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Spectres of Anticolonial Internationalism in Contemporary China | Made in China Journal
Spectres of Anticolonial Internationalism in Contemporary China | Made in China Journal

Spectres of Anticolonial Internationalism in Contemporary China | Made in China Journal

On 1 March 2022, just one week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an anonymous group of internationalists from mainland China composed a letter expressing their support for the Ukrainian people. The document, titled ‘Sharing the Shame: A Letter from Internationalists in Mainland China’ (与有耻焉: 来自中国大陆国际主义者的一封信), was subsequently published by Chuang, a website renowned for its coverage of China’s capitalist development. In this letter, the Chinese internationalists critically assessed the actions of both Russia and the US–NATO alliance, as well as those of the Chinese Government, which at that time was officially maintaining an ambiguous stance but in reality was tacitly supporting Russia by consistently censoring pro-Ukrainian voices.

Through their message, these Chinese internationalists declared their solidarity with the Ukrainian people and extended their support to antiwar advocates, especially those in Russia, who have similarly faced repression under an authoritarian regime. Less than one year earlier, in May 2021, one of the co-authors of the letter, a young journalist and activist named Wu Qin, had founded the independent journal Tongshi (同时 hxotnongd, literally ‘Meanwhile’). This publication actively promoted understandings of global protest cultures, focusing particularly on the complex dynamics of postcolonial struggles in the Global South. The topics it covered spanned neo-colonial governance, patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, settler colonialism, labour exploitation, land dispossession, resource extraction, and grassroots self-governance. These subjects were explored across diverse regions such as Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, India, Cuba, Mexico, Indonesia, and within marginalised communities in Western societies.

As members of the journal’s board pointed out, non-Western scholars and activists seem to be predisposed to a limited scope of attention—one tied to their immediate geo-ethnic contexts, which is itself a manifestation of colonialism’s enduring grip (Guo 2022). This, as they further note, hampers the ability of different groups to perceive things connectively and structurally, as well as empathise with similarly situated people in the world. What they are trying to do in putting forward this type of critique is to re-establish an internationalist network and reopen the space for pedagogies of resistance and solidarity within the Global South. In this essay, I discuss how their coverage of anticolonial struggles in the Middle East demonstrates an internationalist spirit, addressing Islamophobia in contemporary China and furthering truly decolonial causes. In this context, I also show how a compelling piece of Chinese short fiction written by Wu Qin, ‘A Letter from a Tehran Prison’ (德黑兰狱中来信)—which also appeared in English in the pages of the Made in China Journal in late 2023—exemplifies an artistic form capable of forging connections between transnational activist movements.

Anticolonial Internationalism: Past and Present

First, let’s take a brief look at how an anticolonial imagination with a robust international dimension evolved in China, and how it eventually faded into an almost spectral existence, absorbed within a narrow framework centred on the nation-state. By paying attention to what I term ‘spectres of anticolonial internationalism’ in present-day China, I hope to complement existing scholarship that seeks to re-evaluate China’s complex colonial histories and postcolonial conditions in the context of its global rise (see, for instance, Zhang 2023; Byler et al. 2022; Cheah and Hau 2022; Tenzin 2022; Meinhof 2017, 2018).

These important accounts tend to focus on the persistence of past and emerging forms of domination. For example, in his introduction to a recent important volume titled Siting Postcoloniality: Critical Perspectives from the East Asian Sinosphere, Pheng Cheah (2022: 20) observes a certain continuity between China’s imperial past and its postsocialist postcoloniality, specifically the Party-State’s reappropriation of premodern Chinese imperial structures. What is missing, or often conflated with state nationalism, is the contemporary relevance of anticolonial imagination among the Chinese people. Here, I propose that it is important to distinguish the radical legacies of anticolonial movements in China from the limited and increasingly empty nationalist narrative of Han Chinese victimhood promoted and amplified by the Party-State—a discourse that is complicit in repressive state politics. Turning to Chinese people’s critical and creative expressions in the face of escalating colonial transgressions and protests worldwide, I attempt to resituate the anticolonial imagination in contemporary Chinese culture.

