In July 2019, the philosopher and popular writer Byron Chen Chun went to Hong Kong to observe protests against proposed amendments to the Hong Kong extradition law which raised serious concerns that residents and even those passing through the city could be detained and sent to China. After months of sustained protest, the bill was withdrawn in September, but other demands by demonstrators went unanswered by the government. Despite serious challenges including the COVID-19 outbreak and Beijing’s recent imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law, demonstrations continued through 2019 and into early 2020, and the city’s pro-democracy movement struggles to continue. On October 1, dozens of protesters were arrested as they marched to demand the release of activists detained on the mainland after they attempted to flee the city for Taiwan.
Just weeks after Chen returned to the mainland, a “Big V” Weibo user starting doxxing him, and reported him for “supporting Hong Kong independence.” Chen became a hot topic on the platform, and was soon summoned by the police for a night of interrogation. Hounded by “little pinks” online, Chen decided to write about his experience, publishing “Tip-offs, Pink Terror, and Non-establishment Totalitarianism” (举报、粉红狂潮，与体制外的极权主义) at Initium Media on August 29, 2019. His essay was recognized this May in the Human Rights Press Awards. His second book, “Political Affect and the Rebirth of Liberalism” (自由主义的重生与政治德性), came out around the same time.
While his international reputation is growing, Chen has been ostracized politically and socially in China, as he writes in the Matters post translated below. The frequent calls from various government agencies and the destruction of his social media presence have been accompanied by thwarted first dates and wariness from friends. Reflecting on his “social death” in the context of China’s splintering liberal movement, Chen finds light among the shards:
This year I published “Political Affect and the Rebirth of Liberalism,” a collection of 33 of my academic papers, mostly written between 2015-2019. Ten of them were written in 2018. Seven I wrote in 2019, but I also wrote a lot of essays last year, about 20 pieces altogether. You could say 2020 has been my least productive year of the last five. From the beginning of the year to now, I’ve only written two long-form pieces.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my life took a twist in August 2019. Two months later, I wrote two pieces about what happened, both with the flavor of broken teeth and swallowed blood about them. Perhaps it’s because I’ve heard of too many tragic cases. Being tag-teamed by three or four government departments, with agents coming to my house twice in a week… It didn’t seem like an “iron fist” to me. Over the last year, especially around the time when Mr. Xu was “being johnned,” whenever I saw my friends or spoke over the phone, the first thing they’d ask about was my safety, fearing that “they had finally come for the intellectuals.”
I tried to assuage their concerns. The agents coming to see me weren’t particularly savage, and there weren’t any real threats to my safety. After a long while, I realized that the iron fist doesn’t just smash your face in and leave you moaning in a heap. This iron fist is a nimble one, like the Buddha’s palm, invisibly stretched out under your feet wherever you go, with no way to escape its influence. In late October, I wanted to go to Macau. When they swiped my pass card to cross the border, it was denied. The customs officer stared me down, eyes filled with suspicion, and invited me into a side room. That was the moment I realized I was no longer able to cross the border freely.
I tried to neutralize the feeling of being caged-in with a scholarly spirit and a sense of humor. At times I calmly observed, recalled, and organized, integrating what I learned from different studies and cases that I read, hoping to beat the system. Sometimes I tried to analyze the agents, to distinguish the imprints of the system from their humanity. I’d share the “results” of my analyses with trusted friends, in an effort to alleviate their concern for me, as well as my own inescapable political depression.
At the time, my livelihood wasn’t really under threat. But I knew some people around me were getting warning signs. I wasn’t even sure if they had been forced to monitor me, but I still interacted with them as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Luckily, the authorities didn’t harass my family too much, and I didn’t put justice above them. I’ve reflected deeply on the negative influences and obstacles brought upon me by my family, but the Teochew people put “family” first when it really matters. They haven’t even criticized me too much. They simply keep their assessments of the situation to themselves.
After I got back from the Macau border, I didn’t write anything for a few months. For one, all of my inside-the-firewall social media accounts had been bombed. I had to re-register a public WeChat account and a Douban account. It was virtually impossible for me to publish an article, even if I switched out all of the sensitive words I could find. (I can post on Matters, but the majority of my readers aren’t on Matters.) I also felt a kind of “mental hypoxia.” The result of these invisible restrictions: my days of buying books in Hong Kong and having meetings in Taiwan are gone and will never come back. In terms of my writing, I feel as if one of my hands has been crippled.
