October 9, 2019

YANG | When Victims Become Perpetrators: The Human Condition of Chinese Students

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A report from The Sun yesterday adds ballast to what many had long suspected: that pro-Hong Kong materials are being vandalized on campus, with Snapchat screenshots suggesting that students were responsible for vandalizing stickers stuck to a footbridge railing. It harkens back to dark memories two years ago when pro-Tibet human rights posters on Arts Quad were similarly stolen. The repetition of such an act of grave immaturity and irresponsibility puts into question the conscience of those perpetrators, widening the chasm within the larger Chinese community between the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong people.

But one question lingers: why? Why would someone destroy materials meant to support those protesting an overbearing state? To understand this, you must first understand the human condition of Chinese students, especially Chinese students abroad.

As I highlighted in a previous column, the environment for Chinese students in the U.S. has grown increasingly hostile in recent years. Already, wild accusations of spying and harboring hardline communist ideologues have emerged in discussions among concerned members of the Cornell community. Though Chinese state-funded organizations do exist on campus, it is highly unlikely that any efforts in vandalization were pre-planned and well-thought-out. The suggestion that they are, however, may risk further alienation of the Chinese community. To let a few spoiled and privileged children ruin our community’s reputation is perhaps one of the greatest sources of my indignation towards this incident. On the other hand, to suggest that these individual perpetrators as mere bad apples and not representative of a general attitude, one that I intensely disagree with, will be ignoring the real issue at hand. Why do Chinese international students — many of whom come hoping to one day become American citizens, many of whom largely remain apolitical — become intensely nationalistic regarding Hong Kong and Tibet? Why do my fellow Chinese — many of whom at least understand and appreciate the need for free speech both at home and abroad, many of whom keenly aware of the injustice in China — become at this instance a natural extension of the oppressive machine?

Simply put: Why do victims become perpetrators?

The answer to this question is perhaps rather simple. A twisted, state-controlled “political correctness” haunts every single Chinese person in their meager attempts at political discussion, where the uncrossable red line is the notion of “anti-separatism.” Granted, every country has its own reasonable limits on speech that will invite contention. The determinants of such boundaries in a normal, liberal society will, however, be the public. Civil societies can shape these boundaries through a free press and an open exchange of ideas and information, whether that means heavily edited newspapers or free-ranging Twitter.

But in China, the all-encompassing state monopolizes all press and all information. Twitter, by the way, is banned. Just this week, at the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, several people got detained for up to a week because of their “unpatriotic and critical” posts on the tightly monitored Chinese social media. With the aid of a media environment completely under its control, ready to be used for propaganda at any point, Big Brother naturally becomes almost the sole arbiter of political correctness. Any dissent becomes “unpatriotic,” any local demand for autonomy becomes a “separatist.” To this day, the Five Demands of Hong Kong protesters have never called for an independent Hong Kong. Yet as long as the Central Government deems it a separatist movement,  every Chinese person — from the far corners of Mohe, Heilongjiang to Ithaca, New York — will shudder at the risk of being labeled as a “separatist sympathizer,” unpatriotic or, worse, an outcast. Once the state proclaimed certain political dissent as “separatist” and “unpatriotic,” many normal, apolitical Chinese engage in a knee-jerk reaction to defend the Motherland. Your columnist risks becoming such an outcast, though I would argue that by risking myself in writing a piece that concerns my fellow compatriot, I am indeed a patriot of China, perhaps more so than those sticker-removers. Victims indeed we are, we Chinese live almost in a state of collective Stockholm Syndrome.

In such a state of mental and physical oppression, why then do the sticker-removers, who we must remember are also victims, become perpetrators of suppression?

One potential answer that must be rejected is that they are believers of suppression of free speech, that somehow Chinese people hate freedom of speech. Just ask any international Chinese how frustrated they are when they have to use a VPN back home to access not only YouTube and Instagram, but even Cornell sites. Just ask how indignant they will be when their daily speech is shut down unreasonably in any circumstances. Just ask how fearful they are when invoking the one who shall not be named; I remember when a friend of mine who talked with me about our President intentionally lowered her voice, as if in Collegetown Ithaca there might be communist spies in the walls.

The reason, then, is rather simple. As a result of the “anti-separatist” kneejerk, the sticker, a political statement for the freedom of Hong Kong, becomes a personal affront in the perpetrators’ eye. If he had the opportunity to grow up in a free society, he would perhaps write a letter to the editor to The Sun, or host a pro-Chinese government protest on campus. Instead, being the victim as he is, growing up under a government that knows only one action in responding to his legitimate demand to be given more personal freedom, he naturally learns the only way to respond to dissent: to remove, to vandalize, to oppress.

Such then is the state of human condition of Chinese students. A person blindfolded by a warming red cloth gallantly smiles ahead, yet he cries.

Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Poplar Sovereignty runs every other Wednesday this semester.