Tea Leaf Nation

The Man Who Burned His Chinese Passport

He also disparaged Chinese students online. Now netizens are arguing — was it racism, treachery, or political dissent?

BAVET, CAMBODIA - MAY 16:  A Chinese national holds a Chinese Passport after being stamped to enter Cambodia after fleeing Vietnam on May 16, 2014 at the Bavet border crossing, Cambodia. More than a thousand Chinese nationals have fled Vietnam over the past few days, crossing into Cambodia at the Bavet border crossing, in order to escape violent protests which have erupted in Vietnam over the South Sea conflict. Riots against Chinese companies started last Wednesday in different parts of the country. The riots come in the wake of violent attacks on factories in Vietnam's south, amid international outcry over the placement of an oil rig by China in an area of the South China sea that is currently claimed by both countries. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)
BAVET, CAMBODIA - MAY 16: A Chinese national holds a Chinese Passport after being stamped to enter Cambodia after fleeing Vietnam on May 16, 2014 at the Bavet border crossing, Cambodia. More than a thousand Chinese nationals have fled Vietnam over the past few days, crossing into Cambodia at the Bavet border crossing, in order to escape violent protests which have erupted in Vietnam over the South Sea conflict. Riots against Chinese companies started last Wednesday in different parts of the country. The riots come in the wake of violent attacks on factories in Vietnam's south, amid international outcry over the placement of an oil rig by China in an area of the South China sea that is currently claimed by both countries. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)

Is he gruff or mean-spirited? Introspective or self-hating? Dissident — or racist? Overseas Chinese can’t seem to agree on how to describe Wu Wei, a 26-year-old Chinese-Australian PhD student and finance tutor at the University of Sydney (USYD) Business School, who posted a video of himself online burning a Chinese passport before throwing it in the toilet. Wu resigned from his tutoring position on April 18 after a ferocious and international outcry over this and other social media posts. Some Chinese are calling him a racist and traitor, while others online see him as yet another political dissident persecuted by Chinese state-linked groups. The differing reactions reflect an ideological divide over whether criticism of China’s party-state is the same thing as self-hatred; and when and how self-hatred can bleed into racism.

Wu’s journey to social media infamy began on April 8, when Wu got into a social media fight with pro-government netizens on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, about Chinese import tax policy. Wu’s opponents dug up his social media history, and discovered a rich trove of provocative posts. That included Wu’s now infamous burning of his Chinese passport, which he performed after receiving Australian citizenship.

By April 14, the USYD university newspaper Honi Soit reported that an online petition from a student group was calling for his ouster. Wu resigned on April 18 and issued an apology “for the inappropriate and disrespectful comments I made on the Internet.” The university announced that Wu will continue his research studies after “having been reprimanded for his actions in line with the University policies related to student conduct,” which the school did not say included racist remarks. Wu’s Weibo account is now inaccessible; The Sydney Morning Herald reports Wu deactivated it after receiving numerous harassing, sometimes violent messages, although angry web users have already captured and translated Wu’s comments.  (Wu did not respond to an emailed Foreign Policy request for comment.)

Some of Wu’s language was certainly offensive to some, and appears to near or perhaps cross the line demarcating racist statements. During his debate with what he called “little pinks,” slang for pro-government youth, Wu referred to one Chinese student in Australia as an “international student pig” and questioned the student’s IQ. He also praised his mother for being “elevated” enough to say she was ashamed of being Chinese.

Other online remarks, also collected by his accusers as evidence against Wu, do not appear racist at all, but instead look like criticism of Chinese government and society. In one post, Wu claimed he never donated a penny to relief organizations after China’s horrific Wenchuan Earthquake in May 2008, implicitly because of the corruption scandal surrounding Chinese charities; Wu added it was “the second proudest thing I’ve ever done — the first is that I’ve never joined the Communist Youth League.” Wu also insisted on referring to Chinese as “your language,” and China as “your country.” Both phrases are popular among dissidents and government critics, and are intended to subvert state media language that refers to China as “my country.”

Wu’s Chinese critics are not necessarily dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the ruling Communist Party; many of them may not even care about politics at all. But during the outcry over Wu’s comments, they have shown intolerance for criticism of their country, culture, and society — especially when it comes from one of their own. It didn’t help Wu that he also proclaimed a fondness for Japan and wrote some of his posts in Japanese, in addition to praising Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet regime installed in northeast China during World War II. (Japan’s conduct during the war remains an object of widespread resentment in China.)

The significance of Wu’s comments has been very much in the eye of the beholder. The Australian Red Scarf, a public WeChat account that claims to represent overseas Chinese voices, published an April 13 post that linked Wu’s pseudonymous Weibo account with his real personal information, combed his social media history, and encouraged students to file complaints against him. Shortly thereafter, state government mouthpiece Global Times reposted the same article with the title, “He burned his own Chinese passport.” On April 15, the official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League Central Committee, among many others, accused Wu of “publicly insulting China.”

