My name is Zhang Jing*. I am a student in my mid-20s from mainland China, and I have spent most of this year locking down in the UK, alone and away from family. Since the coronavirus began spreading across China, I’ve spent hours every day scanning the latest news on Chinese social media.
I became used to waking up and falling asleep to countless messages: pleas for help from healthcare workers running out of PPE; posts from families desperately trying to find hospitals that will treat loved ones who have tested positive for the virus; videos of people crying after their family members have died from it; and other tragic posts. Many posts were quickly deleted by censors.
As the months went by, I saw that more and more posts that were not politically sensitive were censored – and I became increasingly frustrated. I was furious after Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who tried to warn fellow doctors about the coronavirus, died from the virus in February and news of his death was heavily censored.
Li tried to warn fellow doctors about the coronavirus in December, but was silenced by police. His death led to an anti-censorship movement online, with many posting the hashtag #IWantFreedomofSpeech.
When we see people making posts about the death of loved ones, we want to be able to mourn and cry for them. But officials want to hide the news from us.
When the Chinese embassy sent me and other overseas students health kits with masks, wipes and other supplies, I was very touched. I wrote a post on social media thanking them, and I honestly felt so grateful. I have moments when I think that I love my homeland and can’t bear to be away from it. But I also think we should have the right to criticise –not only praise – the government.
In China, every social media account is linked to the user’s identity number and phone number. The government has a sophisticated system for tracking people. I’m fully aware of this and so I usually don’t post much about politics. Even when I do, I tend not to use strong language, and will counteract critical posts with ones that praise the Chinese Communist Party.
Some of my friends in the UK create multiple dummy accounts so they can voice their opinions without fear. But a lot of overseas students just stay silent. I don’t know how many are critical of the government. Many seem to appreciate China’s positive aspects, especially after seeing how terribly the US and British governments have handled the virus.
I’m not against the Chinese government. I don’t want to harm it. I just want it to be better. They need to take responsibility for their mistakes.
I don’t feel safer in London than in China. I don’t think I would join any protests. I would worry that there are spies watching and I would be targeted when I go back home.
I think the Chinese government is too scared of criticism. They’re putting so much pressure on our whole generation. I feel very confused. I don’t understand how even issues like feminism have become politically sensitive in recent years.
The political situation has made me want to stay in the UK. But there are many problems here too. Earlier this year, I experienced my first verbal racist attack while walking home from the grocery shop with my mask on.
I also don’t really like to discuss my views on China with Westerners. I think many of them are brainwashed by Western media and only focus on the negative aspects of our government.
The coronavirus has changed my whole world. Now, I carry this anger inside me all the time. I’ve never had so many fights in my life. But I plan to keep speaking out, while also trying to take better care of my mental health. I think it’s too important. We can’t just stay silent
* Not her real name.
[As told to Jessie Lau]
Over the past few years, the Chinese government turned its attention to policing the behaviour of Chinese citizens outside of China. Twitter and FaceBook are already banned inside the country. As a result, many Chinese citizens abroad are reluctant to criticize the government as they fear that they or their families will face repercussions back home and many engage in self-censorship and policing the behaviour of others. In November, a Chinese student from Chengdu studying at Edinburgh University came under a cyber attack after supporting the Hong Kong protests. A photograph of him went viral on the Chinese social media site, Weibo, along with the comment: “Brothers from Chengdu, beat him to death.” Recently, China’s ambassador to the UK told Chinese students to “serve your motherland” while at universities in the UK. His comments sparked alarm over China’s influence on British campuses, which currently accommodate approximately 120,000 Chinese students.