I have a piece that was published on the thirty-first anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Beijing Spring on June 4, 1989. It’s in INHERITANCE Magazine.
As the editor notes, this piece was written and produced well before the events of the last week in the United States, where the uprising against police brutality, white supremacy, and anti-blackness due to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others has accelerated into a global protest movement for Black Lives Matter. The truth is that I wrote the piece a few months ago simply to get my thoughts down on my first childhood memory, which is Tiananmen (and which I’ve written about on my old blog in both 2018 and 2019). After a first draft, I got in touch with INHERITANCE, and as we discussed it, it became clear that part of the insight was that learning to feel the world through my body, which my aunties and uncles taught me at the Chinese Christian church where I spent my childhood, could have some things to say about the current pandemic.
Rewriting the piece, I sent it around to some friends and colleagues to see if that link was a stretch. It’s ultimately up to my readers to tell me if it works, but one item of feedback I received from a dear friend was that it was clear that my insights had been influenced by black womanist healers and that I had not acknowledged them. After some initial hesitation to introduce yet another dimension into this piece, I decided that it would be the ethical thing to do to cite black women. The fact that I had to wrestle with this demonstrates that I am implicated in the reflection on anti-blackness that is going on within Asian American communities the world over (‘Asian American’ is not an identity restricted to the United States, but indicative of the global export of American orientalism and its impacts on Asian bodies beyond the nation-state called ‘America’) and that the best work that I can be doing in this moment is not to point fingers at other Asians, but to work from within myself to overcome my internalized racism together with other people of good will.
In this way, this piece is ultimately about the womanist insight, which I learned from reading black writers whose writing intersects with what Alice Walker called ‘womanism,’ that our bodies are the site where wisdom about the world has to be rooted. This is as applicable to my first childhood memory of Tiananmen as it is my discernment about my relationship to the Chinese Christianity of my youth, how I feel about the current pandemic, and how to unwork Asian anti-blackness in this moment of consciousness where we cry together Black Lives Matter. I am especially thankful to my friends for reading my piece to discern what it was really about with me. Special thanks are owed to a new friend I made in the process, INHERITANCE Magazine‘s online editor Kristine Chong, whose incisive comments helped me feel the piece in relation to my body and the world more deeply.
This is my second contribution to INHERITANCE Magazine. My first concerned my conversion to Eastern Catholicism via Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.
Yesterday in The South China Morning Post, Ian Young did another spectacular job trying to suss out some of the intricacies of the trans-Pacific social field that we find in Vancouver. In this most recent article, he wrote on how some Chinese parents associated with the British Columbia Parents’ Federation (BCPF) protested the teacher’s union, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), for the strike that is finally starting to come to an end. Young reached out to me for a comment, and this is what I noted about the BCPF:
Dr Justin Tse, an academic who has studied activism within the British Columbia Chinese community, said that although the BCPF’s desire to get children back in class was shared with other opponents of the strike, there was also a strong undercurrent of anti-unionism in general that ran through the protests.
“My sense is that there is a view that unions disrupt business, and most Chinese migrants have this view that unions get in the way of the free market,” said Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington. “For them, it’s not really just the educational stuff – it’s the union stuff.”
The BCPF has garnered supporters via Chinese-language social media, and the couple of dozen members at Sunday’s protests all appeared ethnically Chinese. The federation has attempted to widen its outreach to non-Chinese parents, but these efforts appear to have been aborted, for now. A Facebook page and an English-language website seeking new BCPF members were visible on Sunday, but were taken offline that night.
“A lot [of Chinese immigrants] are kind of scared of public protest,” said Tse. “They want the media to capture their numbers at a protest, but they don’t want to be singled out as individuals, so you get the face mask thing. You can’t really have it both ways, but that is the sentiment.”
Tse said conservative Chinese political activism in BC was informed by “a specific vision of democracy” that focused on majority rule alone, without emphasising some of its other aspects, such as deliberation, consensus and accountability.
“There is this sense that democracy means you get to say your private views in public, no matter how outrageous, because that’s free speech, and that it is all about getting numbers,” said Tse. “This view is that democracy just means majority wins, majority rules.”
My comments here need to be read in conversation with a piece that I wrote on my blog, Religion Ethnicity Wired, arguing that the constitutional issues swirling around the BCTF strike provide a remarkable mirror to the democratic movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace. This is because what I said there qualifies what Ian Young and I talked about in relation to Chinese immigrants.
The impression that I do not want the public to get is that there is something about this nebulous term Chinese culture that is against labour unions, public protest, and deliberative democracy. Such a statement would not only be irresponsible — it would be empirically unsubstantiated. After all, if that were the argument, then movements such as the May Fourth Movement, the Beijing Spring of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, and the recent democratic movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong would have to be marked as un-Chinese. As Craig Calhoun insists in Neither Gods Nor Emperors, it would be more accurate to say that these democratic movements constitute a strand of Chinese tradition. So too, Asian American author Frank Chin observes in his novel Donald Duk that even Confucian concepts like ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ are a de facto form of democratic consciousness because it is a term that can be deployed by the people to criticize unjust power.
