China’s long arm of censorship extends well beyond its borders into diaspora communities.
When I attended a conference on US-China cultural ties this month, I noticed that most Chinese visiting academics and students boycotted a panel on Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
Underlying this indifference is a deeper antagonism toward any criticisms of the mighty Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state.
These young researchers still cannot leave behind the debilitating norms and practices that plant the seeds of suspicion toward Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Attitudinal constraint operates in more complicated ways than ideological compliance and mere censorship.
Decades of CCP rule have shaped the discourse on Hong Kong in the diaspora. A constant fear of being under surveillance prompted people to internalize the sense of being watched and thus to police their speech.
Equally problematic is the reaction of older Chinese immigrants toward Hong Kong’s governance crisis in public fora. These well-established immigrants do not want to compromise their ability to visit China for business or leisure, or fall victim to Beijing’s surveillance. As a result, they reproduce what they detest at home — self-censorship and social isolation.
For years, educational and professional accomplishments have created the conventional image of social and economic successes for Chinese immigrants, who are often seen as a model minority.
Yet, such a monolithic understanding overlooks the diverse linguistic identities, political loyalties and cultural heritage within the Chinese diaspora. Their different understanding of modern Chinese history shape the ways they come to grips with Taiwan’s democratic transformation, Hong Kong’s distinct identity and postcolonial politics, and worsening US-China tensions.
Hong Kong used to be a safe haven for China in times of wars and conflicts. Today, more Hong Kongers are fleeing their beloved territory out of fear for safety.
Some Hong Kong democracy advocates who spend time in police detention and who have lost friends in the protests are seeking asylum. Among the immediate problems they face are the emotional strain of exile, the loss of a familiar home and precarious living conditions.
To uphold their unique social and cultural experience, Hong Kongers are a diaspora within the diaspora. Seeing themselves as political refugees who feel traumatized by the Beijing’s crackdown on peaceful protests in the territory in 2019, they continue their advocacy abroad to fight for recognition and justice.
In this globalized age, minority politics are local and transnational. Marginal groups can seek international resources and solutions to problems at home.
For example, Afghans are now appealing to compassionate supporters and non-governmental organizations equipped to provide immediate help from outside.
Hong Kongers are following in the same footsteps. Adjusting to a life abroad requires new modes of navigating a global cultural space against the hegemonic effects of Chinese nationalism. With the newfound freedom to transcend the barriers of censorship, they are winning support from sympathetic Taiwanese, who have the painful experience of a decades-long Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) dictatorship.
It remains unclear whether overseas Hong Kongers could find ways to engage with and gain support from the broader Chinese community. The best way to begin a dialogue is for both sides to acknowledge their different cultural upbringing and conflicting identities, as well as attitudinal divisions between and within the generations.
Patience and tolerance are vital to a civil and open dialogue across the political spectrum.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a history professor at Pace University in New York.
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