By Nathan Hefty
I am Nathan Hefty, a Senior and an editor for the Bear Press. I would like to tell you about Steven Guo- a student-turned-immigrant from China, a young queer person, a Christian, and budding political advocate. Having grown up in China, Steven’s story is, unfortunately, what you would expect it to be. His challenges represent the extreme of many human struggles for freedom and identity seen today. His struggle brings him to America, alienates him from his home country, and puts him at risk if I were to type his real name here. I took the time to understand his story when he visited for the holidays. Steven is more than a source of information. He is one of the most passionate people I have had the joy of knowing. I hope you are as touched by his story and insight as I am.
Steven is a man committed to gaining knowledge and perspective. He may come off as quiet or reserved, but in getting to know him, he turns out to be quite talkative and eager to experience American culture and traditions. Steven’s arrival was an incredible opportunity, especially with his political advocacy goals, but I was taken aback at how readily he related everything to his life experiences, and took every chance to discuss the current state of China.
Being around him meant constant conversations and explanations as he soaked up the discoveries of urban American life. I almost debated whether interviewing him was really necessary. Of course, when I asked, he was quick to agree to a conversation.
Steven’s vast knowledge of the situation in China was fascinating, and far too long to capture here. View the transcript of the interview >here<.
Before diving into Steven’s experiences, it is important to understand what has been happening in China. Luckily, Steven loves to spread awareness, and testified on this topic from our living room rocking chair as though in front of the UN. The first part of the problem is China’s current regime, and how its leader is trying to further his power.
“…Xi-Jinping declared his third term in October 2022, and he’s going to be officially announced as president for a third term…Xi Jinping…wants to bring… totalitarianism back to China to consolidate his personal authority. Currently in China there is no legal way to seek reform… [because it is] a socialist state and the constitution explicitly states that any disturbance of the socialist system is strictly prohibited. China [also has] many pocket laws [like] the penal code 105 [which] states that anyone who tries to use rumors to disturb the socialist system will be sentenced to imprisonment for thirty years.”
The current events in China stem from a darker time in China- one that the world thought China had moved on from- the Mao era. Xi Xinping grew up during the cultural revolution and was educated with a similar kind of propaganda as is seen today, which is where a pattern emerges. For Xi, this is about the rebirth of an empire, “…His ideas are still stuck in the Mao era. Mao Zedong wanted to become emperor, so Xi now wants to become emperor.”
It is easy to see how someone brought up to love Mao’s regime would seek to rebuild it, along the way seizing power and control. Yet, it can’t be left at that. Steven believes Xi is a victim of the Mao-era system.
“Both the people in China and Xi-Jinping are being brainwashed. Since Xi has absolute power over everyone, his subjects are only telling him the information he wants to hear [and that is passed on to the people]. Xi-Jinping himself is innocent of the system. He doesn’t want to hear any information about his policies [because] he believes he is absolutely correct.
…[It] is an inactive effect…People are not telling the leader the truth and the leader becomes [self necessitating], being overly self confident. The more power he gets, the more insecure he will feel [about it being taken from him], so he will use any means he can to crack down on opponents.”
Change will be difficult. Being an advocate in China brings with it many dangers. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has expanded its reach using technology. The effect of these measures keeps even the most loyal people in line. Steven recalled how, as a kid, if he would start talking about the government, his mother would get real quiet and tell him not to say anything bad.
“…Anyone speaking out, [could suffer] torture, harassment, or threats to their lives. [They] can, sooner or later, be detained because China is a digital dictatorship. There are surveillance cameras everywhere. If you go to a street corner, or go shopping there are lots of cameras watching you.”
I messaged my Chinese friend on Wechat recently but I am still waiting for a reply. They don’t want to reply. They don’t want to get in trouble because there are so many reports that say Wechat is a surveillance app, and this is true because the headquarters of the Wechat company is based in China. According to the national security law passed in 2015, all organizations must cope with investigations for national security reasons, so the government has the authority to [breach] everyone’s privacy…”
These efforts are to maintain a cycle of misinformation that restricts people’s thoughts, their mental freedom, and keeps the CCP in control. The question is, what will break this cycle, and push China toward freedom? That answer is not straightforward. Steven’s ultimate hope for the future is that China’s constitution and congress can be remade, though he admits that is not likely to happen soon, and certainly cannot be the first step.
