Dissident at the Doorstep: A Conversation with Yangyang Cheng

In the 2000s, a blind Chinese barefoot lawyer named Chen Guangcheng became a global icon of freedom and democracy for suffering years of unlawful imprisonment because of his fight against China’s draconian One-Child Policy. When, one night in 2012, he staged a daring escape from the house where he was being detained and eventually managed to reach the US Embassy in Beijing, people all over the world held their breath wondering what would happen to him and his family. Would the Chinese Government let them leave the country? Would the US take them in? After much diplomatic wrangling, the whole family eventually landed in the United States, where Chen received a hero’s welcome in progressive and conservative circles alike. Then, there was a twist: in the following years, as his star began to fade, Chen would return to the spotlight as an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump and a MAGA (Make America Great Again) fanatic. In the podcast Dissident at the Doorstep (crooked.com/podcast-series/dissident), Alison Klayman, Colin Jones, and Yangyang Cheng look at the trajectory of Chen’s life, trying to answer the questions: How could this happen? What do we make of the legacy of one of the most influential Chinese human rights activists of the early twenty-first century? In this conversation, we discuss the podcast with Yangyang Cheng.

 

Ivan Franceschini: Can you tell us how this project started and how you came to be a part of it?

Yangyang Cheng: My co-hosts, Alison Klayman and Colin Jones, initially came up with the story idea and pitched it to Crooked Media. They had made the award-winning documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry in 2012. At first, I thought I was only going to be a story consultant, but when the project formally took off in the spring of 2022, I was invited to be a co-host and take an equal part in the creative process. It felt like a rather daunting undertaking. I was not very familiar with narrative podcasting as a medium and was much more comfortable working on the page. But I recognised the potential of audio storytelling to create a sense of intimacy with the listener and an immersive experience, while also maintaining the beauty and rigour of the written word. It was a tantalising challenge.

And, more importantly, in addition to the medium, I felt a deep, personal affinity with the subject: I think that’s the main reason I was approached for the project in the first place. My proximity to the topic, as a fellow Chinese person living in the United States and severed from my native land by the forces of politics, also translated into a sense of responsibility: I can tell this story in a way that others from different backgrounds probably cannot.

And a distinct strength of our show is the diverse perspectives of the hosts, how we each wove our own experiences into the story, and how we complemented each other. We also worked with an amazing team, and I learned so much from everyone. Everything from series outline, episode outline, and episode script, down to titles and show art—all went through many drafts and revisions. It was a real team effort. It was a labour of love and of trust.

IF: In the first episode, you present Chen Guangcheng’s trajectory as ‘the subversion of a fairytale; instead of happily ever after, the story ends in heartbreak and betrayal’, which ‘encapsulates much of what happened in my birth country and my adopted home [the United States] in my lifetime’. You also say that by tracing Chen’s experience you hope to ‘relive the years of reform and regression in China which as a witness I was too young to understand’. Can you elaborate on this parallel between Chen’s life and the broader picture?

YC: One thing I hope the show conveys, especially in Episode 2, is that Chen Guangcheng did not set out to be an enemy of the Chinese State. In the late 1990s to the early 2000s, when he was working on issues such as rural taxation, water pollution, and free access to the subway for disabled people, Chen’s actions irritated some local officials, but, like many legal activists at the time, he was also celebrated in China. As the Chinese Government was formalising and expanding its legal system to achieve more effective governance and facilitate the country’s integration into global capitalism, this period also created an opening for Chinese citizens to use the law and the courts as a new avenue to advocate for and defend their rights.

I remember the Sun Zhigang case in early 2003, when a migrant worker died in detention under China’s then custody and repatriation (收容 shourong) system. I was buried deep in prep books for the high school entrance exam at the time, but the media reports and editorials were impossible to miss. Notably, three legal scholars petitioned China’s top legislature, calling for the abusive system to be abolished. Weeks later, the State Council formally ended the shourong policy. It was a stunning victory, and my adolescent self was very encouraged by it!

