China, Tibet: Interview with Grace Wang

A Chinese student at Duke University in North Carolina who wrote “Free Tibet” on the back of an anti-Chinese protester during an attempt to mediate a campus dispute over Tibet is now hated by former classmates and teachers alike, a former teacher said. Grace Wang tried to mediate between two groups of protesters at her college: those demonstrating against human rights violations in Tibet as the Olympic torch passed through the U.S. on its way to Beijing last week, and those supporting the Chinese government. Her actions resulted in her entire personal contact details being posted on several Internet sites, and widespread hate messages and even death threats from Chinese netizens. But in the first indication of the reaction among ordinary Chinese people in her hometown, Wang’s former high school, the Qingdao No.2 Middle School, has held a special patriotic meeting in the wake of the campaign against her.

“Both teachers and students in the school hate her,” a teacher from the Qingdao school surnamed Li told RFA’s Cantonese service. (Original Chinese reports here and here.)

“Yes, her academic performance was comparatively good,” he admitted. “But students and teachers are angry. She can’t be a Chinese citizen.”

In scenes reminiscent of mass “struggle” sessions of the political hate campaigns of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), everything to do with Grace Wang has been publicly villified, online as well as offline.

Interview with Shen Hua, of RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie:

RFA: How are things with you right now?

GW: After this incident things got a bit crazy so now I’m not even going to classes or exams. Right now all the exams are over, so it would only be a question of attending a few lectures.

RFA: Why can’t you go to class? What are you afraid of?

GW: After this happened a lot of people were calling me on the phone. But the thing I’m really worried about is whether my parents are safe or not.

RFA: Have you been in touch with your parents at all?

GW: Every morning and evening we exchange e-mails to say we are still alive, and that everything is fine.

RFA: And how are they doing?

GW: They are being very tight-lipped and not saying much about it. I think they are on the run. I don’t know their exact location. They aren’t telling me. I think that’s because they are afraid the Chinese government will intercept the e-mail.

RFA: They are no longer living at their home?

GW: That’s right. I don’t know when they moved out or where they are staying now. But at least they seem to be all right according to their e-mails. At least they say they’re safe. Now it’s got to the point where it’s not a question of what I say making them worry; it’s me who’s worrying.

RFA: And how are your fellow Chinese classmates at Duke treating you?

GW: On Saturday and Sunday there was still a lot of anger over this incident. But there were still some people who would talk to me, give me a peck on the cheek, and I was beginning to think that the whole thing would just blow over. But actually it’s not going to blow over until there is some sort of settlement, some justice. It doesn’t really matter what they say to me. The incident itself will probably blow over, but the problem will still remain. The truth is still out there if we want to go after it. Since this blew up, there has been a lot of media interest, and that has been very hard for them, because they haven’t experienced anything like this before, whereas at least I’ve been in the thick of it all along, and am a bit more mentally prepared for it. I think some of them support me because they feel that I am a young female student who is being bullied, but I tell them it’s not me they should support, but the truth. I would just like them to support the right to freedom of expression.

RFA: Do you feel that your life is in danger?

GW: I think probably not. I don’t really have much time for those people who talk a good fight but then don’t do anything much. I don’t think they are courageous enough to do something.

RFA: But you have received threats, is that right?

GW: I have, yes, but nothing has happened. I have had threats from a lot of people, both spoken and written. I get a lot of e-mails, but I don’t read them. I just delete them. I don’t bother trying to find out who is sending them. I believe that everyone has the right to free speech, and also the right to say the wrong thing sometimes and to be forgiven for it.

RFA: Are you being protected by campus services?

GW: No, but the police are protecting me. I didn’t want any more elaborate protection because I didn’t want to alarm the other students in my dorm. The police have stepped up patrols in the campus, in the places I am likely to be, and I can call them at any time and they will be with me in five minutes. But I think that self-protection is the most important thing.

RFA: So what about your studies, if you are not going to classes?

GW: I think that I need to sort all of this out first, and then I know that, once I’m in a clear and logical place in my own mind, I’ll be able to catch up very quickly after this is over.

