‘We Want to Flourish’

‘We Want to Flourish’

When Shen Yitong left her home in China to study French at Cairo University in 2008, she didn’t know that she would come to think of Egypt as a second home, or that she would see revolution come upon the country so suddenly. Her parents came from peasant backgrounds and they devoted everything to supporting her education, including moving from a smaller city in northern Jilin Province to the capital city, Changchun, in 2004. 

I met Shen while in Cairo for an arts festival in the spring of 2013. The toppling of then-President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 reverberated through the small Chinese expat community there, whose members number in the thousands. Outsiders to the factional disputes, Chinese expat fates are still intertwined with their outcomes — in part because they live in Egypt, but also because they are Chinese citizens, for whom the tradeoff between political freedoms and the uncertainty of regime change has immediate resonance. 

I filmed Shen during January and February; she has since left Cairo to start a Master’s degree in Paris. This short film, produced for ChinaFile, focuses on a conversation Shen has with a close Egyptian friend, Asma El Nagar. El Nagar works for a Chinese company in Egypt after having studied Mandarin at Cairo University. The two friends laugh over a meal of Lanzhou noodles and converse in rapid-fire, relaxed Mandarin with occasional Arabic mixed in. 

As their conversation turns to current events, the two friends draw parallels between the Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Neither is a historian, political commentator, expert, or activist, and this film does not aim to portray them as authorities. In fact, before coming to Cairo, Shen, like many of her peers at home, had never heard of the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. There are of course many strong distinctions between the August 2013 Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters. What they do have in common is they are both examples of overwhelming state violence against civilians. In both Egypt and China, these events are marked by an inability to freely discuss or even commemorate them without fear of retribution.