Chinese painting featuring two birds on a flowering tree branch (ca.1800–1899) from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection. Original from the New York Public Library. Courtesy of rawpixel/Flickr.

There are many people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than me who are writing about the U.S.-China conflict. What I offer today are some raw reflections and some thinking about being Chinese in America in the midst of this ongoing conflict and the way it politicizes and shapes my everyday life and psyche. My experience of being in diaspora is to experience many homes and no homes at the same time. And to seek to find connection, a sense of history and belonging in places and lands that we may no longer inhabit but hold deep and dear.  Becoming an immigrant in the U.S. also often means either a severance and a mandatory amnesia from where you come from, the homelands, or to be perpetually foreign. So these reflections are very much related to that feeling of refusing amnesia and refusing to be other-ed and made perpetually foreign. 

I do long to find home here on Turtle Island, and to reconcile that with being a guest on Native land, and the legacy of settler colonialism. I do believe in connection to the homelands and to do my part in supporting and shaping resistance movements abroad that are anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. Not in a sappy romantic way, but in a concrete way that honors the resistance, contradictions and struggles of everyday people and our  dreams of liberation against empire and capital, to believe that our struggles wherever we  are are interconnected.

Being grounded in analyses around racial capitalism and imperialism helps me understand this. Thinking about racialized class struggle as a starting place for understanding how to address the U.S.-China conflict is a goal. Learning how global transnational capital functions in China and the U.S. and the way capital shapes the division of labor through the categories of race, class and gender tailored to its own conditions, help me understand our potential for transnational class struggle. It also helps me understand the obstacles and challenges and what we might need to overcome. 

Being in community with poor Black and Brown people who have been cast away into prisons in rural America, as surplus populations in the American wasteland denied their freedom to live, helps me to also understand the alienation and desperation that I encountered with Foxconn workers in China many years back. There was a lot of loneliness and pain, and a lot of resistance and resilience. Riots are a common feature, as we saw recently in the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant. Relationships and community connections, trust building over food and culture, despite all attempts to strangle and break the spirit, are a survival mechanism. But both in the prison and in the factory, capital disciplines and creates either a place to squeeze and extract your labor power, or it relegates you to heavily surveilled quarters to control your potential rebellion. 

My reflections are an attempt to make sense of being Chinese in America. It is through these lens that I understand the U.S.-China conflict and try to squeeze in a way to see a different way from what the media and propaganda tell us is real.

The U.S. China conflict as it is presented obscures the stratifications within Chinese America. In doing so it obscures our strategies for effectively addressing the root causes of the conflict and the systems that perpetuate our suffering across oceans. It causes us to rely on a discourse on “rights,” a discourse that is fundamentally legalistic and compatible with capital, reliant on a state that oversees a legal system that presumes to protect our rights. A system that  is largely incomprehensible to the majority of us, granted by people in power. The discourse of rights has failed oppressed communities here domestically, and it is not an effective tool for struggle.

Take the balloon for example. The balloon that has been played over and over on our TV screens and social media feeds. The balloon that identifies China as the bogeyman spying on the US. What is not said, is that the U.S., similarly and proudly has been developing aerospace technology to surveil China and Russia. This is business as usual for geopolitics. What is not said, is that the U.S. has also been surveilling and repressing its own population for years. The balloon incident coincides with the airing of a new podcast called Alphabet Brothers that details how the FBI had been planting infiltrators and agents in the George Floyd movement, a legacy of Cointelpro that destroyed the Black liberation struggle and American Indian Movement in the 1960s. Surveillance is as American as apple pie, and what gives a government more “right” to surveil its own population, than another country? Are we against surveillance and infiltration into our intimate lives period, or are we only against Chinese surveillance?  

What we also know, is that surveillance is very Chinese too. The Chinese state surveils its own population, its own workers, surveils the Uyghur population, in the name of stability and harmony. 

So when there is so much noise around the balloon, what are we really against? Why aren’t the television and social media channels equally shocked by the level of surveillance that Black activists experience while resisting state violence? Why are we not told to fight the state that perpetuates killings of Black people? Why are we told to trust the state and its internal mechanisms all of which are opaque to us? Why aren’t we equally shocked by the level of surveillance that is ongoing everyday in the U.S.? Are we clinging on to the idea that only a government has the right to surveil and repress the people it claims to govern? Especially a government that is known to enact violence against its own population? Who allocated that right? It wasn’t you or me, or any of the people surveilled.