RFA: Can you describe what happened that day?

GW: …There was an incident taking place where a group of Chinese students and a group of Westerners — not Tibetans; they don’t really dare to show their faces. There are only five Tibetans here and four of them are good friends of mine — There were Americans and Chinese in a face-off and each side was trying to find more and more people to support their side…When I got there I really wanted to understand exactly what their positions were. In demonstrations things get very broad-sweeping. For example, you can say that you support democracy, but actually fascism arose out of democratic politics… You can also say that the Cultural Revolution was an extreme form of democracy. So my first concern was to speak to both sides and to find out exactly what it was they were really saying. This is also true of the concept of patriotism. You might say you are patriotic, but actually you may do something to harm your country with your patriotism. This is very likely.

RFA: So you came out in order to try to mediate between the two sides?

GW: Yes, but to begin with I didn’t have that in mind. I didn’t know how likely that was, even…I also didn’t know exactly where they were coming from. Sometimes a lot of students will get moved to act a certain way by their emotions, but in fact what they are saying doesn’t make any sense. The main thing I was trying to do was to find out the position that each side was taking.

RFA: So what were you saying to them?

GW: I was saying that they shouldn’t stand so far apart, on two sides, with such a big gap between them; that the world isn’t composed of extremes like that, of two extreme poles. Humanity spends most of its time in the middle way. So I was trying to persuade both sides to come into the center, to talk to each other. But both sides unanimously refused to budge…A lot of the Chinese people were having a go at me, calling me a traitor and so on. They had a problem with the fact that I was speaking English instead of Chinese. At this point this started to get a bit dangerous, because we were touching on issues of Chinese nationalism.

RFA: At what point did you become aware that there was this tide of insult against you all over the Internet?

GW: It was the morning, or lunchtime of the following day.

RFA: And people started to post photographs of you online?

GW: Yes. There were a lot of photographs. In fact I spent most of my time talking to the Chinese side, and there were far more photographs of me standing on the Chinese side that on the American side. I felt that the photographs posted of me were highly selective, displaying certain angles and not others. They didn’t give a full and balanced representation of what happened.

RFA: What is your view of Tibet? Is it a part of China? What is your view on Tibetan indepedendence?

GW: I wrote this very clearly in my letter.

RFA: In your letter “To my compatriots”, right?

GW: Yes, that’s right. I think that Tibet is definitely a part of China. It is indivisible from China. This means that we must deal with Tibet and Tibetans as our brothers and compatriots. That means that we should use other methods than those used to deal with outsiders. You can use whatever methods you think expedient with outsiders; even very forceful methods. But with Tibetans we are dealing with our own relatives. There should be more reason and more relatedness in our dealings with them…

RFA: Is that what you meant when you wrote “leaning on them, step by step, will turn friends into enemies” in your letter?

GW: Yes, that’s right.

RFA: But some people in China have been saying, how are we supposed to keep quiet?

GW: I think that is something that I was saying to the angriest group, that you can’t just tell the other side to shut up, just because it is China’s issue. That was aimed at a small group of people in the demonstration that day. I was besieged by them at one point. It is quite a scary thing to have five hundred angry people bearing down on one as a single individual, when those five hundred people are shouting hate speech at you. One person said “Did you know you look like [Tiananmen Square protest leader] Chai Ling. If she can be burned to death, then so can you.” My main point was that they should be dealing with the Tibetans as compatriots. That letter wasn’t written to the whole of China. I just wrote it to a small group of those people who were there that day…It was written specifically against the way that those particular Duke students were behaving that day.

RFA: So what is your view of the hatred against you that this incident generated? Were you very surprised by it?

GW: Yes, I was very surprised. But I think that they would equally well say those things to anyone. I am just a sort of target. I think that this strange “anger” which we see among Chinese people right now is evidence of great psychological imbalance. It is a peculiar, twisted form of patriotism. It isn’t really patriotism at all. It is all about boosting oneself by attacking other people.

RFA: Why do you think this is happening?