Throughout China’s modern history, the imaginary of revolutionary emancipation has been shaped by interactions with similarly oppressed peoples around the world. Two key periods that exemplify this dynamic are the late Qing era and Maoist China. For the former period, Rebecca Karl’s Staging the World (2002) charts the influence on anticolonial thought in late imperial China of Filipino nationalist struggles, the Boer War in South Africa, the Turkish revolution, and colonial conditions in India and Poland. Chinese nationalist intellectuals’ interpretations of these events were not entirely impartial, and often bore vestiges of imperialist epistemologies that had been deeply internalised. However, the significance of the ‘initially expansive global or internationalist moment of identification (1895–1905)’ (Karl 2002: 3) lies in its potential to

permit the Pacific, Asia, and Africa to emerge into view, not as inert geographical designations diachronically ordered, but as material sites for the production of new global, national, and local meanings, practices, and histories on a synchronically understood world stage. (p. 147)

Jing Tsu’s Failure, Nationalism, and Literature (2005) highlights the impact of black slavery in America on the Chinese anticolonial imagination.

Early Chinese nationalists’ concern for the ‘oppressed of the world’ resurfaces in Mao’s Third-Worldist internationalism. Among many concrete manifestations of this feeling, it is particularly palpable in China’s participation in the Bandung Conference, its demonstrative support for Congolese independence, solidarity with the Algerian and Iraqi revolutions, financial backing of the Tanzania–Zambia railway project, and alignment with anti-US protests in Panama, even after the Sino-Soviet split (Lin 2018; Teng 2019). China’s fate was once again perceived as interconnected with global anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements. This was particularly clear in the realm of the arts and propaganda. Surveying Chinese dance culture of the 1950s and 1960s that incorporated aesthetic elements from the wider Third World, Emily Wilcox (2018: 787) argues that ‘Maoist China offered a particularly strong example for the merging of socialist and anticolonial movements’. Wilcox adds that this dynamic constitutes a ‘postcolonial blind spot in Anglophone scholarship on Maoist China’ due to Cold War legacies. Similarly, in his analysis of various propaganda forms, including broadcasting, traditional operas, and prints, Yin Zhiguang illustrates the role played by the Arab region, particularly Egypt and Palestine, with their significant anticolonial and anti-imperialist practices after World War II, in ‘creating a synchronically experienced internationalism for ordinary Chinese people. This synchronicity is further ingrained into the common people’s world view through newspaper news and organised political study and discussions’ (Yin 2017; my translation).

Maoist Third-Worldist internationalism—albeit not without its own limitations (Shih 2013; Pang 2022)—transitioned towards nationalist principles in the early 1970s when China aligned with the United States to counterbalance the Soviet threat. During NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, a resurgence of the anticolonial, anti-imperialist internationalist sentiment was seen in large-scale protests against US–NATO imperialism, accompanied by expressions of solidarity for the loss of Yugoslavia. However, the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the unfortunate deaths of three Chinese journalists arguably played a substantial role in shaping the context (Wu 2023a).

Existing scholarship often focuses on the assimilation of revolutionary internationalism into the narrow nation-state framework, or its transition into a Confucian-informed globalism. In her 2018 article ‘China’s New Globalism’, Lin Chun maps the rise and decline of socialist internationalism and anticolonial transnational solidarity in the People’s Republic of China. Lin highlights that China’s global participation since its economic reform reflects agendas radically different from internationalism, which she interprets through Confucian concepts of tianxia (天下), or ‘all under heaven’. Historians and scholars in international relations have demonstrated the limitations and risks of tianxia-ism as a culturalist approach in guiding realpolitik (Callahan 2008; Dirlik 2010; Hughes 2011; Krishna 2017; Gonzalez-Vicente 2021; Chu 2022). Chinese historian Ge Zhaoguang (2015: 54) even warns against it as ‘nationalism in internationalist guise’.

