"Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You"

No. 12

Hi Friends,

This is Afra Wang 王曌. October 1st will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing will celebrate it with fireworks, fanfare and the biggest military parade in decades. 

“The age of great prosperity has arrived”—this catchphrase has gone viral on Chinese social media. Some use it to compliment China’s achievements while others use it sarcastically to mock the relentless propaganda. 

A national day-themed subway flush with immaculate Chinese national flags is running in Shenzhen, while in the neighboring city of Hong Kong, people are burning and trampling the same flags in the lead up to the 16th week of protests. 

The upcoming parade reminds me of my struggle in reconciling my political identity with my misplaced sense of belonging.

Ten years ago, my father took me, a high schooler, to see fighter jet stunts on Chang’an Avenue on National Day. Hearing the thundering noise of planes flying above my home in Beijing, my heart was filled with pride.  But I no longer celebrate the National Day because of the political message it carries—erasing painful past and glossing over the very real human costs of prosperity.

In this issue of Rock the Boat, we will hear from our members on what they make of the National Day celebrations and what the notion of “country” means to them. 


Afra Wang 王曌

(Photo credit: Xinyan Yu)


Best work from our members. 

(Photo credit: Peng Ke 彭可)

🏠🏢Finding Home in Artificial Landscape
Chinese photographer Peng Ke 彭可 captures the “artificial landscape” in a Chinese metropolis, an embodiment of residential desire, rapid urbanization, and mass relocation. Based on Peng’s works, Yangyang Cheng 程扬扬 writes an essay for ChinaFile that encapsulates the subtle nostalgia of one’s desire of finding “home.”

👥👨The Face of Protests
Brian Leung Kai-ping was the only Hong Kong protester who took off his mask after storming the city’s legislature in July. Leung tells South China Morning Post’s Xinyan Yu 余心妍 how he feels about being called the face of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and why the protestors’ use of force is justified. 

🧱📰Clumsy Censors 
China has framed Hong Kong’s unrest as foreign-backed riots that have threatened China’s sovereignty. Quartz’s Echo Huang 黄茵茵 writes why this narrative doesn’t work outside the Great Fire Wall.

📱🈲The Burden of Speaking Out
Karoline Kan 阚超群
discusses how China’s social media censorship works during the Hong Kong protests. She tells the BBC that although people can get into trouble for posting sensitive words, some have found creative ways to get around the censors.

📚✍️All Roads to China
For the Belt and Road nerds, Handa Zhang 张航达 unpacks discussions on the opaque initiative, from debt to environmental impact, in this foolproof reading list.

📖☂️Put Up The Umbrella
As a contributor to Lausan, Wilfred Chan 陳維丰 recounts a global leftist perspective on Hong Kong’s struggle through the prism of decolonization, imperialism, and capitalism. Lausan is a comprehensive collection of translation, creation, and education about the Hong Kong protests. 

💻🧠The Chip Race
Marco Polo’s Dantong Ma 麻丹彤 digs into China’s semiconductor aspirations to develop memory chips and mobile processors. How did China lose the race on developing commodity chips? Will China catch up any time soon?

🎥🏭American Factory
In this episode of Loud Murmurs podcast (in Chinese), Izzy Niu 牛牧歌 and Afra Wang 王曌, discuss how the highly acclaimed documentary, American Factory, illustrates the inevitable tension between a rising China and so-called “formerly great” United States. 


Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

There’s no escaping the symbols of country during National Day celebrations in China. To journalists who grew up in mainland China, the notion of country can be tricky. 

Ten years ago, Tianyu Fang 房天语 watched the military parade from his family’s apartment in Beijing just like I did. At the time, he felt a sense of pride, but as time passed, the feeling became more complex:

When I saw soldiers drawn up in square formations, my cousin, who was then a college student, was among the student representatives on Chang’an Avenue. I determined that I’d join them on the PRC’s 70th anniversary. That did not happen. 