One of the three scholar-petitioners was Teng Biao, who also worked closely with Chen on the One-Child Policy case and is a significant character in our show. Two decades later, he lives in exile in the United States. Another, Xu Zhiyong, is currently serving a 14-year sentence in China on sedition charges. Were the activists betrayed by the Chinese system or did their plight reveal the limits of the law as a vehicle for social change—a lesson that applies not just to China?

Many in the United States are beginning to recognise the injustices in their own country’s justice system and the unforgiving nature of law as a tool of power over the past few years. Of course, that the United States has never lived up to its venerated ideals is not a revelation to those who have experienced at first hand the brutality of American power and should not be a revelation to anyone who is curious and honest about American history. So, when Chen took to the stage at the 2020 Republican National Convention to endorse Trump, and joined the crowd on 6 January the following year seeking to overturn the election, why did he do so? What does America mean to an exiled Chinese human rights activist like Chen, and what do human rights mean to him? These were some of the questions we hoped to explore through the show. It’s much more than the story of one man, one country, one political system, or bilateral relations between two superpowers. It probes fundamental questions about freedom and power.

IF: Throughout the podcast you also make clear how Chen’s story feels very personal to you. For instance, you mention how his advocacy against forced abortion prompted you to think about your own position as a daughter born under the One-Child Policy; how his departure from China and arrival in the United States made you think about your own experience of moving to Chicago in the late 2000s; and how people discussing Chen’s linguistic abilities triggered memories of similar criticisms you received in the past, both during your time in China and as an immigrant to the United States. You also take personal issue with the patronising attitude shown by some of Chen’s hosts, who seem to have thought they knew best about how to take care of him and his family and expected compliance and gratitude. For me, your reflections are among the most poignant parts of the whole podcast. In what ways does Chen’s experience of international migration resonate the most with you and in what other ways is it a radical departure from your own?

YC: One moment in the show that really stood out to me—and it’s one I still reflect on often—is in Episode 7, when Chen was reluctant to answer my question of whether he still considers himself ‘Chinese’. This episode centres on language and translation, and Chen’s inability to answer my question was really the inability to find the right words, in Chinese, to describe his Chinese-ness. It is easier in English, at least for me, when I say I’m Chinese, but my Chinese-ness is a cultural identity and a linguistic belonging; it’s not about citizenship. Of course, all cultures and languages are shaped by political power, but they can also contest and transcend forces of the state. Both Chen and I were reluctant to use vocabulary that foregrounds the Chinese State to describe our Chinese-ness, but what other words are available? If you listen to the recording, it sounds like we were arguing. I was pressing him hard for an answer. I both wished he had an answer to the question I could not answer for myself and knew deep down that it was an impossible demand.

I do not want to project too much on to Chen, but I believe this sense of loss and longing is shared between us, and different people find different ways to cope with it. Chen had a radically different upbringing in China from mine: he was born during the Cultural Revolution, grew up in rural poverty, and was denied access to much formal education because of his disability. This also meant we came to the United States in radically different ways: he and his young family were uprooted from China in such an abrupt and dramatic fashion, which I don’t want to spoil by revealing it here but encourage everyone to listen to the show. I moved here to pursue my PhD in physics and it was after graduation and with a series of deliberate choices made given the deteriorating political conditions in China that the possibility of return, even for a short visit, became increasingly elusive. My precarity is also conditioned by my privilege.

Depending on one’s politics, it might be very easy, even gratifying, to criticise Chen for some of his views and actions in the United States. But one thing I hope the show does is remind listeners to place things in context, to remember the trauma and humanity that underlie all these experiences. To dismiss Chen as a bigot is easy, but what can one learn from such a dismissal?

