Migrants are creating an alternative China, one bookstore at a time

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in central Tokyo, about 50 Chinese people crowded into a drab, gray office that doubled as a bookstore. They came to a seminar about Qiu Jin, a Chinese poet and feminist revolutionary who was beheaded more than a century ago for plotting to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

Like them, Ms. Qiu had lived as an immigrant in Japan. The title of the conference, “Rebuilding China in Tokyo,” said as much about the aspirations of the people in the room as it did about Ms. Qiu’s life.

Public discussions like this used to be common in China’s big cities, but over the past decade they have become increasingly stifled. The Chinese public is discouraged from organizing and participating in civic activities.

Last year, a new kind of Chinese public life emerged, outside China’s borders, in places like Japan.

“With so many Chinese moving to Japan,” said Li Jinxing, a human rights lawyer who organized the event in January, “there is a need for a place where people can vent, share their grievances and then think about what to do next.” Li himself moved to Tokyo from Beijing last September over concerns about his safety. “People like us have a mission to drive China’s transformation,” he said.

From Tokyo and Chiang Mai, Thailand, to Amsterdam and New York, members of the Chinese diaspora are building public lives that are prohibited in China and training to be civic-minded citizens—the kind of Chinese the Communist Party doesn’t want. be. They are opening Chinese bookstores, holding seminars and organizing civic groups.

These emigrants are creating an alternative China, a more hopeful society. In the process, they are redefining what it means to be Chinese.

Four Chinese bookstores opened in Tokyo last year. A monthly feminist open-mic comedy show that began in New York in 2022 was so successful that feminists in at least four other U.S. cities, plus London, Amsterdam, and Vancouver, British Columbia, are hosting similar shows. Chinese immigrants in Europe established dozens of nonprofits focused on LGBTQ, protests and other issues.

Most of these events and organizations are not overtly political or aimed at trying to overthrow the Chinese government, although some participants hope to one day return to a democratic China. But the immigrants who organize them say they believe it is important to learn to live without fear, to trust each other and to pursue a life of purpose.

Too many Chinese, even after leaving, feared the government for years to attend public events that were not aligned with the dominant rhetoric of the Communist Party.

But in 2022, the White Paper protests that broke out in China to oppose the country’s pandemic restrictions sparked demonstrations in other countries. People realized that they were not alone and began to look for like-minded people.

Yilimai, a young professional who has lived in Japan for a decade, said that since the 2022 protests he had been organizing and participating in protests and seminars in Tokyo.

Last June, he attended a talk I gave about my Chinese-language podcast, “I Don’t Understand,” and was surprised to discover that he was among about 300 people. (I was surprised, too. Who would want to listen to a journalist talk about his podcast?) She said she had met and kept in touch with about a dozen people at the event.

“Participating in public life is a virtue in itself,” said Yilimai, who used his online nickname because he feared government retaliation. It means “a grain of wheat,” a biblical reference to the resurrection.

China once had, in the 2000s and early 2010s, what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called a public sphere. Authorities left room for lively, if censored, public conversation alongside state-sanctioned cultural and social life.

In bookstores in large Chinese cities, “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville and “The Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Hayek were best sellers. A book club in Beijing started by Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate magnate, attracted China’s leading businessmen, intellectuals and officials. Shanghai Pride, an annual celebration of LGBTQ rights, attracted thousands of participants. Feminist activists organized movements such as “occupy the men’s bathrooms” and the official media covered them as progressive forces. Independent films, documentaries, and underground magazines explored topics that the Communist Party disliked but tolerated: history, sexuality, and inequality.

In the decade after Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the country in late 2012, all of these initiatives were crushed. Investigative journalists lost the means to do their work, human rights lawyers were imprisoned or disbarred, and bookstores were forced to close their doors. Ren Zhiqiang, the real estate magnate who founded the book club, is serving 18 years in prison for criticizing Mr. Xi. Non-governmental organization organizers and LGBTQ and feminist activists were harassed, silenced, or forced into exile.

In turn, increasing numbers of Chinese have fled their home country, its government and its propaganda to places that allowed them freedom. They can now connect with each other and offer platforms for Chinese people at home and abroad to communicate and imagine a different future.

Anne Jieping Zhang, a mainland-born journalist who worked in Hong Kong for two decades before moving to Taiwan during the pandemic, opened a bookstore in Taipei in 2022. She opened a branch in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last December and plans to open it . in Tokyo and Amsterdam this year.

“I want my bookstore to be a place where Chinese people from all over the world can come and exchange ideas,” Ms. Zhang said.

His bookstore, called Nowhere, issues Republic of Nowhere passports to its valued customers, who are called citizens, not members.

Nowhere’s Taipei branch held 138 events last year. The Chiang Mai branch held about 20 events in its first six weeks. The topics were very varied: war, feminism, protests in Hong Kong and cities and relationships. I spoke at both branches about my podcast.

Ms. Zhang said she didn’t want her bookstores to be just for dissidents and young rebels, but for any Chinese person who was curious about the world.

“What matters is not what you oppose but what kind of life you want,” he said. “If the Chinese or the Chinese diaspora cannot rebuild a society in places without top-down restrictions, even if we undergo a regime change, we will definitely not be able to lead a better life.”

Ms. Zhang and Mr. Li, the human rights lawyer better known by his pseudonym, Wu Lei, said Chinese émigrés were very different from their predecessors in the 1980s, who were mostly economic migrants. The new emigrants are in better conditions and better educated. They care about their financial well-being as well as their sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

Both Ms. Zhang and Mr. Li started their companies with their own money. Monthly rent for Mr. Li’s roughly 700-square-foot space, which he uses primarily for events, is about $1,300. He said he could afford it.

Ms. Zhang, currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is subsidizing the Chiang Mai branch with her savings. The Taipei branch made a profit last year. A growing source of income is shipping books to Chinese people around the world.

On the same Saturday in January that the seminar was being held at Mr. Li’s bookstore in Tokyo, eight young Chinese sat around a dining table in the home of a Japanese professor to discuss the Taiwan elections that took place at the end of last week. They have been meeting at public and private events since last year.

“We are preparing for the democratization of China,” said Umi, a graduate student who moved to Japan in 2022 and participated in the White Paper protests. “We need to ask ourselves,” she said, “if the Chinese Communist Party collapses tomorrow, are we prepared to be good citizens?”

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