Author Alison Zhao talks about feminism in her native China, Hong Kong protests, and how Taiwan shaped her destiny
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Chinese journalist and author Alison Zhao knows that her nonfiction book, Her Battles, is controversial.
Written in traditional Chinese script, it tells the story of five women in China who reflect different areas of activism within civil society over the past 30 years.
In a phone interview with the Straight from Washington, D.C., where she's studying for her master's degree, Zhao said that the five women represent liberal intellectual activism, human rights law, nongovernmental organizations, netizens, and grassroots activism.
It includes a great deal of coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, which was crushed by the People's Liberation Army.
The book also pays significant attention to the Charter 08 democracy movement, which led to the jailing of Liu Xiaobo. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize before dying in prison in 2017.
"There are lots of famous male activists serving as supporting figures in the stories," the 28-year-old Guangzhou-raised writer said.
But she never expected that the most intense challenge to her book would come at a public reading in Toronto.
"It was not a very big event," Zhao noted, "but there were people who were arguing that it's actually the U.S. trying to take over the world—it's the CIA paying the students in Tiananmen Square and paying the people in Hong Kong."
Ironically, it occurred at a TaiwanFest event in Toronto, where dissent against Chinese government orthodoxy is routinely discussed.
She had already given 50 or 60 public talks in Taiwan about the book.
"It's just very interesting," Zhao said. "I guess it's a critical moment for Canada to figure how to understand this situation in Hong Kong and, you know [with] things like Huawei."
She has won the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award six times, as well as the Hong Kong Renaissance Award for her book.
On Monday (September 2), Zhao is scheduled to give a free "Hope Talk" at 3:15 p.m. in CBC Studio 700 as part of the Vancouver TaiwanFest celebration.
Taiwan sparked Zhao's love of journalism
The organizers invited Zhao because Taiwan has played such a critical role in shaping her life.
As a child, she said that had exposure to the Hong Kong media because TV signals reached Guangzhou, which is not far away in southern China.
"The Hong Kong media loved to report on Taiwan's presidential election," Zhao said. "So I got the whole idea of democratic elections before I even knew the difference between Hong Kong and China and Taiwan.
"I thought I was in a democratic system when I was super young," she continued. "And I thought, like, freedom of speech or politics or elections is just normal things."
Zhao said she only realized that she was living in an "authoritarian state" when she went to college.
She went on a six-month study program to Taiwan in 2011 and 2012, which coincided with a Taiwanese presidential election.
Zhao covered it for a Hong Kong media outlet, and became hooked on news reporting.
"Before I experienced journalism in China, actually, I experienced the journalism in Taiwan," she revealed.
Her Battles was published in Taiwan several years later. And it was from Taiwan where Zhao applied for and received a visa to attend Georgetown University.
She's just entered her second year in the school's master of science in foreign service program.
Zhao acknowledged that had she applied from China, she might not have been allowed to study in the United States.
To her, Taiwan gave her many things—the opportunity to pursue a career in journalism, get her book published, study abroad, and be recognized as a writer.
"I'm not planning to immigrate to the U.S. or Canada or anywhere else," Zhao emphasized. "I'm actually going back to China after my graduation."
She also returned to China after her period as an exchange student in Taiwan ended in 2012.
At that time, Zhao continued working as a journalist in China, covering social movements.
This brought her in contact with leading female activists, including Ai Xiaoming, who is the character in Her Battles representing intellectual activism.
"I believe she is the most important female intellectual in China," Zhao said.
Zhao admitted that when she was working on her book in China, she kept this secret because she worried what people might think.
Ai Xiaoming became face of feminism in China
Ai is a documentary maker and retired professor who came up with the name "Charter 08" while sitting at the same table as Liu Xiaobo.
Ai also won the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women's Freedom in 2010 after introducing theories of feminist education into China.
But she may be most famous in the West for bearing her breasts in public at the age of 60 to protest sexual predation of children and to call for the release of another women's-rights activist, Ye Haiwan.
According to Zhao, Ai translated books on feminism into Chinese after learning about this subject while in Tennessee.
Zhao said that one reason for her inclusion in the book is that she was a classmate of Liu in a PhD program, with both graduating in the same year.
But the two Chinese intellectuals had sharply different paths through life prior to getting to know one another.
