the same time, according to the narrative of right-wing nationalists who try to place all social issues for discussion within the framework of a geopolitical game of dichotomy, a person who stands in opposition to a specific national regime means that this person must be an agent of the enemy government. Based on this ludicrous logic, some unconditionally support white nationalism in the United States because they are dissatisfied with the Chinese authorities. When they found out that I was criticizing the deep-rooted white supremacy in American society based on the position of a global citizen, they began to assume that I was an opponent of the American government. According to their black-or-white logic, since I am an opponent of the U.S. government, it follows that I am an agent of the Chinese government. This ridiculous and pathetic logic makes these Chinese far-right groups de facto agents of white supremacists among people of color.
What lies behind this absurd narrative is a disregard and dissipation of the transnational nature of the subject matter and the multiplicity of personal identities. I don't think any single concept can fully encompass my entire identity. My identity is transnational and diverse, and in the same way, the issues I focus on are also global and intercultural. I grew up in Shanghai, went to school in Southern California and Chicago, and worked in Nairobi for a summer several years ago. As Black Americans face oppression from white supremacy, I am also aware of the prejudice against the Black community among many of my friends and family in China. While the mainstream media in the Western world is critical of China's nationalist propaganda, we must not forget that the West is constructing another equally problematic nationalist propaganda through its long history of Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism.
For this reason, these issues cannot be said to be fully “American” or “Chinese.” This is also why, in the process of planning the "We Want Safety" rally, I felt a deep sense of helplessness, sadness, and even a deep feeling of disbelief when many Chinese students said, "The gun issue and the race issue are America's problems, not ours as international students, so we don't talk about them.” I believe that all these social problems are fundamental problems for all people. In the fight against white supremacy, patriarchy, and capital exploitation, differences in color, cultural background, and nationality should not prevent all discriminated, oppressed, and exploited communities from understanding, empathizing, supporting, and working together without distinction.
As a history student, I would like to say that simple phrases like "culture war" cannot sum up this history. The course of history is made up of the stories of many ordinary people like me. From the BLM protest in Oceanside to the "We Want Safety" rally in Chicago, my personal story of growing into an internationalist, progressive student activist is a microcosm of the deep, structural, and complex nature of racial issues in the United States and around the world. If I can draw any conclusions from my story, it is that transnational issues need to be addressed by people with transnational identities through the construction of transnational solidarity.
This piece is Part II of a two-part essay. Read Part I here.