After dealing with those officials, I had a very clear understanding of what they thought of me:
“You’re going to have to spend the rest of your life with your tail between your legs.”
I wasn’t satisfied with the book I published in 2016, but now I won’t have another opportunity, because no publisher will want to work with me. I can’t accept any non-governmental honors, I can’t accept any media interviews, I can’t lecture, and I can’t take part in a study group of any influence. All these things, commonplace for an intellectual, are now off-limits to me, unless I can bear the trouble I’d bring to my hosts. This explains why agents from a certain department quickly found me as my book was about to be published in New York in March. They demanded—threatened, for the first time—that I withdraw the pending publication. Any way I could extend my public life, they were going to find a way to strangle. Even outside China’s borders.
I call it “social death by imperial order.”
The scary thing about this “imperial order” is that you’ll never know how much influence it has on your life—even someone like me, who’s used to going their own way. When those personnel from a certain department came to discuss the publication of my new book, I actually had a date that night. They demanded I give them a truthful account of all my planned movements. I tried everything I could think of to avoid giving them the information they wanted. In the end, I managed not to tell them the truth. But when I met the girl, I painfully discovered that the “iron fist” had extended into my private life: I couldn’t keep myself from looking around, afraid they might be watching me nearby, afraid the nice girl in front of me would get a phone call after we parted ways. A few days later, I took the initiative to cut off contact with her, to protect the innocent.
This wasn’t the only time that politics has hurt my romantic life. One time, my date’s younger sister found out who I was and sent her older sister a bunch of information about me from Baidu, pleading with her to stay far away from “dangerous characters” such as myself. Another time, in the middle of our date, the woman suddenly said that the more she looked at me, the more familiar I seemed. Then she paused, looked down at her phone for awhile, glanced back up at my face, and came to a sudden realization—you’re that Hong Kong independence teacher! I wouldn’t dare touch a person like you.
As these situations pile up, they can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, whenever I hear someone call my name, whether at work or out on the street, I subconsciously feel like shrinking away. Just now I’ve realized, you’re wrong if you think that the administrative costs of maintaining the iron fist will eventually drag it down: any individual can act as an agent of the iron fist. Not only can they isolate you, they might also report you. Many of my friends use pseudonyms. I haven’t. As I often say, I stand by everything I do and write. Even though my reputation is mixed, I’ve been willing to stand by it all. But after the system set its sights on me and my name was tied to some unwarranted claims, it all became part of this intractable nightmare.
Though I’ve resigned to live within the firewall, the “poison” in the air is only getting thicker. I feel suffocated. Some of my fellow teachers have also been reported. Once the little pinks target someone, they all deploy, searching both sides of the firewall for evidence of “hating the country.” Wave after wave of people have been taken out, and the standards for evidence keeps dropping. In the beginning, perhaps it was that I sympathized with the Hong Kong anti-extradition movement, nothing more. Later, I criticized China’s system, pointed out some positives of how things are done in the United States and Japan, and expressed historical views inconsistent with mainland textbooks. These were all considered “hating the country.” Recently, I heard “Heroes in Harm’s Way” has given ammunition to the little pinks abroad (the TV drama has gotten criticized on Zhihu for offensive portrayals of the women involved in the fight against the pandemic). Before this, a friend with an influential public [WeChat] account had over 100,000 fans on Bilibili. He always spoke gently and cautiously inside the firewall. But because the little pinks found some things he said more freely to foreign media, all of his Chinese accounts were reported and summarily banned.
After the pandemic, I feel as though there are even fewer issues I can comment on. For one, from March onward, Western countries have performed very poorly in the fight against the pandemic. I’d go so far as to say they’ve harmed the reputation of “democracy.” The “George Floyd incident” has further exposed the deep-seated racial issues in American society. The U.S. has yet to show signs that it’s turning either of these crises around. My friends in the U.S., or those who have already integrated into American society, have more right than me to speak on these issues. Here in China, what people are talking most about is “U.S.-China decoupling.” I can imagine how harmful decoupling would be to those in “minority parties” (a label proposed by Zhang Jieping, which I prefer over “dissident”) and even to everyday people. But the situation is still unclear. I don’t want to deliberately offend anyone. Basically, there’s a reshuffling of multiple issues going on right now. A scholar should remain cautious in times like this.