Zhao said that Ai's family suffered enormously during the Cultural Revolution, which was a Mao Zedong–inspired sociopolitical movement that caused tremendous upheaval from 1966 to 1976.
Educated people and senior party officials were sent off to prison, forced to work in rural areas, and obliged to confess to crimes against the state. These purges and a rash of executions were intended to publicly humiliate those who were perceived to be part of the bourgeoisie and to send a message not to resist Mao's rule.
Chinese president Xi Jinping's family was also ostracized during those years—his sister died and his father was only rehabilitated when Deng Xiaoping assumed power.
The family of Liu, on the other hand, did not suffer much, according to Zhao, because his parents were on the faculty of military colleges, which were associated with the Communist Party.
As a result, Liu didn't feel as much fear of the state when he went to speak to students in Tiananmen Square and publicly supported them in 1989 in advance of the massacre on June 3 and 4 of that year.
Liu ended up being imprisoned on three occasions from 1989 to 1999 for his political activities.
Ai was apolitical in 1989, Zhao said, because she knew from her family's history during the Cultural Revolution that being political in China could lead to disaster.
"But she supported the students when necessary," Zhao added.
Opening came in pre-Olympics period
However, after 2003 the Chinese government started sending messages that it was acceptable to participate in social movements.
That led Ai into this world because she had become enlightened about feminism, Zhao said.
"So an apolitical female intellectual in 1989 and her [former] classmate, Liu Xiaobo, the most famous guy during that time...in 2008 are sitting at the same table discussing what the name should be for Charter 08," Zhao said. "Very fascinating."
But those wanting more freedom knew they might have a narrow window of opportunity.
China was hosting the Olympics in 2008, which meant that the eyes of the world would be on the emerging economic giant.
This led to disagreements among the reformers about the direction that their activism should take.
Zhao said that in the West, there's a tendency to look upon human rights activists in China in that period as heroes, almost as if they were like Superman, because they were making such sacrifices.
In fact, she said that it was far more complicated than that. And these two-dimensional portrayals miss their humanity—that they were ordinary people, ordinary couples, lovers with families, et cetera.
They sometimes felt fear. On other occasions, they misread the situation.
"They had illusions about democracy, that it is coming, maybe soon," Zhao said. "So there was a lot of misjudgment and bad feelings."
She also emphasized that it's not as if the activists are especially clever and that the rest of the Chinese public is easily brainwashed by the government into loving their country.
"The people who say things like 'they're just accepting authoritarian rule very happily'—actually, they fight," Zhao said. "They fight a lot. They fight fears. They sacrifice a lot."
China's lessons washed over Hong Kong
According to Zhao, the people of Hong Kong have paid close attention to what's happened to reformers in China over the past three decades since the Tiananmen Square uprising.
She said that this has informed how they're responding in their 13-week protest.
It was initially triggered by an extradition bill that would allow some Hong Kong residents to be tried in China.
Since then, it has expanded into five demands:
* complete withdrawal of the extradition bill;
* retract describing the protests as "riots";
* release and exonerate people arrested during the upheaval;
* establish a independent commission into the conduct of the Hong Kong police;
* Carrie Lam resigns as Hong Kong's chief executive followed by the introduction of universal suffrage.
"I do think Hong Kongers are being strategic, actually," Zhao stated.
She thinks that the peaceful camp of demonstrators are tolerating some who are employing violence, sometimes in very targeted ways, because of what they've seen over 30 years of crackdowns within mainland China.
At the same time, Zhao sees stark differences between the current situation and what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Thirty years ago, China's economy wasn't very large and there wasn't a big financial risk in sending the People's Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square.
Now, she believes that China's president, Xi Jinping, has much more to lose than Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping did 30 years ago when they ordered in the tanks to suppress student demonstrators.
That's because if a crackdown on Hong Kong has a major effect on the standard of living in China, it could weaken Xi's position.
So he's been reluctant to take action along the lines of what happened in 1989.
She suggested that an economic crisis could also conceivably affect the stability of his regime and the durability of the Chinese Communist Party.
"There actually will be a very devastating shock in the Chinese economy," Zhao predicted if there ever is a military move into Hong Kong. "Then it's hard to say. If the economy suddenly gets shocked, what will happen inside mainland China?"