Updated: May 20
This piece is Part I of a two-part essay. Read Part II here.
This is my story about how an Asian international student from China achieved a political awakening in the social activism in the United States and became an unapologetic progressive. The Trump regime's hostility towards international students during the COVID pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the Stop Asian Hate movement in 2021, and the UChicago "We Want Safety" rally in 2021 – along with the ensuing controversies – have all played an essential role in my experience. These events have influenced me to reshape my perceptions, reshape my self-identity, and develop a more positive and empathetic connection with my community.
In 2020, when COVID-19 broke out, I was a student at UC San Diego majoring in International Politics. In my social science studies, I learned about the fragility of democracy itself and the infringement of democracy by racist and far-right politics. At the same time, in the numerous humanities classes I took, I learned about the need to focus on marginalized groups and embrace multiculturalism. Yet until the spring of 2020, these ideas remained only in my class notes, and I never translated them into real action. Coming from a middle-class family in Shanghai, I had long been taught that politics was something to stay away from. It wasn't until the massive BLM protests that my perception and behavior began to change.
BLM movement: The beginning of my social movement participation
In the massive protests that followed George Floyd's death, many statues of controversial historical figures were defaced by protesters, and some were removed from public spaces. Among those removed was a statue of Winston Churchill. In late May 2020, I posted a comment via WeChat pointing out that we should not ignore Churchill's identity as a colonialist, especially given his inhumane policies toward the Indian independence movement and First Nations Australians. I argued it was understandable that local authorities in some cities would remove Churchill’s statue, as it also symbolized the suffering of many marginalized communities.
After posting this, I was subjected to cyber-violence from some far-right Chinese on the UCSD campus. After I posted that comment, several graduate alumni older than me insulted me with extremely offensive language in the comments. The malicious comments left by these people in my senior cohorts caused many students to discuss my post, and I reluctantly deleted it to avoid becoming an embarrassing focal point on campus. I then sent a private message to several of the people involved in the tirade, telling them that I was embarrassed and angered by their public display of unfriendliness toward me. But I did not receive any positive feedback from these private conversations, which all escalated into political bickering.
Most of the people who cyberbullied me were graduate students in my senior cohorts: some were still in school, others had graduated but still returned to school regularly as alumni. Because they were all from mainland China, I had more interaction with them on non-political topics before COVID-19 broke out. It was only after the 2020 BLM protests that I gradually discovered how bigoted these people whom I once considered friends were.
These far-right individuals are deeply hostile to identity politics, gender justice, and environmentalism, and some of them are members of conservative religious groups. While a minority on campus, such groups still have some influence among the Chinese communities in North America. In the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy, these people spared no effort to justify police brutality in the name of defending law and order, and spread rumors of "riots" among Chinese-speaking communities in North America to create a sense of insecurity. At the same time, the internet was flooded with extreme right-wing articles that denigrated the BLM movement and stigmatized BLM's demand for justice as harboring and condoning crime, claiming that once the Black community is treated more fairly, Chinese community will be attacked by more violent crimes. In these bouts of specious and racially hateful discourse, the position of "Chinese" was simplified and singularized, as though one was not genuinely Chinese if one did not stand on the side of conservatism.
On June 7, 2020, I participated in a peaceful BLM protest in Oceanside, Southern California. Along the coastline, rally participants marched in a long line carrying various signs supporting racial justice and condemning police brutality. People repeatedly shouted, "No Justice, No Peace" in the procession. The protest was accompanied by the sound of crashing waves, disrupting the calm coastline of Southern California. I held a sign that read "I come from China / I support BLM / Know Justice / Know Peace / Black Lives Matter" and participated in this historic moment as one of the few Asians in the march. I must admit that, in that march, I deliberately changed "No" to "Know" to appear more moderate because I still subconsciously saw "peace" as a bottom line.
Although I came into the social movement as a moderate liberal, my stance soon shifted to embrace a more radical identity politics, prompted by a combination of racism from the American right that the Chinese suffered during BLM and COVID. I began to examine the multiplicity of self-identities and the intersectionality of different social issues, and to direct my critique at white supremacy and patriarchal traditions.
