How Can China’s People Demand Freedom if We Can’t Even Say It?

One morning last November, I woke up to a stirring sight: video clips of young protesters in several Chinese cities singing, shouting and chanting for an end to the oppressive “zero Covid” policy that China had adhered to during the pandemic. I’m 31. Never in my life had I seen my fellow Chinese citizens stand up to the government on such a scale and with such determination.

I marveled at their courage, but a sense of disquiet crept in: The protests made clear just how thoroughly censorship, propaganda and the government’s iron grip on all discourse had stunted a generation’s ability to express itself.

The demonstrations are best remembered for the blank sheets of paper held by many protesters. It was a clever way to avoid trouble: making a statement without actually saying anything. But to me those empty sheets also visually, and literally, represented how my generation is losing its voice, perhaps even control of its own language.

The Communist Party’s monopoly on all channels of expression has helped prevent the development of any resistance language in Mandarin, especially since 1989, when the brutal military suppression of the Tiananmen Square student movement demonstrated what happens to those who speak out. If language shapes the way we think, and most people think only in their own language, how can China’s youth conjure up an effective and lasting resistance movement with words that they don’t have?

The problem isn’t the Chinese language itself. “Freedom,” “rights,” “democracy” — these exist in Mandarin, as in nearly every language. They are universal values. Both the May Fourth Movement in 1919 — a student-led uprising against Western colonial encroachment on China and the incompetence of Chinese leaders — and the student movement in 1989 weaponized Mandarin in both long-form writing and short slogans. But decades of censorship and fear of violating it have made Chinese people scared to even think with such words, let alone speak or write with them.

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Me included.

In 2020, while I was working in the tightly controlled Chinese film industry, producers rejected a screenplay I had written about an unmarried woman’s failed efforts to freeze her eggs. Many Chinese women want to preserve their eggs for fertilization later in life, but China in effect bars single women from doing so. My script would never pass the censors, the producers told me, because it challenged national policy. During my six years working in Chinese film, I saw dozens of other projects, some of them my own, get killed for similar reasons. Fed up with having to avoid homosexuality, feminism, and other topics that are considered too sensitive, I decided to write fiction, which I hoped would grant me more freedom.

In late 2020, I sat down to write my first short story. It was inspired by a Central Park vigil for Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was reprimanded by Chinese authorities after warning in December 2019 of a then little-known virus spreading in the city. Dr. Li died a few weeks later after contracting Covid and was mourned by many Chinese as a heroic truth-teller.

But I found myself not able to write the story in Mandarin, not only because I knew that mention of Dr. Li’s name had been made taboo, but because I realized that I would have to self-censor. I couldn’t even imagine what the story would look like in my own language: I had never read a piece of contemporary Mandarin literature that engaged with Chinese politics directly and critically.

Millions of Chinese must get creative to avoid censorship when expressing themselves. This has spawned an entire lexicon of euphemisms used to refer to sensitive topics. The MeToo movement, for example, becomes “Mitu,” or “Rice Bunny,” online (“mi” is Mandarin for “rice”; “tu” means “bunny”). Often, the government ends up censoring such phrases once it realizes their meaning. But new ones are constantly being invented.

Censorship determines what we can’t say. Propaganda provides what we can, and has seeped into the speech patterns of ordinary people. I live in the United States now. Last fall, during a video call with my mother back in China, I lamented how we had not seen each other for three years. I blamed the “zero Covid” policy, and told her that I missed her. She replied that the government’s decisions were always correct because it knows what’s best for the majority of the people. I was selfish to view the pandemic as a matter between the two of us, she went on. We needed to do everything we could for the good of the country.

It broke my heart that my mother was unwilling, perhaps unable, to admit that she missed me, too, and that the government might be responsible for our separation. In that moment, she no longer possessed a private language; she had let partyspeak infiltrate her most intimate relationship. Many of my friends have experienced similar generational schisms. One told me she would no longer argue with her parents. I said the same. We would self-censor, once again, to prevent the Communist Party from tearing apart our families.

Sadly, Chinese authorities are detaining those who dared speak out in November. If the Chinese language could be spoken uncensored, if people could think in Mandarin unafraid, seismic change might follow. If the Communist Party were stripped of its monopoly on language, the narratives that the party uses to justify its ruling legitimacy would crumble. Like the language provided by the May Fourth Movement and the 1989 demonstrations, we desperately need to find a new language to represent our reality today and to imagine a radically different future.

Before his death, Dr. Li reportedly said that “a healthy society should not have just one voice.” But words that go unused, and ideas that are no longer contemplated, face oblivion. The question for my Chinese generation, and those that follow, is not just whether they will make their voices heard, but whether they can find the words.

Mengyin Lin (@m_mengyin) is a writer who was born and raised in Beijing. She is working on a short story collection about China’s “one child” generation and a novel set in a Beijing boarding school.

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