Zhao Sile: Writing about others’ struggles brought me out of ignorance

Narrator: Sile Zhao|Georgetown University China Law Fellow, Former Current Affairs Journalist

Sile Zhao, born in 1990, is a former Chinese current affairs journalist and women’s rights activist. Growing up in Guangzhou, a southern city with a relatively open political climate, she naively thought she lived in the same world as the people on Hong Kong TV who could march in the streets, protest, and vote. It was only when she enrolled in Nanjing University to study financial engineering that she realized that this was not a normal country.

During her studies, she went to Taiwan for half a year on an exchange program, which coincided with the 2011 general election. The liberal atmosphere of a democratic society made a huge impact on her and ignited her dream of being a media person since she was a child. During her university years, she started to write in-depth reports for Hong Kong-based media, from the Wukan village election, the near-collapse of NGO suppression in China, to the struggle of the 709 families to defend their rights. In her early twenties, she documented China’s complex social movements and individuals crushed by power with calm and delicate writing beyond her years, and has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence from the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards and the Asian Publishers Association.

In 2017, Chiu Sze Lok published Their Journey: Straightforward, Detouring and Punching, Chinese Women’s Paths to Civic Awakening in Taiwan. In her own words, the book “looks at how China’s complex and tumultuous social movements have risen and fallen over the past 30 years through the laughter, tears, pain, and love of five women protesters’ stories of growth.” The book was selected as one of the “Top Ten Best Books” in the non-fiction category by Asia Weekly in 2017.

In 2018, Sile Zhao studied in the U.S. in the Master’s Program in Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and after graduation, she stayed on as a researcher at the Asian Law Center.

From the beginning when I was ignorant and felt indignant when I went to Wukan, to later doing a lot of reporting, including the Bo Xilai case, the crackdown on NGOs, and finally 709, I realized that this state apparatus itself, its purpose is to control and suppress the vitality of society and its democratic spirit, democratic attempts and resistance intentions in every aspect.

I grew up in Guangzhou, where I could see TV programs like Hong Kong TV and TVB. All kinds of news and current affairs programs often reported on demonstrations, discussed various policy issues, debated in the Legislative Council, questioned senior officials, all of which were particularly normal. I could see on TV how heated the elections were in Taiwan, and I thought that elections were very common, even presidential elections and so on. Because you were so young, what you received from the TV, you thought that was what your society looked like.

When I was 9 years old, there was an incident when the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, and there was a patriotic march on the streets of Guangzhou. My father was watching from the street. I felt particularly bored and said to my dad, “Let’s go home, why are you watching this?” My dad then said, “This is rare to see in China.” I was confused, and I thought, “Isn’t this very common? There’s a parade on TV all day long or something. But I didn’t ask my dad about it, and our family is a very depoliticized family. It wasn’t until I went to college that I understood that I was in a different kind of society. Because I went to college in a more northern place, I thought, “Oh, so everyone wants to join the party, so everyone grows up watching Newsbusters. I found the News Broadcast particularly boring, and I didn’t understand why I wanted to become a civil servant or join the Party, but it seemed to be a normal thing for them.

One year when I went back to Guangzhou for the summer, some students in Guangzhou were running for the National People’s Congress as independent candidates and encountered all kinds of obstacles along the way. I went to do a research report, purely out of interest. At that time, there was still a little room for civil society in Weibo, discussions, and society at large.

I really realized the differences between the political systems of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, and how these differences came about, probably during the six-month exchange period when I went to Taiwan. At that time, Taiwan was holding a presidential election. You can imagine the shock and contrast I felt when I arrived in Taiwan, as I had just witnessed all the obstacles to the grassroots NPC elections in China, and I was particularly excited. It was a crazy time when I think about it now. Without money to live in Taipei, I would sleep on the streets of Taipei, in order to go around and interview political figures. They were also particularly open and willing to talk to me.

