In May 2022, Li Yuan 袁莉, a New York Times columnist who focuses on the intersection of technology, business and politics in China and across Asia, started a weekly Chinese-language podcast titled Who Gets It — a Shared Search for the Truth and Answers 不明白播客：一起探尋真理與答案. In her conversations with a diverse range of people both in- and outside of China, Yuan brings her unique perspective to contemporary affairs.
In Episode 23 of Who Gets It, released on 29 October 2022, Li Yuan discussed the protests among Chinese overseas students that erupted in response to the Sitong Overpass Incident in Beijing on 16 October that year. Her interlocutor, who was based in London, called herself ‘Kathy’. (For a translation of that conversation, see Awakenings — a Voice from Young China on the Duty to Rebel.)
On 2 December 2023, around the time of the first anniversary of the Blank Page Movement, Kathy posted a letter on the Who Gets It website. That letter, along with a translation, is published below.
During the Xi Jinping era, those who are interested in the future of the People’s Republic pay attention not only to local protests against government malfeasance, legal injustices and various forms of social inequity, but also accord unprecedented levels of attention to instances of cultural resistance. Halloween cosplay in Shanghai and the annual kerfuffle over egg-fried rice during China’s ‘Thanksgiving’ are only two recent examples of popular nark. See:
- Monster Mash — Mourning a Dead Premier & Mocking the Ghouls Among the Living, 4 November 2023; and,
- Chef Wang Makes a Hash of Egg-fried Rice, 1 November 2023
From the early 1980s, we have noted the appearance and impact of what Lu Xun long ago called ‘seeds of fire’ 火種, which represent the rekindling of possibility. Over the decades, people have repeatedly speculated about how, when and where those ‘seeds’ 火種 might combust into a ‘spark’ 星星之火 that will ‘ignite a prairie fire’ 燎原. Our approach has tended to favour caution. We note that, despite the changing landscape of China’s party-state, what we have long referred to as ‘The Other China’ flourishes regardless. The ‘ironic points of light’ that we discussed during the protests of late 2022 shimmer in the observations that Kathy makes below — the lights signalling each to each. Surely that is proof of something. The memory alone marks a change.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 December 2023
Material in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium related to protests from October to December 2022:
- Awakenings — a Voice from Young China on the Duty to Rebel, 14 November 2022
- How to Read a Blank Sheet of Paper, 30 November 2022
- It’s My Duty, 1 December 2022
- ‘Ironic Points of Light’ — acts of redemption on the blank pages of history, 4 December 2022
- A Ray of Light, A Glimmer of Hope — Li Yuan talks to Jeremy Goldkorn & to a Shanghai protester, 10 December 2022
- When Zig Turns Into Zag the Joke is on Everyone, 12 December 2022
What Scares Me …
This is Kathy. Some of you might remember me from the interview that I recorded as part of Li Yuan’s Who Gets It podcast last year.
At the time, I was in an overwrought state, something evident from the tone of our phone conversation last year — I guess that, in part, it reflected the underlying fear and isolation that I had lived with for so long, the sense that I couldn’t trust anyone. Then, all of a sudden, here I had an outlet to express all of the things that I’d bottled up inside.
During the night of the Sitongqiao Bridge Incident [on 13 October 2022, when a lone protester unfurled two banners on the Sitongqiao Overpass near the university district in Beijing], people were constantly publishing updates and images on Instagram. … In response, I felt overwhelmed by a completely unfamiliar emotion, one of community and shared enthusiasm. Although, paradoxically, it left me feeling even more isolated than before. It wasn’t only because I’d only recently arrived in the UK and had yet to make any new friends, it was also because I was used to keeping to myself and avoiding attracting people’s suspicions. On top of that was my deep-seated belief that I’d never really find anyone in my vicinity who saw the world the way I do. Over the years, I’d learned to protect myself by keeping quiet. Then, at that moment [in October 2022], I was desperate to ask everyone: friends — my comrades — where in this whole wide world are you? If our paths ever cross, how will we ever recognise each other?
When I think back to that moment, I realise that memories are suffused with anxiety and an overall vagueness. The posters that I put up were constantly being pasted over by others, and things developed from there as mine became just one voice among all the messages scribbled on the posters. We went from open support for ‘Bridge Man’ to the surreptitious attempts the university made to tamp things down.