We know inter-state surveillance is not new. We can only speculate why this balloon incident was blown so out of proportion, and perhaps it serves as a test of public sentiment in the U.S. for further aggression and sanctions against China. It also serves to build a multi-racial consensus that unites to fight off the dangerous “other.” That’s terrifying. We know that the U.S. has already close to 750 military bases encircling China and talks of war are not too distant or far off. 

The U.S.-China conflict as it is often discussed, presents false binary options – either an utter defense of the Chinese state in the spirit of resisting the white supremacy and US imperialist discourse, or the defense of the U.S. state, despite all its problems, as a more benevolent alternative to an authoritarian and scary China, therefore deserving our loyalty and support. Both entities are responsible for immense suffering. We deserve to have more options.  

  • • •

Since Lunar New Year, I have been filled with sadness and anxiety about the mass shootings in California. I imagine many of you here in this space have been navigating the emotions surrounding those events as well. I send deep empathy to you all. I keep asking and wondering, why are our elders killing themselves and each other in such a dramatic and intense way? 

The mass shooting at Half Moon Bay has really plagued me. The perpetuator, as we know, is a 66 year old Chinese immigrant called Zhao Chunli. He is currently incarcerated in California for killing seven people. It was a tragic incident.

What was jarring to me, is that the shooter himself is a 66 year old, who came to the US 10 years ago. He was a non-English speaking, impoverished farm worker living in the midst of a beach resort in California. The people he shot were predominantly other Chinese elders. He was making about $9 an hour living in squalid conditions. In the news reports that I read, he was triggered particularly after years of working at the farm, because his boss had wanted him to pay a $100 fine for damaging equipment while driving a forklift at work. 

There are obviously many things I do not know about this man, and his motives. But what I do observe, is that you cannot separate his working conditions and class experience from the violence he enacted. Yes, we definitely need mental health support, all that, to have better coping strategies. I want to say it loud and clear, that experiences of Injustice don’t justify mass murder or hurting another person. But mental health support or therapy, or meditation for that matter, could not have addressed the material oppression and injustice he likely experienced. It could have helped him cope better, but would not have gotten to the root cause of his exploitation and suffering. 

He experienced class rage. An experience that is also actually very American, and very Chinese. It is a joke now, but “going postal” is a term that was popularized in the 80s and 90s because workers in the postal service were running amok and going into episodes of rage and shooting their coworkers. This was actually a pattern of behavior and that’s why it earned the slang term. This was in a period of austerity and union busting during the Reagan era and subsequently increasing workload and terrible working conditions for postal workers. Individualized horizontal violence is the tragic outcome of anger and rage that cannot be channeled toward systems of power who are truly responsible. 

This is also very Chinese. The acts of rage at work that lead to violence – in China we have incidents of workers killing their bosses because they cannot tolerate it anymore.

None of this is to justify violence as a product of workplace exploitation. But the fact is that it happens as a result of class exploitation in the U.S. and China, and it is a phenomenon more common than we want to believe. And I think often of what Black feminist scholar Ruth Gilmore Wilson says in describing the conditions of Black communities experiencing the prison system:  “Racism is ‘the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.’” 

Premature death is what Zhao Chunli brought to his coworkers. And the group that he and his workers at Half Moon Bay constituted, were impoverished, exploited, non-English speaking workers at a farm located in a wealthy white fancy beach resort. 

Foxconn workers who jumped to their deaths in the factories, workers who killed their bosses in the shopfloor, in China and beyond, are also part of this group. 

What does it mean to understand the U.S.-China conflict from this vantage point? Of workers who face premature death in the exploitative conditions they experience? They work in American and Chinese companies that each enforce their own version of discipline and exploitation.They work for American and Chinese capital who will collaborate sometimes, and battle each other at other times, depending on the interests of the moment. 

What then does it mean to be Chinese in America? Who is centered? Who is made invisible?

Who too, do we think of when we think of the protests in China? Who’s story gets told and who’s story is too scandalous?

What has the American dream done for Zhao Chunli?

What has the China dream done for Zhao Chunli?

  • • •

There is a lot to weigh, a lot to grapple with, being Chinese in America, being Chinese in diaspora and supporting liberation movements in the homelands and here onTurtle Island. Chinese people have an unstable place in the US imagination. We don’t always have the space to discuss and talk about the values that guide us. Thank you for this space to share thoughts. 

This piece was adapted from a talk the author gave to the Chinese Student and Activist Network in February 2023.

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