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The writer is a dissident Chinese student, currently studying for a higher degree in law in the UK
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 off-campus 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 self-censorship, 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.