Huang Xueqin: “To Resist Tyranny, Start Small”

Independent journalist and #MeToo activist Sophia Huang Xueqin has been in state custody for over two months, without access to friends or family. She was detained by the Guangzhou police on October 17 on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. On November 27, Huang was put under “residential surveillance in a designated location,” the extralegal “black jail” system notorious for torturing inmates. Before her detention, Huang had traveled to Hong Kong to participate in and write about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in the city. Huang’s friends have organized a postcard campaign to call for her freedom, and the One Free Press Coalition has put Huang’s case at the top of its December 10 Most Urgent list.

Huang blogs on Matters, a Chinese-language blockchain platform based outside the Great Firewall aimed at allowing netizens to express themselves more freely. In one of her last posts before she was detained, translated in full below, Huang addresses the  powerful emotions people in Hong Kong are experiencing in response to police violence and existential threat. Drawing on Timothy Snyder’s short treatise “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Huang calls for small acts of solidarity and resistance–a smile, a cheer, a ballot–to heal each other and stay resilient in the face of a powerful dictatorship.

To Resist Tyranny, Start Small

by Huang Xueqin

Last night I went to a vegetarian restaurant to hear Lam Wing-kee, the manager of Causeway Bay Books, talk about going into exile. Towards the end of the evening, a Hong Kong friend stood up and said, “I have some bad news to share. Hong Kong now has a second ‘Mr. Leung‘ [the protester who fell to his death on June 14 after unfurling a protest banner]. Let’s take a minute–I hope that everyone here will take a minute of silence for her.”

I couldn’t manage silence. I took out my phone. The first thing I saw was a cartoon: seven people standing side by side, six of them wearing black, the one in the middle wearing a yellow raincoat, with the words “#SupportEachOther #NoOneLeftBehind #WeMustGoOnTogether.” Following that was a string of suicide prevention hotlines. Grief sprung from my heart. This despair and disillusionment had followed the first Mr. Leung like a shadow. At the time I had worried about the contagiousness of suicidal acts, that lionizing suicide could lead to copycats. I never thought there would be a second one. 

After June 6 and June 12, I also had an acute stress reaction. Violent images took over my mind. I was joyless. I felt in turns sorrow, unease, nervousness, anxiety, dread, and anger. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. As soon as I recognized what was going on, I sought professional counseling, and I bared my feelings to my friends. With all of their support, I gradually relaxed and found calm. In the past two weeks, Hong Kong people have been brave, resourceful, and united, reopening possibility for the city through all kinds of creative resistance and advocacy. I also have a sort of “all-in-this-together” optimism. I had forgotten that too many protesters could still be mired in despondency, and that without effective care, they could sink, or erupt, or fall. 

Most recently, I’ve been reading “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” by the Yale University professor Timothy Snyder. In the 20th lesson, Snyder writes, “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” Of course I understand the risks of pursuing freedom. I’m paying the price right now of being far from home. Yet I have always been wary, even when it is in the name of democracy and freedom, of admonishments and exhortations to give your life and let blood flow. The other day, a friend asked if Mr. Leung’s blood sacrifice to the fight against the extradition law wasn’t the reason two million people went out on the streets. He even offered his own conclusion that “the 1989 democracy movement failed because it didn’t have a Mr. Leung.”

Freedom and life, which is light, which is heavy? Each has its weight and its options. I simply want to warn against the kind of despair that demands no less than life and blood as bargaining chips in the fight. I’m even more afraid that the disillusionment that comes from resistance without results, or without immediately visible results, will spread. The demands and tactics of social movements have their similarities and differences, but the bar to participation can’t be set too high. Different people can resist in different ways. To address broader feelings of anger and frustration, I can merely provide some lessons and feasible actions from “On Tyranny.” I hope that we can all live well and each do what’s within our power to smash helplessness and hopelessness. 

To resist, start small

Resistance can start in your everyday life, in the small things at hand. It could be posting a slogan you believe in on a door or in a shop window; offering bottles of ice water or the use of a toilet to protesters passing by; broadcasting a word of support or thanks to protesters in the subway car; refusing to buy publications that you don’t approve of, changing the channel on programs that twist the facts. If you can’t march in the street or be part of a sit-in, make a stand with small things in your daily life. 

Make eye contact and small talk

Tyrannical regimes wish to erase the line that divides public and private life. Their intent is to establish mutual misunderstanding, to make each other feel alienated, isolated, or antagonistic. In times like these, we need to make more eye contact with our friends, grow our empathy for others, make time for chitchat, and offer each other support and encouragement. Give the people in the midst of the action some warmth and energy so that they can press on. After [the anti-extradition protests and clashes between police and demonstrators on] June 9 and June 12, many people are now in an emotional state of emergency, yet they don’t have access to effective treatment. Please keep an eye on the people around us, pay attention to how they are feeling, and give them your full attention, understanding, and support. If you aren’t able to help, please contact a hotline. Professional counseling and supportive friends could be just what someone needs to keep on living.

Beware certain professionals who wield power 

Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews; lawyers, doctors, journalists, and corpse bearers were their accomplices. Think for a moment: if the lawyers and judges had insisted on not holding secret trials and handing out death sentences on a whim, if the doctors had insisted on not violating their code of ethics to perform medical experiments, if the press had dared to expose the truth and sound the alarm on tyranny, if the soldiers who were told to open fire had all aimed just a few centimeters higher, would six million people have lost their lives? Now look again at the extradition bill, the framing of the legal problem. Why wasn’t there sufficient pushback from the Legislative Council to call for an adequate amount of time for deliberation? How is it that the police, who are sworn to serve and protect the people of Hong Kong, are able to launch 150 tear gas bombs and shoot round upon round of rubber bullets at peaceful protesters? How is it that the hospitals can give passage to the police and release patients’ private information? Haven’t these powerful professionals already been reduced to accomplices of tyranny?

Believe in truth, support civil society

People in power like to say, “You have your values, I make my own choices. No one is above the other.” But we cannot be misled by this logic. We must read more things of more substance, and believe in truth. If we aren’t able to search for the truth ourselves, we should enable the people who can to do it. We should give financial support to high-quality, independent media so that journalists can investigate and report. We can also contribute to the “anti-extradition humanitarian fund for the injured and arrested,” as well as the cost of first response medical care and lawyer’s fees. 

Practice corporeal politics

In the end, a despot can take a people, but it can’t take their heart. We can still leave our comfort zones to connect more–with your friends, classmates, different groups and organizations, even people and groups that oppose you–to listen, to understand, to get through, to link up with people of different backgrounds and different standpoints. Unite popular sentiment, practice the democracy you believe in, live as your own example. 

Hurry up and register to vote

By cherishing your right to vote and every single ballot that you hold in your hand, you can stop the despot from using the illusion of legitimate elections to seize power. Two million people marched in the streets. If they all register to vote, they will be able to push some reform of the system. 

Stand with more people

One more person standing up is one more bit of power, and one less bit of fear. Imagine, if you take away the nearly 100,000 civil servants from among the seven million Hong Kongers, and everyone else stands up, what does that look like? How will they settle accounts? How big of a prison can they build?

Face the coming tyranny with calm

When the despot arrives and powers collude, they may use all their might to “maintain stability,” they may censor everything. Besides staying vigilant and resisting as much as we can, we must improve our health and strengthen our resolve. It could be that whoever outlives the other, wins. [Chinese]


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