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2 July 2024

Democracy begins with us

As a journalist in authoritarian China, I learned the value of community. As a parliamentary candidate in the UK, I am determined to preserve it.

By Yuan Yang

I am embarking on a journey that vanishingly few in the country of my birth have taken before: standing for election. I’m standing to be the next Labour MP in my home constituency of Earley and Woodley, in east and south Reading. At a recent gathering with local residents, one person remarked that I sounded optimistic about Britain’s future and asked me where this optimism sprang from. One of the sources of my hope for British democracy lies in living through the opposite: the growing authoritarianism of China.

My family moved to England when I was four. But in 2016, the year of two history-making votes in the UK and US, I was posted to Beijing as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. On my trips back home to the UK, I was often asked whether Chinese citizens have different interior lives to those in Western democracies. What does it feel like to live under authoritarianism? Do people think of themselves as individuals, with individuated rights, freedoms and futures?

Living in the capital of the world’s biggest capitalist experiment, with cut-throat competition in both education and professional workplaces, I felt, if anything, an abundance of individualism. There is the overbearing pressure on individual children, parents, consumers and workers to do better than one’s peers. Each person has their ambitions; each their hidden dreams; each their struggles. What each person does not have, and what I missed the most about leaving my own democracy, was the ability to join with others in pursuing common desires. In short, what I missed was not so much the freedom to be an individual, but the freedom to be part of a collective.

In the UK, on my free evenings or weekends, I’d likely be spending my time in some kind of community. It could be anything on the scale of casual to highly organised: a drink with some friends, a discussion group, a concert, a campaign event. A drink with some friends that turns into a campaign event. In China, collectives are organised with care, in the knowledge they could be scrutinised intensely – especially collectives involving foreign journalists. Any collective with an ambition that extends too far outside of its own immediate desires is prone to state intervention. This includes spiritual desires. A few weeks after I arrived in Beijing, I started going to a meditation group, recommended to me by a member of the worldwide Buddhist community inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, the popular Vietnamese Buddhist author. Upon arrival in the airy, sunlit meditation hall, I was told not to post any photos of the space that might disclose its location.

In China, I was increasingly cut off from one of my most basic instincts: to gather friends to make sense of the world around us in constructive ways. Instead, I organised a lot of hiking trips and karaoke nights. This was a good life, in many ways. I sometimes think about it nowadays in my life as a parliamentary candidate, after spending weeks organising leaflet deliveries. But it was also an artificial life, imposed on me by the government of the country I lived in, and it is not,
I believe, a full life.

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Photo by Charlie Forgham-Bailey

Social gatherings with friends can, and often do, turn to political discussions. Indeed, in Beijing I also organised many political discussion groups and documentary nights (amazingly not derailed by my uncanny ability to pick terrible documentaries).

So long as they fitted into my living room, this was fine. Filling public spaces became increasingly difficult over the time I spent in Beijing. Art venues had to cancel events; musicians on tour had songs rejected by censors. I used to teach English-language debating to university students, and together with a group of friends I set up a women-only debating workshop, which we held three summers in a row on a Beijing university campus. In 2019 we carefully worded several of the topics of debate to avoid overt signalling of a feminist agenda. After 2020, the increasing government suspicion towards feminist activity would have killed it off, had the Covid-19 pandemic not made such gatherings impossible.

China became decisively more authoritarian in the six years I spent there, with the most important inflection points being the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong from 2019, and the pandemic. But years before I arrived, the erasure of collective life had already begun. In Mobilizing Without the Masses, the academic Diana Fu describes the tactics used by the government to divide activists, and the strategies activist communities employ, in turn, to survive. Collective actions are broken down into individual ones; as any Chinese labour activist will tell you, cases have to be presented before an employer as individual cases, about individual rights and obligations, even if larger groups are affected, as is usually the case in employment disputes. Gathering a group of workers together turns a legal activity into a political one. Strikes of the illegal or wildcat variety flourish across China, but protests with nationwide reach, such as the striking Walmart China workers in 2016, are extremely rare. Once resistance becomes too systematic, the security state takes an interest.

The punishment for collective organising is to be individually isolated. A friend of mine, whom I shall call Sam, was on the periphery of a coordinated nationwide campaign by university students in 2018 to support striking workers at an electronics factory. The students deemed by the police to be core organisers were put in solitary confinement, then later released on the condition they did not contact their peers. As a result, Sam lost her former colleagues and friends. She had no one with whom to grieve, process trauma, pick over the pieces, and no one to start afresh with. All, of course, by design.

Skipping over the border to Hong Kong, in the days before the pandemic and the crackdown wrecked collective life there,
I would feel relief when walking past the loudspeaker noise of political protest, or when entering the gathered silence of a Hong Kong Quaker Meeting. I became a Quaker after university, having spent my adolescence totally opposed to the idea of joining things. “I am an individual!” proclaimed my teenage self. I had my own thoughts and
I wanted to preserve them against the compromise of group identity.

I carried on thinking my own thoughts, but as a student I became more interested in developing and acting on them with other people: with the feminist group on campus, with my colleagues in the student union. After I finished my master’s degree in London, I started joining things. I had attended Quaker Meeting at Oxford throughout university, and then at Westminster during my master’s degree in London. Many people go to Quaker Meeting all their lives without ever feeling the need to officially join the membership. Indeed, the Religious Society of Friends is devotedly anti-ceremonial; there is no confirmation, no baptism, no fanfare made of membership. What tipped me into joining was the prospect of spending a year studying in Beijing in 2013, and knowing that there I would not have the option to join anything like a Quaker Meeting. Once back from Beijing, I took to joining other things that would have been outright impossible in China: a trade union (the National Union of Journalists) and a parliamentary project (the Labour Party).

Democracy, of course, is only possible through collectives. Political change originates in consciousness-raising, in identifying shared concerns and common experiences, and culminates with organising towards a goal. If voters cast their ballots without a sense of the community they are voting for, without imagining themselves as part of a collective story, that would not be a rich form of democracy. It would be more like an exercise in consumerism – ordering an item for yourself off the shelf, privately browsing an online marketplace. Indeed, it would be near-impossible to sustain such a mindset and still feel the need to vote at all. The organised expression of collective interests is what gives shape and meaning to democracy, and requires trust, continuity, structure – and the willingness of people to join things.

A version of this essay appears in the new anthology “Democracy” (Profile Books)

[See also: Inside the shadow Tory leadership election]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain