Badiucao, the Chinese political cartoonist, decided to unveil his identity on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June. Since then the artist, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, has noticed strange cars parked outside his home in Melbourne and had the sense that he is being watched in public.
Online, trolls have been sending him death threats.
“When I am anonymous, I have a sense of safety. And now this sense of safety has been stripped away,” he told me this week on an encrypted call.
He is not the only one feeling this way. As the movement in Hong Kong calling for democracy continues in the face of warnings from the Chinese government, the conflict is also playing out in Australia. Recent clashes at universities and in major cities between those supporting the movement and those opposing it are raising questions inside the Chinese community — especially those that are not strongly nationalist — about how freely they can speak about Hong Kong.
Last weekend, Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a former New York Times colleague in the Australia bureau, shared her reporting from a pro-China rally in Sydney on Twitter. She was there to observe, not protest, she said. But since then, she has received dozens of threatening messages on social platforms from LinkedIn to WeChat, including attempts to reveal her address.
“I always knew it was a job not safe to do, but I never expected so much pressure in Australia,” she said, adding that it has worsened in recent weeks. Because the trolling happens in a foreign language, she said, “they seem to think that means they have more space to get away with it.”
Fear of such attacks — and of the consequences of speaking out for family members who remain in China — is keeping others here quiet. A few Chinese students I spoke to who disagree with the tenor of pro-China protests, or simply want to learn more, would only speak on the condition of anonymity, saying they needed to protect themselves and their families.
“The ones shouting and singing the national anthem are not really the true representatives of us Chinese mainland students,” said Badiucao, the cartoonist who first came to Australia as a student.
He told me he believes most students from China remain silent — and many Chinese students are more skeptical about China than Australians might think.
Since revealing his identity, he said he has met more people who are caught in the same position of being a target for pro-China nationalists. Still, he worries about the impact of public clashes over Hong Kong in Australia and how they are being left unchecked.
He, like many other in the Chinese Australians here who sympathize with Hong Kong’s democracy protesters, feel that Australia is not doing enough to protect them, nor are universities or officials doing enough to convene and moderate the kind of nuanced conversation that the debate over China and Hong Kong seems to demand.
“It only highlights the difference between us and Australia, instead of including us,” he said.
We’ll be reporting more on the diversity and disputes of the Chinese community in Australia. Have you been watching the protests unfold here? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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