Chinese mainlanders’ responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflected this tendency. With influential antiwar posts being removed, the distorted media landscape has led the majority of Chinese netizens to believe that supporting Russia in Ukraine aligns with China’s national interests, as noted by a public opinion survey conducted in April 2022 (US–China Perception Monitor 2022). Yet, even the censored antiwar comments replicate certain elements of the official nationalist discourse, frequently referencing China’s semicolonial history and its timeless victim position. For instance, the following now-censored antiwar comment was left on the official account of the Russian Embassy in China on Weibo:

Russia is invading Ukraine. There are many excuses that the invaders can make to show that the invaded had it coming, but invasion is invasion. The Russian Government, which used violent means in the first place and initiated the war, is unjust, and everyone is watching. If the Russian government, which initiated the war through violent means, is defined as a ‘liberator’, then what about the Japanese Government’s invasion of China? This is extremely important and cannot be ambiguous. The Russian Government is an invader, not a liberator, in the same way that the Japanese Government, which invaded China in the past, also claimed to be a liberator. You are not liberators; you are invading Ukraine, just as the Japanese Government invaded China. Those who cheer for Russia should think about it: if the Japanese Government invaded China in the name of liberation, and your loved ones were shedding blood and sacrificing their lives to resist Japanese aggression, and you were in grave danger, and people from other countries were applauding for the Japanese Government’s invasion of China, how would you feel? Do not put yourselves in the shoes of invaders. Japan faced punishment, and so will Russia. (Screenshotted and archived by an anonymous user in the Telegram channel ‘Chinese Cyberspace Graveyard’ [简中赛博坟场] on 26 February 2022)

Five history professors from leading universities in mainland China and Hong Kong collaborated to write a collective antiwar statement (Sun et al. 2022). China’s semicolonial history was brought up again:

In recent days, the internet has been livestreaming the real-time situation of the war: ruins, gunfire, and the wounds of Ukrainian refugees have deeply broken our hearts. As a country that has suffered greatly from war, with shattered homes, countless lives lost, famine across the land, and territorial concessions … these sufferings and humiliations have shaped our historical consciousness, and we empathise deeply with the pain of the Ukrainian people.

Emphasising shared experiences of suffering can indeed foster compassion and support. However, anticolonial solidarity seems to rely on making the suffering of others, like the Ukrainian people, our own, and on the premise that Chinese have been nothing but victims of colonialism and imperialism. Such solidarity obscures Chinese complicity in colonial injustices and is subject to appropriation and manipulation by official narratives. It also overlooks the fact that a significant number of Chinese people are not necessarily pro-Russia but rather anti-US (Repnikova and Zhou 2022). Invoking the semicolonial past might not achieve the desired effects.

Radical Legacies of Anticolonial Imagination in China Today

As internationalists, we are firmly against the invasion by Russia, to the same degree that we are against NATO’s reckless expansion. What we’re in support of is not the Ukrainian government, but the right of the Ukrainian people to be free from any imperialist interference.

—‘Sharing the Shame’ (Chuang 2022)

Now we return to the letter authored by the anonymous Chinese internationalists and what I earlier referred to as ‘spectres of anticolonial internationalism’ in contemporary China. In ‘Sharing the Shame’, the authors emphasise that supporting the Ukrainian people is not synonymous with endorsing NATO intervention, drawing an analogy with responsible internationalists who did not back the Soviet Union’s participation in the Vietnam War against the United States. They avoid the trap of taking sides and instead advocate for a third path between the Russian and US superpowers—a path that involves uniting with all oppressed peoples, including antiwar activists and ordinary Russians who suffer the cost of Putin’s war and economic sanctions imposed by Western countries. This approach bears the imprints of Maoist Third-Worldist internationalism as seen in their revival of the anachronistic, if not outdated, designation of ‘internationalist’. While they did not overtly reference Mao, their stated solidarity with all oppressed peoples recalls Maoist China’s alignment not only with Third World nations but also with white workers and people of colour in the West (Duan 2024; Liu 2024). Their declaration in the letter that ‘[i]nternationalists have a basic duty to support those who are swept up into just wars of resistance to fight against the invaders’ (Chuang 2022) recalls Mao’s statement during a discussion with African representatives in 1963: ‘The people who have triumphed in their own revolution should help those still struggling for liberation. This is our internationalist duty’ (Mao 1990: 177–78).

