How a Chinese woman fights against Beijing’s surveillance state in Australia

Over the last year, Zoo, a girl originally from China’s Anhui Province, has been living in Australia. She attended several protests supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and organized a few protests against the Chinese government as well. Just as she thought she might be safe to exercise her freedom of speech and assembly in a democratic country that’s far away from home, she received a call from her father in April, and on the phone, a police from her hometown demanded her to hand over the login credential of a Twitter account that she has created. The police also asked her to return to China immediately. After her parents were pressured to cooperate with the police, she decided to release video recording of her exchanges with the police to prove how China’s surveillance state has extended to Australia.

It was April 23, and Zoo received a call from her father on WeChat, the popular messaging app widely used in China. When she picked up, her father instantly asked if she had registered an account on Twitter with the name “Xi Jinping.”

She was surprised to find her father at a police station in her hometown in Anhui Province, and she could hear a policeman asking her father to pressure her to hand over the login credentials of that Twitter account. “Give me the login credentials of the Twitter account, and we will delete it,” her father said.

The police had found some posts mocking the Chinese president Xi Jinping created by the account. In their conversation, Zoo insisted that she had never posted anything like that on Twitter, and emphasized that she loves the Chinese leader too. In fact, her father is a professor teaching “the Xi Jinping Thought” at a university in her hometown.

However, the police emphasized that they traced the IP address logging into the account to Australia, then Zoo began to insist that someone in Australia must have hacked into the account. The police continued to ask her to hand over the e-mail account she used to log into the Twitter account, but she continued to insist that she only has a QQ account that she registered back in China.

“Please don’t be manipulated by other people, and please don’t sacrifice yourself for other people,” her father said in a begging tone. “Xi Jinping is such a great leader.”

The police man surnamed Hu continued to convince Zoo, hoping that she could remember the password to the Twitter account that she claimed to have been hacked by someone. “Whether the posts were posted by your friend or yourself, you need to remember that you are a citizen of the People’s Republic of China,” the police said.

“In fact, even though you are in Australia, you are still under the jurisdiction of the P.R.C. Do you understand that?”

The police then asked Zoo when would her Australian visa expire, and asked her to report to him once she was back in China. The police handed the phone back to Zoo’s father, while she continued to promise her father that the Twitter account didn’t belong to her. However, her father stared into the phone and said bye to her. “If you have nothing else to say, I’m going to hang up. You’ve been giving me… I’m going to hang up,” he said.

How China extends its surveillance state overseas

Zoo befriended some feminists and LGBT activists in China when she was still a student, but after these organizations’ social media accounts were suspended in China, Zoo arrived in Australia on a working holiday visa in 2019. Soon, she began to attend some protests supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

“I started joining protests supporting Hong Kong on the third day of my arrival in Australia,” Zoo said. “I learned more about the anti-extradition bill movement through these events, but at the same time, some of my friends and classmates in China were sharing images supporting the Hong Kong police. This made me feel really conflicted.”

When the COVID19 pandemic broke out in 2020, Zoo began to organize some protests criticizing the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, including a vigil commemorating the whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang. To her, Australia is a place with freedom of expression and she knows that she can legally organize protests.

“In China, it was only superficially legal to organize protests, because people usually get arrested for organizing public gatherings or posting relevant flyers on bulletin boards,” Zoo explained. “However, freedom of expression is guaranteed in Australia, and I can express my views for the group that I hope to represent.”

Familial bond destroyed by the government

Since she received threats from police back in China in April, Zoo said they have threatened her parents on multiple occasions, pressuring them to ask her to return to China. That made her decide to reveal the video footage showing how the police threatened her.

As the timing coincided with the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Zoo was invited by Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo to attend the online commemoration. She shared her experience through a speech, but hours after the event was over, the police in her hometown screenshot her speech during the event and sent it to her father.

“They told me dad that the whole incident had been escalated to a serious level, and my dad began to cooperate with them, pressuring me to return to China,” she said. “At that moment, I felt like my relationship with my family has been destroyed by the government’s jurisdiction, and I was really angry about that. I decided to tell the world how it began with the police summoning my father to the police station.”

Zoo realized that revealing these details would bring more pressure to her family and herself, but she thinks that these moves would also earn her the freedom to keep speaking out. “I knew the police have been monitoring all my Twitter accounts, and that’s also the reason why I need to publicly tell them that I’m not afraid of them,” she said. “I need to reclaim the freedom to speak up for myself.”

However, she also admitted that she never planned to publicize her identity and her appearance before she received threats from the Chinese police. She felt like she was “pushed by fate” to go down this path, which makes her rather helpless.

“I wasn’t mentally prepared to do this, and it has affected my relationship with people back in China, including my friends and family,” she said. “I was already admitted into a program in Australia, but I also have to put that plan on hold because of this.”

She has also become hopeless about her relationship with her parents after her father decided to cooperate with the police. She thinks it proved that her parents couldn’t uphold the basic principles of human nature under the pressure from the Chinese government. In a way, she viewed this as a “relief.”

“Since a very young age, I’ve been suspecting whether my parents love me or not, but now I no longer have to guess,” she said. “It’s become obvious that they don’t really love me, so in a way, this is a relief for me.”

Even though she isn’t sure when she will be able to return to China, Zoo still hopes to go home and use her abilities to help the groups that need support. “I want to return to China and use filmmaking or writing to help the people in need,” she said. “I still think it’s better if I don’t have to be physically separated from China, because that’s the only way I can offer real help to the people in that country.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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William Yang

William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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