In addition, among the activists I follow, division and difficulty has reached unprecedented levels. Since February, because of “labor disputes” between the women’s labor collective Jianjiao and staffer Wang Xiaohai, there has been a loosening of the alliance established over the past few years between pan-leftists and women’s rights groups. The situation has escalated into a “stand-off” between the two sides. In July, generational differences were exposed among women’s rights groups in North America over allegations of sexual harassment between two women. Heated discussions on Weibo resulted in certain individuals being subjected to online abuse. With the deepening of the #MeToo movement and the massive involvement of “Weibo women’s rights,” sexual harassment cases have become the “influencers” of public discussion. Faced with these controversies, some activists choose to avoid complications and criticism by making an early exit. Facing all this, I feel a sense of powerlessness.
“Liberalism is being abandoned by the times,” I can’t help but lament in my heart. Some of my liberal friends would disagree. They believe the trend is still towards liberal democracy—it’s just that there are some twists and turns, even a freeze, along the way. If you were talking about global trends, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. I’m just worried that the space for liberal democracy in China is shrinking. When I wrote “Examining the Formation of Public Culture from Three Waves of Criticism of the #MeToo Movement” two years ago, I saw that people in “minority parties” used the language of liberalism in their arguments. Now, that feels a world away. It seems there is more consensus around feminism now (though there is also more disagreement). Of the young academics I come across who are interested in philosophy and current affairs, I meet way more who call themselves “Marxists” than “liberals.” Among those who support the authorities, moderate voices have gradually receded, drowned out by the roar of those who believe that “if loyalty is not absolute, it’s absolute disloyalty.” For the average citizen, as the tension has increased between China and the outside world, their “enemy/friend awareness” has also intensified. Those familiar with history know that this line of thought can ravage a country. It’s only getting harder for liberalism to win over supporters.
To its detractors, the decline of liberalism has been self-inflicted. Some say Chinese liberalism, specifically, is to blame. According to nationalists, liberalism fails to connect with the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and offers no liberal plan for national wealth and power, so it doesn’t interest everyday Chinese. Leftists say that, when it comes down to it, liberalism represents the interests of capitalists and the middle class, turning a blind eye to the pain of the working people. Christians say that Chinese liberals fail to understand that the true essence of Western civilization lies in Christianity.
Perhaps all of these points make some sense. Putting aside the fact that these criticisms conflict with one another, even if liberalism were able to address all these points, it wouldn’t necessarily change the situation we’re in. Like I’ve said elsewhere, ideas have a “moment,” too—political ideas even more so. Liberalism was wiped out of China in the 1950s. What’s to keep that from happening again? Our generation of liberals are destined to suffer as support for our beliefs wanes.
The week that Xu Zhangrun was taken away, I went through many shifting mental states. Xu’s book “China’s Ongoing Crisis: Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog” is a collection of essays fiercely critical of the government, and is part of the same series as my book, “Political Affect and the Rebirth of Liberalism.” It’s been hard not to let his treatment make me feel like I’m next. On Twitter and newsletter groups, everyone rushed to campaign on his behalf. But there were also some people who speculated: Did Teacher Xu really get caught “buying love”? They went so far as to say that elite men who “buy love” don’t really deserve that much sympathy, even if they’re anti-authoritarian. I was livid when I first heard that, but gradually I became curious about this mentality. Perhaps this was an attempt to alleviate their inner powerlessness: because he’s privileged and he engaged in immoral behavior, we therefore are not obliged to support him. At the end of the day, this is not moral cleanliness; it is moral cowardice.
After going through two days of fear, anger, and struggle, I finally came to a sense of clarity. Perhaps the mission of our generation isn’t to fight for “one victory after another,” but rather to be like Mr. Xu—to defend our “integrity” while the regime humiliates us and the world turns its back on us, for the sake of those who will come after us. We don’t need to live like martyrs, ascetics or moralists. We just need to keep on living as liberals. If we continue to read, make money, have romantic relationships, exercise, maintain our physical and mental health, and smile, that would mark the greatest failure of the iron fist.
As long as liberalism sticks to humanity’s best values, what do we have to fear in the low tide? [Chinese]
Translation by Little Bluegill.