Notably, these contemporary Chinese internationalists did not perceive themselves as having triumphed in their own revolution. Their critique of the Chinese State’s suppression of domestic voices regarding Russia’s invasion connects with a broader denunciation of the Chinese authorities’ lack of action on and stifling of protest against the rampant sexual trafficking and enslavement of women within the country:

Meanwhile, under the propaganda of the mainstream media and increasingly stronger censorship over many years, Chinese netizens are unfortunately seen at this time by the world as the biggest and loudest supporters of war and of Putin. Progressive anti-war voices are muted, and protesters are punished. Ashamed as we are, we strongly condemn the propaganda machine that, once again, ‘points to a deer and calls it a horse.’ At the time when the Russian invasion had just begun, our government was busy persecuting its own population in one of the biggest public opinion crises China has seen in recent years. The entire nation was shocked by revelations of countless cases of trafficked women, who had been tortured and treated as sex slaves for decades. These crimes had evolved into a social norm with the collusion of local governments. (Chuang 2022)

This juxtaposition exemplifies the principle of integrating internationalism with nationalism that Mao proposed. In this context, nationalism is delinked from the statism and Han chauvinism with which it has been increasingly associated in China, instead conveying a people-centred national consciousness, especially for those marginalised along gender, class, and ethnic lines. The intention was not to advocate for a nostalgic return to or restoration of Maoist Third-Worldist internationalism, but rather to resurrect its spirit and adapt its significance to the contemporary context. In addition to suggesting the provision of material support to the Ukrainian people for their self-defence, as China once did towards the Vietnamese people, the Chinese internationalists recognise that present-day warfare extends beyond physical battlegrounds to the digital realm. As they put it: ‘Hacker groups disrupting Russian government websites and mainstream media, online mapping sites interfering with the march of Russian ground troops, and public opinion arenas of solidarity with the invaded … [shape] the cyber terrain of progressivism in this war’ (Chuang 2022). The battle of public opinion has been a consistent focus of their endeavours since the outbreak of the war.

In May 2021, when one of these Chinese internationalists, Wu Qin, founded the Tongshi journal, her initial motivation was to support the detained editors of DOXA, a Russian leftist publication, and create an alternative ‘news agency’ (通讯社). This agency would aim to uncover overlooked global news in the face of information overload and media attention disparities. Over time, its concerns went beyond media ethics and representational justice, and moved towards (re)building protest cultures and transnational activist networks in China. At a time when protests are often stigmatised as ‘white leftism’ or political correctness (Zhang 2023), with oppressed people in the Global South represented in Chinese popular discourses as voiceless victims, Tongshi continued to push the imaginative limits of how decentralised, grassroots, and empowering anticolonial resistance can manifest.

The subjects of their reportage spanned the ‘Palestine Action’ team halting Israeli weapons factories in the United Kingdom, imprisoned Palestinians escaping Israel’s surveillance via spoon-digging, indigenous land reclamation, and the invitation to watch the Belmarsh Tribunal demanding Julian Assange’s freedom. (The last is relevant to China as WikiLeaks not only exposed US neo-colonial violence in Afghanistan, but also released censored footage of the 2008 unrest in Tibet.) Tongshi has also featured Chinese translations of landays, an oral art form employed mainly by illiterate Pashtun women in Afghanistan and Pakistan to express discontent with the Taliban, female desires, and yearning for freedom, alongside its reinterpretation by exiled Gansu-born writer Chai Chunya, who melds it with elements of the hua’er folk genre prevalent among Muslim women in northwestern China. This inspired Shanghai-based poet Zhai Minglei to rally friends, encouraging them to emulate the style and honour the Afghan literary tradition and women’s creativity, therefore fostering a transnational, pan-ethnic connection. As a result, 101 poems from 29 contributors were collected in just six days.

The Letter from a Tehran Prison

In the interest of space, I want to focus on one example that demonstrates the radical legacies of anticolonial imagination in contemporary China and the potential of fiction to advance this cause. While managing Tongshi, Wu Qin also served as editor of the highly influential Chinese news media outlet The Paper (澎湃). Between the spring and summer of 2022, Wu was arrested in China for suspected involvement in a major protest. She wrote a short story based on this experience but chose to frame it as though it had occurred in Iran. The story was successfully published in the mainland platform Artforum (艺术论坛) in January 2023, under the title ‘A Letter from a Tehran Prison’. That the negative depiction of the ‘Iranian’ Government at the centre of the story remained uncensored in China (at least for a while) was most likely because such a narrative aligned with state-sanctioned Islamophobia.