But I remember it as a time of many personal ‘firsts’: it was the first time that I put up a political poster; it was the first time that I took part in a street march; it was the first time that I exchanged surreptitious glances with people using the kind of unspoken code I’d only ever shared with friends in private … Only in retrospect do I appreciate how difficult each of these steps was for me because at the time I didn’t have a moment to think about such things. It was as though my very being was consumed by the fires of a new passion. It’s all so much of a blur that I can’t really remember exactly when the Blank Page Movement erupted, though I can recall the subsequent mini wave of protests that appeared on the public announcement boards at my university. Then there was the protest outside the Chinese Embassy in London on 27 November 2022. I’d never seen so many overseas Chinese students before. It was such an extraordinary, foreign feeling.
The apartment fire in Urumqi, the Blank Page protest at the Communication University of China in Nanjing, the commemoration at Middle Urumqi Road in Shanghai, the release of detainees at the police station the next day, the slogans shouted at Liangma River in Beijing, and all the people who took to the streets … I honestly thought that the exact details, as well as the time and dates of those extraordinary events would be etched into my memory. But all that’s left is one long blur and this series of shorthand expressions. I really don’t know how I should think about all of it.
However, I’m certain about one thing: I’m scared.
I’m scared that I’ll forget my agonised sense of impotence; I’m scared because I repeatedly fault myself for not having really done anything; I’m scared that, although I do have some friends now, I still feel very much alone; I’m scared that everyone will forget what happened and that I’ll end up exactly where I’ve always been.
I’m also scared that I, too, will forget.
I have had offline friends who were beaten up by the police, detained and interrogated, but I’ve lost contact with them. I also have offline friends in China who took part in protests on their campuses as well as offline friends who marched in the streets of Beijing. And it’s because these offline friends did something in the real world [in contrast to online activism], I can’t possibly claim that I did anything. Compared to them, how could I even say that I took part in that ‘revolution’, that ‘movement’? Up to this point, the most I could possibly say is that, with the greatest of possible effort, I did manage to cook up a few catchy slogans.
Then again, at least I did compose them and that’s why I wanted to say a few things here under the name ‘Kathy’. It’s because if you heard what I said previously, and you listen to it again now a year later, you might find a measure of solace in it all. I can say that with some confidence since I have found comfort in the fact that I was heard.
A year has gone by and that name ‘Kathy’ — insignificant though it may be — still has some lingering resonance. Whenever I notice some mention of it, I get a shock or frisson. It touches on a place of pain that also happens to be a source of inexpressible warmth. That’s right: I’ve been heard and I’m remembered. Although my state of mind has undergone a considerable shift over this past year, a short period of time I admit, but I feel that sense of isolation all over again and whenever I experience that affirmation, I feel a renewed sense of power.
Why was my immediate, unthinking response to the Blank Page Movement one of rejection? Maybe it was because I felt that it didn’t have a convincing narrative. There’s been no conclusion either, it lingers there, unresolved.
In that place in which we — me and all of them — find connection, there is, as everyone knows all too well, a regime of censorship that simply makes it impossible for us to discuss any of this openly. Following the highly restrictive years of Covid a series of things took place in a welter, yet people have been too busy getting on with their lives really to get involved, or absorb what it really all meant. All those acts of bravery and decency never really got their fair due or recognition. The collective memory of what had happened, what had really happened, is in question, especially since it was soon replaced by our habitual feeling of impotence. When you zoom out for a moment you can’t help wondering whether any of it actually happened at all. Was it no more than a collective hallucination experienced by a small group of us?
I still feel a profound sense of guilt and helplessness, and I’m scared. I’m also still learning to live with a different kind of loneliness. Only after a conflagration burns itself out do you really appreciate the aftereffects, or pay attention to the wounds it’s inflicted. The friends you made all over the world turn out not to be quite what you had imagined. All of us have lived with the trauma of those events for so long that now it’s hard for us to work out how we should or can communicate with each other. Not many people realised at first that this is how it would turn out. Appreciating the sense of isolation that other people are experiencing can’t really relieve you of your own sense of despondency.
But there’s another story to tell. It’s not about the hesitation to move on, just because of personal loneliness and obstinacy. Although there’s no superficial difference between then and now, after Sitongqiao Bridge things can’t simply go back to the way they were. Even if that street name in Shanghai has been removed, at least for a time we were all together on Middle Urumqi Road.
We are lucky to have had those shared moments of unity. It also means that from our different perspectives we can confirm that it wasn’t all just a dream. Even when nothing means anything any more, one thing is certain: we heard each other’s voices.
It’s a positive memory, a lingering affirmation.
那一陣子的記憶是緊張而模糊的。學校里的海報經歷著不斷「迭代」，從一個人的聲音到中性筆留下的中文字樣的對壘，從對 Bridge Man 的聲援到對校方不公正處理方式的指控。