Writing About China Begins and Ends with the Chinese People

Writing About China Begins and Ends with the Chinese People
Shanghai residents cheer and pose for photos near midnight on the eve of the lifting of a COVID-19 lockdown, May 31, 2022 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).
China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China, but the degree to which that description fulfills its promise is a wildly varying, fluid story that remains open to debate. Chinese politics and culture, in all their ramifications, nonetheless begin with the Chinese people, who bear the full weight both of their government’s policies and the xenophobia of assumptions that because they are Chinese citizens, they are by default agents of the Chinese state. Chinese citizens are varied and complex, just like people in any country or corner of the globe. They can be prone to displays of nationalism, but they can also rebel against authority in unexpected ways, including, for example, by translating a censored interview of a whistleblower doctor from Wuhan into Wingdings. And perhaps most importantly, Chinese people are not a monolith. Their speech may be censored, but they remain far from unified in the way they consume news, form opinions on societal issues and think about the future of their country, to say nothing of the world at large. I am taking over authorship of World Politics Review’s China Note newsletter at a turbulent time in U.S.-China relations, while being based in Washington, D.C., and navigating the third year of the coronavirus pandemic as a Wuhan-born U.S. citizen. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke recently of a new plan to “invest, align and compete” as part of Washington’s strategy to advance a vision for what it calls “an open, inclusive international system.” This is important, of course—but at the same time, China’s relationship with the U.S. extends well beyond what its leaders expect from one another and the mutual distrust at the diplomatic and military levels.

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Meanwhile, Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy is showing signs of loosening its grip on Shanghai and other major economic and high-population corridors of China. Many communities have experienced long periods of lockdown, subjecting them to mass quarantines and drenching them in disinfectant even as tensions grow at the upper echelons of the Communist Party. At a recent teleconference, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered frank comments on the effect of pandemic containment measures on the economy, despite Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s insistence that the party stay the course on implementing mass quarantines, coronavirus tests and isolation periods. In the U.S., meanwhile, as the first national Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month came to an end, Huawei’s U.S. subsidiary posted this message on its Twitter account:

“Stop AAPI Hate”

How about stop accusing us of stealing IP because we have a Chinese heritage? As a matter of fact, we rank No. 5 in US Patents. While the tweet itself appears clumsy when examined as a piece of propaganda, it aptly gestures toward an identity problem that the U.S. and China are often grappling with or attempting to co-opt to suit their respective ideological ends. Since neither country particularly wants to take responsibility for the rising tide of violence against Chinese Americans and others of East Asian ancestry, each instead tries to weaponize the violent incidents as a cudgel against its rival. Beijing generally frames anti-Asian American sentiment and violence as a story of Sinophobia. U.S. rebuttals of this narrative tend to brush these accusations off while pivoting toward nebulous ideals of racial diversity and community. A more extreme variant frames Sinophobia as an overblown phenomenon whipped up by Beijing itself. But whatever the ideological motivations of Washington and Beijing, violence and xenophobia remain pressing concerns for Chinese people, both within China and in its diasporas, which mostly lack the resources of a behemoth telecommunications firm like Huawei, and largely fight alone against anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment. My approach to reading and interpreting political developments in China digs into the root causes of policy issues. Forthcoming newsletters will explore topics like the relations between China’s central and regional governments and their effects on trade; the cultural valuation of biological children and its impact on LGBTQ rights in China; and the need to build a domestic social safety net for older citizens. These discussions are intended to inform and educate, and I aspire to learn alongside readers, as well as my colleagues at WPR and beyond. Good policy insights need not be limited to Washington, even though it is the nerve center of foreign policy development and analysis in the United States. For good measure, insightful analysis of Chinese politics should also not be restricted to the halls of Beijing’s Zhongnanhai compound. It also occurs in warehouses, locked-down college campuses, prisons and the vast waters of the South China Sea. Finally, production of this newsletter is by no means a one-person effort, and I appreciate WPR associate editor Chris Ogunmodede’s editorial input during these weekly emails. I welcome feedback, comments and questions, and hope to begin many productive conversations in my time as the author of the China Note newsletter.

Rui Zhong is the writer of World Politics Review’s China Note. She works as a program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she conducts programming and research on U.S.-China diplomatic and cultural relations. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, WIRED magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the MIT Technology Review. She can be found on Twitter at @rzhongnotes.  

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