Sinophobia & “Stop Asian Hate”: Exploring the Multiplicity of Self-Identity and the Intersectionality of Social Issues
After the outbreak of COVID in 2020, the Trump administration insulted Chinese people with vicious name-calling, claiming that COVID-19 was a "Chinese Virus,” and introduced a series of racist policies directed toward international students and new immigrants. As Chinese students, we faced vitriol from both China and the United States during the pandemic. In the United States, we were stigmatized by white supremacists as virus carriers and spies; in China, we were labeled as "foreign forces" by nationalist groups.
COVID led populists in both China and the U.S. to construct exclusionary narratives in the name of security. As an international student with a progressive stance, a transnational self-identity, and a connection to both Chinese and American societies, I came to realize that Sinophobic discrimination and police brutality against Black people were not just moral issues of "lack of tolerance" and "lack of understanding of unfamiliar cultures" but are the result of systemic white supremacy, patriarchal traditions, and nationalism. Trump's assertion of the "Chinese Virus" is not simply a reference to the location where the coronavirus was first detected. The logic behind Trump's use of "China" to name COVID-19 is to misrepresent the epidemic as a widespread public health crisis as an external, othered threat. The cultural meaning given to the word "China" in U.S. history is firmly Orientalist and refers in general terms to a distant, heterogeneous Asian culture unfamiliar to white evangelical Christians.
When Afong Moy, the first Chinese American woman, arrived in the United States in 1834, the New York public constructed its initial stereotypes of Asian women through the label "Chinese Lady." Afong Moy's role in the United States was purely objectified: she was exhibited in the New York area for the public to see her bound foot. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Page Act of 1875 are the legal manifestations of a perceived Orientalist threat under the cultural hegemony of systematic white supremacy. Based on this Orientalist and racist cultural construction, Orientalists distorted the word "China" in the American cultural context. During the anti-Finnish immigration wave in Minnesota and Michigan in the early 20th century, immigrants of Finnish descent were derogatorily referred to as “China Swede” because they came from a distant region unfamiliar to white American Christians.
In the narrative of the right, the concept of "China" refers to a collection of distant, heterogeneous elements that don't belong. The demonization of left-wing politics during the Cold War compounded this stereotype & stigmatization. In the early days of the pandemic, there were numerous reported cases of Asians being verbally abused, attacked, and told to “go back to Asia” for wearing masks. This systemic hate crime of blaming a specific ethnic group for a community-wide public health crisis is rooted in white supremacy: racists don't care one bit about how to stop the coronavirus. They believe, with prejudice, that it is the "un-American" Chinese who brought the "un-American" virus to America.
This absurd narrative and the resulting impact on my community have prompted me to understand the legitimacy of the BLM movement from a more systemic and structural perspective. The BLM movement's critique and even destruction of many historical figure sculptures are essentially an attempt to challenge the narrative of the past selectively constructed by white supremacy. Because of this, the slogan "No Justice, No Peace" gains its legitimacy: Peace implies respect for the existing establishment. If the status quo is rooted in white supremacy and the oppression and exploitation of minorities, it cannot be respected. “No peace” is not about encouraging violent crime but rather about rethinking and critiquing the entire system rooted in racism and patriarchy. In challenging the cultural hegemony established by white supremacy, there is no doubt that Black and Asian communities share a common goal.
The summer of 2020 was the beginning of my awakening in the social movement, and after the Atlanta shooting in March 2021, I became more aware that the Chinese community was also a direct victim of racism. I also took an active role in the Stop AAPI Hate movement, where I often clashed with conservatives in the Chinese community. These conservative Chinese people, mostly Trump supporters, denied the existence of systemic white racism in the U.S. Instead, they weaponized the prejudice suffered by the Chinese to stir up confrontation between Asian and Black communities. Therefore, whenever I participate in rallies and marches, I use signs that emphasize the intersectionality of issues to make my case: I will emphasize that opposition to discrimination against Asian people is inextricably linked to BLM, feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, opposition to xenophobic mentality, and so on. As Chinese diaspora and international students, opposing discrimination should not mean simply complaining that "I’m getting too little," but rather focusing on the critique, dismantling, and deconstruction of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalist society in a more general sense.
This piece is Part I of a two-part essay. Read Part II here.