In the decade that followed, I learned about my birth country’s political past. I moved from China to the United States. My feelings for my birth country became so complicated that one flag could no longer represent them. 

I like telling stories. But writing forces me to extract my own sense of belonging from my words, as it makes me more conscious of my own standpoints. Ultimately, my work is all about looking beyond superficial flags and symbols and delving into the deeper stories yet to be unveiled.

Tony Lin 林知阳 remembers watching the National Day fireworks celebration in Hong Kong on Oct 1st, 2009:

Come to think of it, it was the last year when the Hong Kong public still enjoyed the residual national pride from the Beijing Olympics. Soon after 2009, the mainland-Hong Kong relationship irretrievably deteriorated. And this year, Hong Kong’s National Day fireworks celebration is cancelled.

As a journalist who covers China, it’s a daily practice to negotiate and test the boundaries between ‘China as a government’, ‘China as a collection of individuals’, ‘China as a conceptual boogieman/example in Western dialogues’, and after all, ‘China as a source of my personal identity.’ It is an exhausting process—the ease of oversimplification is definitely tempting at times. But it is immensely helpful for me to understand what is really happening in a place I still proudly call home.

Xinyan Yu 余心妍 remembers covering the 2015 China Victory Day Parade in Beijing. She talks about the burden of her identity:

I was standing in a sea of people who held their heads up high to watch the fighter jets and helicopters roar through the sky. It was a surreal moment. I felt the excitement around me, but I also wondered whether the massive amount of resources and effort put into an event like that was necessary. 

Growing up, the idea of “country”, “government” and “individual” were often taught as one. It explains why some Chinese take criticism of the country very personally and why Chinese are increasingly nationalist in many cases. 

As a mainland Chinese journalist, the notion of ‘country’ is something I question myself a lot about. Understanding my country well helps me explain it to a wider audience, but it can also be a burden when I interview people who assume I’m biased. It takes a lot more patience and communication to win their trust.

As a mainland Chinese journalist based in New York, Youyou Zhou 周优游 is at peace with her identity:

I choose to write stories that I find interesting, worth writing, and worth sharing. I tell stories from the lens of how I understand it, leaving out the noises as I perceive them to be, signaling the impact as I hope it would become. How the audience receives and interprets the information more often isn’t my concern. 

Being a Chinese national is part of my identity, and it reveals itself as part of my reporting and writing, but so far it hasn’t been the reason why I choose to do what I do, and I hope it will never be.


Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc.

The Sixth Tone Fellowship is a six-week field research program on contemporary China initiated and sponsored by Sixth Tone publication. The theme of the 2020 Sixth Tone Fellowship is “Social Innovation and Rural China.” - [China]  APPLY

Caixin is hiring tech reporters. The reporter will write posts for the editorial team at Caixin Global on the CX Tech site, a blog-style site containing short-form news about China’s vibrant technology scene. - [Beijing] APPLY

Reuters is seeking an ambitious reporter for its Washington bureau to join its foreign policy reporting team. - [Washington DC] APPLY

NJ.com has multiple opening positions for the expanding News Innovation, Topics and Features team, including news editor, reporter, and data reporter. - [New Jersey] APPLY

Bloomberg is looking for an experienced reporter for its Asia Energy team in Beijing to cover China, one of the world's most important energy markets. - [Beijing] APPLY

Atlantic Media offers highly ambitious recent college graduates a unique full-time opportunity to participate in its Fellowship Program. This program is a structured, year-long, paid fellowship for top-tier talent committed to careers in media in business or editorial functions. Fellows spend the year working alongside a team within one of the Atlantic’s prestigious brands. - [ Washington, D.C. or New York] APPLY

👀Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Writer: Afra Wang; Editor: Xinyan Yu; Copy Editor: Daniel Mejia 

Chinese Storytellers is a community that empowers Chinese non-fiction content creators. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.