While very few people were aware that the piece essentially depicts a Chinese story and despite the richness of Iranian cultural specificities, the article resonated profoundly with readers in mainland China. Many comments pointed out the striking similarities between the experiences of Mahsa, the imprisoned Iranian protagonist, and those of protestors in mainland China, with demonstrators in both countries witnessing anti-authoritarian protests that began as commemorative events and then took on pan-ethnic characteristics. The Chinese commentators were referring in particular to the ‘A4 Protest’, also known as the ‘White Paper Revolution’ (白纸革命), which was catalysed by a fire in November 2022 that claimed the lives of at least 10 Uyghurs in an apartment complex under long-term quarantine in Ürümqi, Xinjiang (Sorace and Loubere 2022; Connery 2022). The movement in opposition to the government’s draconian Zero-Covid Policy then spread to streets and university campuses across China and abroad, leading to a wave of police warnings and arrests. While no direct causal link existed between the protests in Iran and those in China, which occurred just a few months apart, some slogans articulated by Chinese students overseas credited Iranian protestors as a source of inspiration.

After Wu Qin managed with great difficulty to leave China, she published an annotated version of the story, acknowledging that it is Chinese (this is the version that was published in the Made in China Journal in late 2023). In it, she clarifies that in the text ‘Tehran’ alludes to Beijing and, by implication, Sanandaj, a major city in the Kurdish region of Iran where the protagonist Mahsa is arrested, stands for Guangzhou, the city where Wu Qin was herself apprehended by Beijing police while she was preparing for an art exhibition. This annotated version was also shared by mainland Chinese netizens, who related it to their own experiences of being arrested, using the Iranian specificities embedded in the story as points of reference.

Wu Qin’s choice of the name Mahsa seems deliberate. Mahsa Amini was a Kurdish woman who died in September 2022 after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for not wearing a hijab, which led to widespread anti-government demonstrations in Iran. It appears that the literary artifice of using Iran as a stand-in for China went beyond mere narrative strategy or a means to circumvent censorship. It struck me that Wu’s grief might extend not only to suppressed ethnic minority groups in China and their Han allies, including herself, but also to the loss of the young Kurdish woman and Iranian protestors. From this point of view, fiction emerges as an effective vehicle to build potential alliances among these radically different groups, based on shared aspects of oppression.

In a recent conversation, Wu confirmed my speculation that with her piece she was indeed trying to commemorate the death of Mahsa Amini. She explained that her integration of the Iranian context with the Chinese narrative was intended to explore an artistic form that can connect global activist movements. Following the tragic passing of Mahsa Amini, and the subsequent protests in Iran, Wu actively engaged in public discussions and events, providing contextualised interpretations, and inviting creative efforts to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters. Looking back, she reflects that this experience perhaps explains why Iran became the immediate ‘language’ available to her when the White Paper movement erupted in China a few months later and she decided to tell her own Chinese protest story:

I feel that at that time, we were going through the same history together. Until I was arrested, I had been promoting public awareness of protests in Iran, but much of it was, in fact, related to our own issues in the guise of Iran’s protests … At that time, I was preoccupied with a question: why did the Iranian protestors overcome fear and proceed from fear to anger? It seemed like a process of moving forward, so when I began conceiving this [Chinese] story, it started from fear, adversity, and weakness … In fact, before the outbreak of the White Paper movement, more and more overseas Chinese students were voicing support for Iranian protests … These historical convergences, mutual understanding, and empathy touched me deeply … [W]hen the coded version of the ‘A Letter from a Tehran Prison’ was first released, many who shared it would comment: ‘Iran seems just like China.’ At that time, no-one knew it was a Chinese story … We identify with Iran because of what was happening here. We turned to external contexts, of course, largely due to the fact that our mouths were forced shut, but the energy given to us by this external influence was particularly significant. (Conversation notes, translated by the author and published with Wu Qin’s permission)

