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Émigrés Are Creating an Alternative China, One Bookstore at a Time

by Isabella Walker
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On a rainy Saturday afternoon in central Tokyo, 50 or so Chinese people packed into a gray, nondescript office that doubles as a bookstore. They came for a seminar about Qiu Jin, a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who was beheaded more than a century ago for conspiring to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

Like them, Ms. Qiu had lived as an immigrant in Japan. The lecture’s title, “Rebuilding China in Tokyo,” said as much about the aspirations of the people in the room as it did about Ms. Qiu’s life.

Public discussions like this one used to be common in big cities in China but have increasingly been stifled over the past decade. The Chinese public is discouraged from organizing and participating in civic activities.

In the past year, a new type of Chinese public life has emerged — outside China’s borders in places like Japan.

“With so many Chinese relocating to Japan,” said Li Jinxing, a human rights lawyer who organized the event in January, “there’s a need for a place where people can vent, share their grievances, then think about what to do next.” Mr. Li himself moved to Tokyo from Beijing last September over concerns for his safety. “People like us have a mission to drive the transformation of China,” he said.

From Tokyo and Chiang Mai, Thailand, to Amsterdam and New York, members of the Chinese diaspora are building public lives that are forbidden in China and training themselves to be civic-minded citizens — the type of Chinese the Communist Party doesn’t want them to be. They are opening Chinese bookstores, holding seminars and organizing civic groups.

These émigrés are creating an alternative China, a more hopeful society. In the process, they’re redefining what it means to be Chinese.

Four Chinese bookstores opened in Tokyo last year. A monthly feminist open-mic comedy show that started in New York in 2022 was so successful that feminists in at least four other U.S. cities, as well as London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, British Columbia, are staging similar shows. Chinese immigrants in Europe established dozens of nonprofit organizations focused on L.G.B.T.Q., protest and other issues.

Most of these events and organizations are not overtly political or aimed at trying to overthrow the Chinese government, though some participants hope they will be able to return to a democratic China someday. But the immigrants organizing them say they believe it’s important to learn to live without fear, to trust one another and pursue a life of purpose.

Far too many Chinese, even after leaving, were for years too fearful of the government to attend public events not aligned with mainstream Communist Party rhetoric.

But in 2022, the White Paper protests that erupted in China to object to the country’s pandemic restrictions prompted demonstrations in other countries. People realized they weren’t alone, and started looking for like-minded people.

Yilimai, a young professional who has lived in Japan for a decade, said that since the 2022 protests he had been organizing and participating in protests and seminars in Tokyo.

Last June, he came to a talk I gave about my Chinese language podcast, “I Don’t Understand,” and was surprised to find that he was among about 300 people. (I was surprised, too. Who would want to listen to a journalist talking about her podcast?) He said he had met and stayed connected with about a dozen people at the event.

“Engaging in public life is a virtue in itself,” said Yilimai, who used his online nickname because he feared government reprisal. It means “a grain of wheat,” a biblical reference about resurrection.

China once had, in the 2000s and early 2010s, what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called a public sphere. The authorities allowed room for lively, if censored, public conversation alongside the state-sanctioned cultural and social life.

At bookstores in big Chinese cities, Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” were best sellers. A book club in Beijing started by Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon, drew China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and officials. Shanghai Pride, an annual celebration of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, attracted thousands of participants. Feminist activists staged movements such as “occupy men’s toilets,” and official news outlets covered them as progressive forces. Independent films, documentaries and underground magazines explored topics that the Communist Party didn’t like but tolerated: history, sexuality and inequality.

In the decade after Xi Jinping took over the country’s leadership in late 2012, all of these initiatives were crushed. Investigative journalists lost outlets for their work, human rights lawyers were jailed or disbarred, and bookstores were forced to shut their doors. Ren Zhiqiang, the property tycoon who started the book club, is serving 18 years in jail for criticizing Mr. Xi. Organizers of nongovernmental organizations and L.G.B.T.Q. and feminist activists were harassed, silenced or forced into exile.

In turn, a growing number of Chinese have fled their home country, its government and its propaganda to places that allowed them freedom. Now they can connect with one another and give platforms for Chinese inside and outside the country to communicate and imagine a different future.

Anne Jieping Zhang, a mainland-born journalist who worked in Hong Kong for two decades before moving to Taiwan during the pandemic, started a bookstore in Taipei in 2022. She opened a branch in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last December and is planning to open in Tokyo and Amsterdam this year.

“I want my bookstore to be a place where Chinese all over the world can come and exchange ideas,” Ms. Zhang said.

Her bookstore, called Nowhere, issues passports of the Republic of Nowhere to its valued customers, who are called citizens, not members.

Nowhere’s Taipei branch held 138 events last year. The Chiang Mai branch held about 20 events in its first six weeks. Themes were wide-ranging: war, feminism, Hong Kong protests and cities and relationships. I spoke at both branches about my podcast.

Ms. Zhang said she didn’t want her bookstores to be only for dissidents and young rebels, but for any Chinese person who was curious about the world.

“What matters is not what you oppose but what kind of life you desire,” she said. “If the Chinese or the Chinese diaspora cannot rebuild a society in places without top-down restrictions, even if we undergo a change of regime, we definitely won’t be able to lead better lives.”

Ms. Zhang and Mr. Li, the human rights lawyer who is better known for his pen name, Wu Lei, said the Chinese émigrés were very different from their predecessors in the 1980s, who were mostly economic immigrants. The new émigrés are better off and better educated. They care about their economic well-being as well as their sense of belonging in something bigger than themselves.

Both Ms. Zhang and Mr. Li started their ventures with their own money. The monthly rent for Mr. Li’s roughly 700-square-foot space, which he uses mainly for events, is about $1,300. He said he could afford it.

Ms. Zhang, currently a Nieman fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, is subsidizing the Chiang Mai branch with her savings. The Taipei branch made a profit last year. A rising source of its income is mailing books to Chinese all over the world.

On the same Saturday in January as the seminar at Mr. Li’s bookstore in Tokyo, eight young Chinese sat around a dining table in the house of a Japanese professor to discuss the Taiwan election that was held the previous weekend. They’ve been meeting at public and private events since last year.

“We’re preparing ourselves for China’s democratization,” said Umi, a graduate student who moved to Japan in 2022 and participated in the White Paper protests. “We need to ask ourselves,” she said, “If the Chinese Communist Party collapses tomorrow, are we ready to be good citizens?”

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