IF: Reflecting on the activism of those weiquan lawyers in the 2000s and 2010s, in the second episode, long-term China correspondent Philip Pan muses: ‘Looking back at it now, it almost seems naive for me to have thought as a correspondent that they could succeed. It was even nuttier for them to think they could succeed, because they knew how difficult that would be.’ He continues: ‘That was part of the whole time, everybody there was optimistic, even the guys who were losing, even the guys who were thrown in jail, they thought time was on their side.’ I also have a clear memory of that time in China as a moment of great optimism. While I haven’t forgotten the harsh side of it all—arrests and state violence were pretty much the order of the day even then—compared with today that period does feel like something of a golden age for political and social activism in China. In hindsight, do you agree with Pan’s assessment that it was naive to think those activists could succeed? Might it be, rather, that the social movements of that time were proving too successful, which prompted the harsh backlash in the following years?

YC: I touched on this in answer to an earlier question but, to follow up, this also depends on how one defines ‘success’. The law is an instrument of state power: if one is using the law and the courts as the primary vehicle for social change, one is inevitably working on the state’s terms, so there is a limit to what one can achieve. What did Audre Lorde (2007) say about the master’s tool and the master’s house? The path to revolution is not paved with legal statutes.

In the case of China, one must also recognise that the reason the Chinese State pushed for legal reform and allowed a degree of social activism was not to empower the people; it was to empower the state and facilitate the flow of capital. The last, of course, was also a primary reason the US Government facilitated legal reform in China at the time and in many other countries in the developing world—to facilitate their integration into the global market. The interests of states and those of global capital in these instances were aligned. And if one looks at the history of capitalism, one can see that the ‘free market’ not only does not bring democracy but also is often insulated from democratic demands by the law (Slobodian 2018), and democratic rights were won against, not alongside, the forces of capital (Mitchell 2011).

It is also very important to note that most legal activists in China at the time were not revolutionaries, at least not explicitly so. They were seeking not to radically change the system, but to work within the system to make it a bit more honest, a bit more predictable, and, in the best circumstances, a bit more humane. To that end, many did succeed—on the state’s terms, which were also their terms. It is heartbreaking to witness the regression and crackdowns in recent years, but that does not give one permission to be cynical. It is good, even necessary, to retain some naivety. That the activists acted is itself a form of success because it proved a possibility. It kept hope alive. With the knowledge of the tremendous sacrifices they made, who are we to lose hope?

IF: In the eighth and final episode, your co-host Alison Klayman says that with this show you thought you could find a way to balance the good and bad sides of Chen’s story—to quote her words, ‘we thought we could do it all: draw a beautiful picture and keep the shit in the frame’—but as you approached the end of the story, you ‘learned how hard that really is’. The final two episodes make harrowing listening, as you reflect on how Chen’s trajectory from social activist in China to Trump supporter in the United States is not an exception but rather a typical occurrence among exiles from China, or as you discuss how Chen’s backwards views on women’s reproductive rights or LGBTQ issues are common in Chinese society, to the point that even your own mother might find herself in agreement with some of them.

It also makes for a painful experience to listen to you and your co-hosts enumerating the increasingly outlandish views expressed by Chen, including him taking personal credit for ending China’s One-Child Policy. But the real nail in the coffin of your optimism seems to come towards the very end, when you discuss the sexual assault allegations against Teng Biao, the human rights activist and former friend of Chen’s whom your co-hosts had initially chosen as a ‘refreshing’ counterpart to Chen’s trajectory given the progressive politics he maintained even after moving to the United States. These allegations emerged while the podcast production was nearly complete and, rather than dropping him from the series, you chose to keep him in and address the situation head-on. In so doing, you ignored the calls of those who say that misbehaviour by human rights activists should be hushed up because of the ‘big picture’. How do you feel about these actions by individuals we once idolised? And, to quote your co-host Colin Jones from the show, ‘[H]ow [can we] move forward in a world without heroes?’

