Being a Chinese who holds dissident views is weird. You face all kinds of stereotypes, from being antisocial to just a dangerous person. One accusation of character, however, stands out, and it is perhaps one that I am most afraid of: that I am an unpatriotic Chinese. As a Chinese studying abroad, this allegation is perhaps one that I am most insecure about. It is often a devastating punch too. No matter how eloquent I might be or how effective my arguments are, I need only make one tiny error in referring to “Hong Kong and mainland” as “Hong Kong and China,” and voila: I am a separatist, hence unpatriotic, hence invalid to talk anything about my homeland. It is with deep insecurity that I ask, who is a Chinese patriot?
Perhaps we should begin this conversation by asking the important corollary: Must all Chinese be Chinese patriots? The social norm in China appears to demand it. With heavy sentences for defacing national symbols and countless laws dedicated to preventing all kinds of unpatriotic actions — such as online chats that disrespected our military and the National Day Parade — it appears to be both a social and legal duty of every Chinese citizen to be also a Chinese patriot. Or at least to not be unpatriotic. Patriotism is not only a profession of ardent love for your country, but also is shown through actions, or at least the commitment to act. To be a Chinese patriot, one must be ready to do something for the country at the expense of oneself, and China certainly should not be a country that demands all of its citizens to sacrifice themselves for it. If patriotism is a duty, it is not even something that ought to be cherished. This is perhaps why we have such a rampant cheapening of the word “patriot” in China. Rich Chinese, who drive luxurious cars and wave Chinese flags all around the world, naturally think of themselves as patriots, for they think such profession of ardent, material love is enough to earn them the title. By posting patriotic messages on Weibo and WeChat, they somehow can become patriots, even having the authority to accuse others of not being patriotic. In the U.S., I have the privilege to witness the most extreme forms of this cheapening. People who wish to emigrate and become U.S. citizens (which in and of itself is not wrong at all) call me an unpatriotic American stooge. But by writing this column so publicly, I have already taken a small risk. One day I am determined to return home and be more directly involved in activism, even if such a path entails the utmost political danger. Indeed, if we didn’t demand that everybody must be a patriot, such an oxymoron may cease to exist.
Chinese patriots pledge to act and love China, but what is China? Given this year’s 70th anniversary of what many call “China,” is China then defined by its post-1949 communist leadership? If that is the case, we are certainly a very young country with history no richer than my grandmother, who herself is not older than a mere 70 years. Even Cornell’s relationship with China lasts longer than 70 years, for the first Chinese student at Cornell came to this institution 149 years ago. Even the great patriots who defended this motherland against the Japanese invasion died before the founding of this regime. Thus, is China the land — 9.6 million square kilometers of lustrous soil shaped like a mighty rooster, with every inch of it shall not be lost? This definition of China is perhaps what fuels the patriotic rage against many separatist — real or suspected — sentiments coming from all corners of China. From Xinjiang to Taiwan, Hong Kong to Tibet, the fear that this great land mass might be reduced suddenly justifies all kinds of actions. You can threaten military action, you can imprison and re-educate an entire ethnicity with “absolutely no mercy,” you can command police brutality to siege down college campuses. It is such a strong attachment to the so-called Chinaland that made some Chinese students to chant the horrifying slogan “留岛不留人” — “We can keep the island, but not its people.” How inhumane is that?
As a Chinese patriot myself, might I suggest an alternative definition of China: its people. The Chinese. Instead of an extreme attachment to the acreage, why not be attached to the 1.4 billion Chinese who hail from all kinds of backgrounds? The Chinese people are certainly not limited to the ethnic Hans. They include the Uighurs, Tibetans, Zhuang, Hui, Bizika and more. They include people both rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed. Most are agnostic, but many are Muslims, Christians and Bhuddists. If China is not its people, but only its land, what agency shall we Chinese even have? If anti-separatism is only a rabid belief in the integrity of the land, so much so that the nation can commit countless atrocities against its own people, what point is it to keep the land, if not only for a predatory desire for its resources? For me — a self-considered Chinese patriot — to love China and to sacrifice for it is to love its people. It means to be willing to sacrifice myself for them — both the Beijingnese and Uighurs, both Shanghainese and Hong Kong locals.
Indeed, A Chinese patriot should sympathize with and defend all of China’s people, for our love and action for the great China shall be embodied in what it actually is: the Chinese people. When our fellow Uighur brothers and sisters languish in re-education camps, it is China that languishes. When police tear gas and beat our fellow brothers and sisters in Hong Kong, it is China that is beaten up. When our fellow Chinese Muslims and Christians are suppressed in their practice of religion, it is China that is suppressed.
Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Poplar 杨 Sovereignty runs every other Wednesday this semester.