Some at the University of Sydney said they were leery of how Wu might treat them, given his comments. One Chinese student claiming to study under Wu posted publicly on Facebook that Wu’s comments made her “feel very insecure in his tutorials and lectures, because of how clearly he shows his HATE towards China and the Chinese people.” (Emphasis in original.) “He makes me wonder, if he hates Chinese so much, how could he possibly teach Chinese students without any prejudice?”

Other Chinese web users supported what they saw as Wu’s right to free speech. In response to a  Facebook petition calling for Wu’s firing, one Chinese respondent questioned the accuracy of translation and the lack of context given for Wu’s posts, arguing his words “just reflect his political views and individual preferences.” Another claimed that Wu “was merely exercising his freedom of speech” and wrote that what happened to him is “a serious violation” of a “basic” right.

On Twitter, mostly used by overseas Chinese or those on the mainland willing to dodge the so-called Great Firewall of censorship, which keeps Twitter out, many dissidents evinced support for Wu. Badiucao, the pen name of a political caricaturist, tweeted a drawing of a middle finger raised in front of a Chinese passport. After Wu’s resignation, Badiucao posted a photoshopped picture of a USYD building with Mao’s portrait and the slogan “Long live the People’s Republic of China” as a reference to the Tiananmen Gate, and titled it “Feel [sic] like home .”

The mixed responses from overseas Chinese students reflect an ideological divide within their ranks. On April 21, Zhang Hao, a Chinese student at USYD, published an article on the Hong Kong-based new media website Initium explaining a gulf between overseas Chinese students who are so-called “patriots” and so-called “traitors.” “We often hear the saying that ‘you’ll become more patriotic when you go abroad,’ and many people agree,” wrote Zhang. “Nationalism is so popular among the Chinese international students that it is frightening.” There is some empirical support for their patriotism, although that doesn’t necessarily equate to nationalism. An FP survey of 187 Chinese students in the United States published in December 2015 revealed that a majority said studying abroad gave them a “more positive” view of their home country, in addition to a more positive view of their host country.

Zhang wrote that this tendency toward patriotism chilled campus discourse. “In everyday life, we hardly hear anyone openly express such [dissident] political opinions. Perhaps this peer pressure taught them to self-censor.” Self-censorship is notoriously hard to prove, but a January 2015 study of 18 Chinese students and professors in Hawaii identified “increased salience of national identity as a result of being abroad” and found that respondents often felt uncomfortable when hearing criticism of China.

That’s not to say that slights aimed at China or its people abroad are imaginary. In March 2016, a Chinese student in the United Kingdom wrote on Weibo that a middle-aged white man on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Shanghai had called her a “Chinese pig” and told her to “get the fuck out of here.” (One wonders if he was aware of his flight’s destination.) Enraged Chinese netizens then bombarded the Facebook pages of Virgin Atlantic and Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, asking for a full investigation and explanation and threating to boycott the airline. An April poem in the New Yorker by writer Calvin Trillin about Chinese food offended many Chinese because many felt the author seemed either surprised or annoyed that China possessed culinary diversity. In October 2013, a child guest on the Jimmy Kimmel show suggested killing  “everyone in China” to deal with the U.S. trade deficit; Kimmel later apologized after protests and petitions from the overseas Chinese community.

Some of Wu’s supporters believe that Wu’s ultimate persecutor was the Chinese government, not, in fact, hordes of offended Chinese web users. Wu Lebao, a radical Chinese dissident currently residing in Australia, posted an open letter to the dean of the University of Sydney Business School, expressing concerns towards the allegations and ensuing investigation. The letter claims that Wu’s words were “scrutinized in isolation,” arguing that “the burning of a Chinese passport is only Mr. Wu’s way of expressing political dissent.” It believes that Wu “is becoming a victim of the Chinese government’s increasingly intrusive attempts to curb voices of dissent among overseas Chinese.”

Overseas Chinese themselves seem unable to agree on just how stridently to stick up for their mother country. In some cases, merely being Chinese is enough to encounter racism overseas. But others may find themselves under fierce attack by their countrymen just for expressing non-mainstream political views in public. In his Initium article, Zhang claimed that after showing support for Wu on Weibo, he himself became the victim of online attacks. Zach, another Chinese student based in Washington D.C. who did not wish to give his full name, also told FP he received thousands of abusive messages and threats after supporting Wu on Weibo. “Wu Wei has lived overseas for many years and has become an Australian citizen, yet he still cannot publicly express his political opinions, simply because he carries the burden of being ‘Chinese,’” Zach said. “This is terrifying.”

Photo credit: OMAR HAVANA/Getty Images

Clarification, April 28, 2015: Wu called a Chinese student in Australia an “international student pig.” A previous version of this article stated that the student was one of Wu’s students. It is unclear if that is the case.

Ran Liu is a doctoral student of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and writes regularly for CNPolitics, a grassroots website based in China. She is originally from Shandong province in China. 

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