YC: As I mentioned earlier, it is easy to criticise—either Chen’s bigotry or Teng Biao’s sexual assault allegations—but it is also too easy, hence tempting, at the risk of absolving ourselves and shirking collective responsibility. I shared on the show, which you also reference in your question, that my own mother holds many of the same views as Chen on social issues, on race, gender, and sexuality. I also have people close to me who voted for Trump. I do not know Teng Biao well, but growing up, I have known intimately people on both sides of sexual assaults and gendered violence. It is easy to condemn or cast aside one or two public figures, but what do you do with people whom you’ve known your entire life, people who have taught you or raised you?

Hence, as I also express on the show, I cannot say I’m disappointed by certain views or behaviours, because that would imply an expectation that another person should be how I would like them to be, to make the world a little easier for me to comprehend and move through, and that is ultimately a selfish expectation. Heroes are not born; they are made. Why do people create heroes out of men—and it is usually men? Why is being human not enough? Who needs heroes, and why?

Ella Baker famously said that strong people don’t need strong leaders. What she meant was not that leadership, or organisation, is unnecessary in struggle, but that collective liberation cannot be carried on the backs of a handful of messianic figures. In the context in which she was speaking, Baker was also critiquing certain elements of the US civil rights movement that appeared to be dominated by a select few ‘strong’ male leaders and was challenging people to rethink the meaning of strength and recognise that true, lasting power lies with the masses, not at the top.

IF: To conclude on a less bleak note, towards the end of the final episode you say that ‘hope comes from the new generation’ and specifically mention the A4 Movement of 2022. What are the legacies of that movement today and the prospects for the future?

YC: I do not want to make this too much of a generational thing, because what is more important than age is perspective, and what we know about the past has been filtered by structures of power.

For the ‘White Paper’ protests that erupted in China at the end of 2022, mainly against the draconian Covid-19 lockdowns that had become a symbol of the Chinese Government’s dictatorial power, the most important legacy is that they happened. For many inside and outside China, it marked a moment of political awaking. Like the legal activism in the 2000s that we just discussed, the existence of the White Paper movement proved a possibility. And alongside the earlier legal activism and other social movements in contemporary China, big or small, it is now part of the genealogy of struggle, part of the path that must be walked to have a chance to exist.

On the show, I also brought up some of the more hopeful elements of the White Paper movement, including a fledgling cross-racial and interethnic consciousness, prominent participation by feminist and queer activists, and its transnational reach. The spark, quenched by authorities in China, has been sustained by a young generation of overseas Chinese, many of whom are new to activism, and it is often connected with other local organisations and diasporic communities with shared aspirations.

The show is called Dissident at the Doorstep and the images of a doorstep and a blank sheet of paper are both immensely hopeful symbols: they do not provide a set path, a map, or an answer. What they do signal is an opening and the promise of possibilities. One must take a step or pick up a pen.

 

References

Lorde, Audre. 2007 [1984]. ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.’ In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110–14. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.
Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. New York, NY: Verso.
Slobodian, Quinn. 2018. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 


Ivan Franceschini

Ivan Franceschini is an incoming lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Melbourne. His expertise lies in the field of labour rights, with a specific focus on China and Cambodia. His latest books include Xinjiang Year Zero (ANU Press, 2022), Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour (Verso Books, 2022), and Global China as Method (Cambridge University Press, 2022). With Tommaso Facchin, he co-directed the documentaries Dreamwork China (2011) and Boramey: Ghosts in the Factory (2021). He is a founder and chief editor of the Made in China Journal, The People’s Map of Global China, and Global China Pulse. He is currently working on a new book on modern slavery in the online scam industry in East and Southeast Asia, which will be published by Verso in 2025.


Yangyang Cheng

Yangyang Cheng is a Research Scholar in Law and a Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, where her work focuses on the development of science and technology in China and US‒China relations. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, MIT Technology Review, and WIRED, and have received several awards from the Society of Publishers in Asia, the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She is a co-host, writer, and producer of the narrative podcast series Dissident at the Doorstep, from Crooked Media. Born and raised in China, Cheng received her PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Science and Technology of China’s School for the Gifted Young. Before joining Yale, she worked on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for more than a decade, most recently at Cornell University, and as an LHC Physics Center Distinguished Researcher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

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