I live-streamed my Taipei observations on Weibo, where I went today, who I interviewed, and what interesting ideas I had. These things were noticed. Sunshine Weekly is a small media outlet based in Hong Kong, but with a lot of liberal Chinese media people, including Changping, Zhang Jiping, Jia Jia, and others. They seemed to be particularly short of staff, so they asked me, “Do you want to come and write for us?” I remember being a 21-year-old student sitting with these teachers and participating in political discussions until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. It was a very exciting and wild experience, and it actually had a particularly big impact on my love of public life and public discussion.

It was the Wukan incident that really got me involved in the work of journalists and the baptism of social movements. As soon as I returned from Taiwan to mainland China, this incident happened. It was another election, and I felt particularly excited to go. As a university student at that time, it was honestly very dangerous for me to enter that environment. Now I think of it as the so-called “newborn calves are not afraid of tigers”. The Wukan incident was also my first exposure to complex political reporting on a big topic. Fortunately, I met Ms. Zhang Jieping there. I asked her if she was also an intern, but a few days later I found out that she was the interview director of Sunshine Weekly. She took me around for interviews. The cover feature we wrote together won the 2012 Hong Kong Human Rights Journalism Award – my first human rights journalism award. I was only 22 years old at the time. The media experience I just started was actually a combination of support, care and social environment from many people, I guess.

Wukan may be the beginning, but the coverage of the 709 families may be the end, and the 709 families are the group I admire most among the protest groups I have covered. They have a very pure philosophy and have grown up very fast. From the beginning, they only went to show their solidarity or struggle for their husbands’ release, but later they became a group of very core human rights defenders, participating in various struggles and supporting various political prisoners and their families. They have grown from wives to human rights activists. They have a lot of creative actions that combine social life, personal feelings, family and the so-called sense of responsibility for society and the country. Their perspective and activism is particularly amazing to me, but their situation is also particularly sad. It took years for their husbands to be released and reunited with them as well. But even for such good, activist and resilient resisters, their roles in that system were almost crushed by the situation. They barely kept themselves safe, but had no way to really change the structure or advance their issues.

I felt that the social movement I had learned about might have reached a bottleneck, and that the 709 families were actually a point of growth for me. After doing that report, I felt like I had probably seen the most beautiful group of people, and I now had to learn about something else in order to continue on my path. 2018 I studied abroad at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the United States, majoring in global politics and security. I currently work at Georgetown University’s School of Law as a China Law Fellow at the Asian Law Center.

From the beginning, when I was ignorant, I felt indignant when I arrived in Wukan – why should this group of people be suppressed for their legitimate demands for their rights? Later on, there were many reports, including the Bo Xilai case, the crackdown on NGOs, and finally 709, and I felt that it was a systematic thing. I realized that this state apparatus itself, its purpose is to control and suppress the vitality and resistance of society. You can see that it is comprehensively suppressing the vitality of a society and its democratic spirit, democratic attempts and resistance intentions in every aspect, and how it is very subtle or very strategically designed to suppress and control the society in order to maintain the security of the regime.

Many people think that when different leaders of the Chinese Communist Party come to power, Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao will change. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party is very logical and consistent in choosing the policies and performances that are good for maintaining their regime at all times, both in the international arena and for the people. Throughout the reporting process, my understanding of this regime became clearer step by step.

I write books and work as a journalist, which seems to be more widely known, but in fact I can’t make ends meet financially, and I have to find many ways to support myself. But I think people can choose such a way of life, choose a life that is not so socially acceptable, but that they believe in, that is more in line with their own perceptions, their own conscience, and their own sense of responsibility. For example, I am a financial engineering student, I can not go to a bank, I can not go to Wall Street, I can not make a lot of money, but I choose a life and work that is more in line with my own values.

For various reasons, I have not been able to go back to China for several years to reunite with my family. But I’ve been very fortunate to be in a safe place, so I have more reason than others to take responsibility and do what needs to be done when I have to. I think my personal worries and complaints are actually very insignificant. Many people are doing what they should be doing in China, even in more dangerous environments. I can only take one step at a time to see what the next step is, and choose the path that best fits my heart’s desire and belief.