GW: I am not a sociologist. But my personal view is that it is a mass surge in the collective psyche caused by the fact that in almost every other area, there is inadequate protection for ordinary people’s rights and their ability to effect change. At a time like this, each person needs to find some way of releasing that psychological tension. And with the emergence of the Internet, that tension gets taken out on other people through a totally illusory sense of effectiveness. And when you get thousands and tens of thousands of people doing this together, they get a tremendous sense of security from attacking someone together.

RFA: You were educated at a primary school and a high school in Qingdao, where some of your former teachers and students are now having patriotism meetings.

GW: It is like history repeating itself. Some of them are just doing it to show everyone that they hold the “correct” views. It really does look just like the Cultural Revolution to me. When I was studying that period in China’s history, I didn’t believe it. But it’s really like a joke. A lot of these people think that there was no such thing as the Cultural Revolution, that it didn’t happen, but right now we are experiencing something very similar…When I got accepted by Duke, people really looked up to me. They wrote that article about me making me out to be a kind of genius. Now that this has happened they are perfectly happy to cast me into the ninth circle of hell…A lot of those people in my hometown don’t know what actually happened. They have no idea who I am.

RFA: Where did you learn to have such an independent mind, to speak the truth as you see it, something that none of your fellow students or thousands of your compatriots seem able to achieve? Did your education differ from theirs in some way?

GW: I didn’t do anything very differently from anyone else. Maybe it’s because I love to read and like thinking about things…Actually there is a huge silent majority in China who don’t speak out. They can see clearly what is going on and they can think for themselves. So far, not one of those more considered voices has been heard. We are just hearing the rather excitable views of the people who are content to view things superficially. I think that this whole affair will blow over and be forgotten about, but psychologically it won’t have been dealt with. At least I can talk openly about it because I am in the U.S…

RFA: What kind of influence have your parents had on you?

GW: My parents support some of my views and oppose others. But I wouldn’t expect them to think the same as me. That would be terrifying, if everyone thought the same way.

RFA: Your father wrote a letter of apology. Have you read it?

GW: That wasn’t written by them. I have been in touch with my parents. They told me very clearly that it wasn’t written by them.

RFA: So who did write it? Do you know?

GW: I don’t know who wrote it.

RFA: You’re absolutely sure that your parents didn’t write it.

GW: I’m sure. They were very clear about that. They also said they knew I would never do anything to betray my country. They said that they were just lying low, waiting in silence for the coming of spring, as it were, until everyone had calmed down a bit and could take a different view of the matter.

RFA: Is it true that there has since been a round-table discussion on the question of China and Tibet at Duke?

GW: Yes, there has. I think that it was very successful, because it took place after everyone had calmed down a bit. It was always my aim to try to achieve that sort of result, to get to a point where people would sit down and analyze the situation in a calm manner. For example, in developed countries like the U.S and in Europe, there is the question of race relations. In the United States it is one of the top priorities. Of course no single culture has the ultimate solution, but in these countries it is already in a fairly mature stage, whereas we in China are still at the stage of discussing whether it is a problem at all, and whether we should do anything about it.

RFA: So was the discussion conducted in a reasonable manner.

GW: Yes it was. People had different views, but so they should. It is much richer and much more conducive to progress. I don’t agree with this attitude that says that different views should not exist, and which then tries to silence the other party when they express them.

RFA: Are you on your way to becoming politician?

GW: I would like to become a politician, but if I can’t be a good one then I won’t be one at all. Because my personality isn’t always very calm and balanced. If I could take a moderate view and see the other side then I would have let my people down. It strikes me that you have to be very careful in politics. If you make a mistake, then that isn’t offset by all the good things that you did for people…I believe in the middle way, as opposed to extremes, but I don’t think that means you have to limit yourself to being an ordinary person. You can still achieve excellence. But of course if you decide that you want to be a politician, then you have to expect that people from all sides are going to attack you…Right now there are a lot of people who are projecting their own problems onto me…I would wish that any country would have a strong citizenry, not an overly strong government that oppresses ordinary people to the point where they can’t even speak their own minds. We also need a lot more love and high-mindedness, so that when conflicts occur we can just let them be, and then reflect afterwards on what happened, and on one’s own part in them.

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