However, it is true that many of those associated with the BCPF were ethnic Chinese — its spokespeople seem to be Putonghua-speaking, and as their name suggests, they represent parents. Here, I also rejected the discourse of the ‘tiger parent’: Amy Chua’s essentialist caricature of Asian American (and Asian Canadian) parenting has simply reinforced notions of the ‘model minority’ that should have been put to bed in the late 1960s right where it started. This is not to deny that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians themselves take on the discourse of the ‘model minority’ as an identity statement — indeed, my work explores that at an ethnographic level — but using the ‘model minority’ as an essentialist explanation for Chinese parental behaviour stops the conversation at several points. First, it conveniently isolates Chinese parents from the general population, blinding us to how Chinese parents are saying some of the similar things as even Anglo-Canadians. The second is that it doesn’t get at the specific undercurrents that make up the discourse of the ‘model minority.’
What I’ve done here is to try to listen to what these parents are actually saying. They agree with the general population that the BCTF strike has crippled education in BC. However, while public opinion has been turning against the BC Liberal Government for its flouting of the Canadian constitution and the bargaining rights of the teachers, these parents are placing the blame squarely on the teachers for striking and thus using collective bargaining as a bullying tactic that has put their kids out of school. This sounded a lot like my dissertation research, in which conversations about the BCTF in 2011 (well before this set of strikes) quickly led into discussions of how a variety of labour unions tended to obstruct the free market.
Moreover, it sounded a lot like how many of my interview subjects and focus group participants wanted to participate in public protests, but were shy about having their pictures taken or being interviewed by the press. When members of the public engaged them in debate, they tended to see this as an attack on their freedom of speech instead of an opportunity for public deliberation. Their goal, as they told me, was to build an awareness that the majority in fact supported their positions because that was the point of democracy.
While this could be called ‘Chinese’ in some senses of the word, I prefer to think of it as part of a debate about the relationship between Chineseness and democracy. After all, while such majoritarian and non-deliberative arguments about the nature of democracy certainly comprise one faction in Greater Chinese and trans-Pacific contentions about democracy, there are movements as old as the 1970s — and dare I say, even the May Fourth Movement in 1919 — that advocated for a more deliberative form of democracy that also pays attention to minority rights. In other words, there is a political spectrum among ethnic Chinese views on democracy, and the BCPF represents one strand in a larger conversation. I was asked about the BCPF, so I answered along the lines of what the BCPF represented. But you have to read my blog post on Religion Ethnicity Wired to get the catch on what I said.
In short, I am very happy that Ian Young got me on record about the BCPF. As always, I enjoy my collegial relationship with journalists like Ian who are at the top of their craft. This incident certainly was of public interest in Vancouver, as well as in the trans-Pacific social field, and I look forward to this conversation piece doing what it’s intended to do — engender more conversation!
I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area since 4 June 2011 and will be here until 19 July 2011. I am continuing to conduct field work for my PhD project on Cantonese-speaking evangelicals, their conceptions of civil society, and their engagement in society and politics.
I am interested in the following things (although this list is by no means exhaustive):
Chinese Christian engagement in local neighborhood politics and social services, including advocacy for the marginalized, entrepreneurial work, and inter-Christian cooperation
Engagement with the perceived secularism of San Francisco
The issue of same-sex marriage and other family values politics (including anti-gambling activism)
Demographic shifts within Chinese Christian communities
Interactions between Chinese mainline Protestant groups and Chinese evangelical groups, including the similarities and differences of their engagement with society and politics
Chinatown Christian political and social activism
Activism around the 1989 Tiananmen incident
Comparisons among the City, the East Bay, and the South Bay
Engagement with American politics, especially self-identifications with Democrat and Republican
Engagement with the People’s Republic of China
If you’d like to be interviewed for this project or know of any leads related to these issues, please contact me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am participating as moderator at the Richmond Art Gallery for a panel discussion on Gu Xiong’s Waterscapes on 28 October 2010 at 7:30 PM. Our panel discussion is titled Swimming the River.
Gu Xiong’s artistic work focuses on the hybrid identities that come from a migrant experience. He is himself a migrant from Sichuan who sought political refuge in Canada after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. He makes his home base at the University of British Columbia, and his work has been internationally displayed.
Tonight’s discussion features Gu Xiong himself discussing his work, Parm Grewal from Richmond Multicultural Concerns Society speaking about her work on migrant settlement and anti-racism, and Dr. Glenn Deer from UBC English speaking about migration and hybridity in literature. I will also speak on my own work in the transnational Hongkonger Christian church as well as the collaborative project on No. 5 Road (the ‘Highway to Heaven’) in Richmond. The question we address is: what happens when large numbers of people migrate around the world? a question particularly relevant to Richmond, British Columbia, with its 61% visible minority population as of the 2006 Canadian census and its famed 43% Chinese population that has propelled its image as a Chinese ethnoburb.
Admission is free. The Gallery opens at 7 PM, and the event starts at 7:30 PM.