In the story, the first-person narrator, Mahsa, describes how hearing police who showed up uninvited speaking with the Tehran accent has left her traumatised. As Wu explains in her added annotation: ‘The Tehrani Persian accent referred to in the story is a metaphor for Beijing Mandarin.’ Read through this optic, this scene paints a picture of the hegemony of standard Mandarin and the traumatic effect of the masculine and Han chauvinism it represents. However, making an equivalence between herself, a Han Chinese woman born in Beijing, and a Kurdish woman in Iran is not unproblematic, given the latter’s subjection to multiple layers of marginalisation. I asked Wu how she navigated the tension that comes with the incommensurability of experiences of victimisation. She told me that she was aware of her own privileges, yet the Chinese protest story must be narrated from a minority point of view. For Wu, the significance of Iran’s protests extends beyond contextual resonance as a Chinese protester; they served as a source of hope for progressivism in China’s future. It is something she would not have anticipated a few years ago, as she observed that previous protests in Iran had displayed a distinct class focus and were often limited to either the underprivileged or the middle class.

The fact that in late 2022 people across different social strata were mobilised and risked their lives to demonstrate support for a young minority woman such as Mahsa Amini surprised Wu. Comparing China with Iran, she added that repressed groups in China tend to have divergent, often irreconcilable agendas and demands, which causes protesters to stand divided. Wu was also impressed by how the protest music during the demonstrations in Iran referenced numerous past protests and symbolic events since 2008. This conveyed a profound sense of continuity—a situation very different from the fragmented memories of resistance in China. Inspired by the protest practice in Iran, Wu infused her Chinese protest story with the sensibility of Iranian protesters towards the suffering of the most marginalised and oppressed groups. In addition, she also tried to make the story as multidirectional as possible, including connections to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, both framed through allusions to locations in the Balochistan region. Nevertheless, in her effort to show solidarity with ethnic minority groups facing language and cultural loss, Wu shared with me her struggles to find vocabularies that can adequately speak to the Uyghur experience.

We Still Can …

Even though the work in which Tongshi and Wu have been engaged was short-lived—the journal’s official WeChat account was permanently banned—its resonance with ordinary Chinese suggests that anticolonial internationalism lingers like a spectre in mainland China.

This can be seen also in Chinese discussions about Gaza. In the face of the genocide unfolding in Palestine, the continued policing of pro-Palestinian voices everywhere reveals various forms of complicity with power. China is no exception. As stated on the Instagram account ‘pal_solidarity_zh’:

Censorship does not just remove specific content; it also creates an environment telling you what [is] worth sharing, what [isn’t], wanting you to believe you’re powerless even if you do care … By censorship and suppression of constitutional rights, China and Israel stand together, making it impossible for those who want to stop the genocide to come together and turn their grief into strength.

At the same time, critiques of political apathy and support for Palestine on the Chinese internet have become more visible, especially given the injustices already witnessed in Ukraine and Iran. Expressions of solidarity have been conveyed through various mediums, including transcribing and translating reliable news sources, such as the Instagram account ‘pal_solidarity_zh’ itself and the official WeChat account TyingKnots (结绳志), podcasts, recommendations of relevant books and films, interviews with frontline reporters and protesters, anonymous artistic creations, and even an underground fundraising theatrical performance of Mona Mansour’s Palestinian refugee story, Urge for Going (which I was fortunate to attend). These individuals, platforms, and decentralised groups persist in exploring and practising the actions that ordinary people still can take for Palestine, despite the apparatus of de-politicisation and suppression. From a spontaneous ‘one-star movement’ in Douban against Zionist Matti Friedman’s works, to aiding Palestinians’ evacuation and raising awareness about the situation in Palestine, the spectres of internationalism refuse to be laid to rest. As Jacques Derrida (2006: 123) highlights in Specters of Marx, ‘a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back’.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the editors of the Made in China Journal, Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace, for their suggestions. Special thanks to Marius Meinhof for convening the workshop ‘Postcolonialism and China’ at which the initial draft of this essay was presented, and to fellow panellists, especially Chenchen Zhang, Yao Lin, Tenzin Jinba, and Gerald Roche, for their encouraging remarks. I am also grateful to Mingqing for connecting me with Wu Qin. The conversation with Wu Qin was transformative.

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