“…There is no way to change [the system outright], and because the Xi-Jinping himself controls the congress… he controls the army, he controls the judicial system, he’s built a national security fortress within the nation, a lot of people are still loyal to him personally…China will be a static state, maybe for the next ten years, but I don’t know exactly.”
What lies at the start of this journey is civil disobedience, “…The only thing that people can rely on is nonviolent revolution, just like the revolution that happened in the former Soviet Union [where] people in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc… sought for peaceful transformation. I hope that peaceful transformation will happen in the future.”
Steven isn’t just hoping for transformation, he is joining the effort to make it possible. His goal is to show people the truth and inspire them to take action “[I want to tell people] that [they] don’t have to be afraid to be critical of Xi-Jinping and the CCP. They are not God, they are not the creator of the universe… I want to prove that it is wrong, and people shouldn’t be afraid of Xi-Jinping. He’s just a person like us…It is not like what the propaganda says, that without the CCP China will turn into complete chaos…Each person from China, they have their unique story, they need to speak out… If everyone is silent, there won’t be any change.”
Now that Steven is in America, he wants to expand his advocacy, and use his story to reach Chinese and American people. “I want more news organizations to interview me. I think I am a good person for it. There are people being interviewed by Voice Of America, Free Asia Radio, BBC, New York Times, mostly people from China. Mostly they focus on religious freedom and freedom of speech, but I have never seen people who are openly gay and Christian, and also advocating political change…I must fight, I must speak out, I must find people with other mindsets to speak with me…”
Steven’s message is not well received by many, and it has alienated him from his family, who are fully consumed by the state’s brainwashing. “There are so many [differences] in ideology. They don’t believe whatever I say. Take for example, the Ukraine-Russian war. My parents, they like to say Ukraine is lost, the Russians have already captured Kyiv. Then I ask them how they got that information. Then my dad shows me a video, it’s a kind of animated video with Soviet style background music, showing a town captured- whatever city the subtitle claims y’know, [it says] ‘KYIV’.
I say the Russians never captured Kyiv. I didn’t see any evidence of it. They believe it as long as the music is there, as long as the language is right… that’s what they want to hear. They want the radical language. That kind of information makes them feel comfortable…”
It is very hard for Steven to have meaningful conversations about China. His parents believe he is being held hostage or being harmed by the US. Not only do they not believe what he tells them, but they take it as a personal insult. The picture he used for this is a ‘trinity’. On the outside are the leader, the state, and the party, and in the middle is an individual’s identity. This is why Steven faces so much backlash for spreading the truth.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Steven has witnessed prejudice or been alienated for his beliefs which is what makes his advocacy personal. His closest experience with this comes from two places. First are his religious beliefs. He described the conditions which brought him to faith.
“…In college… they don’t allow preaching any religion, including Christianity. One day, two missionaries came into my dorm. They asked if anyone wanted to join a church. I was interested and joined the church. They gave me a Bible. One of the missionaries talked about his experience preaching in China.
He was harassed a lot of times that day, and he was even being threatened. He was the same age as me, he was very young. I was like, why did the police show so much brutality to you? You are just a kid… I was really impressed that they were not even afraid of death and the blocking of their freedom…”
On Christmas Eve, we took Steven to our church, Grace Community Church. He told us he thought we were stopping at a retail store before going to the service. In addition to the size and facilities of the building, he was amazed to see so many Christians, including those of various denominations, in one place. The large population of China isolates underground churches from each other. After the sermon, he imagined how quickly police in China would have disbanded such a large religious gathering.
This confused me since I recalled hearing that Catholicism is one of the biggest accepted religions in China. I couldn’t help but wonder if the CCP was trying to erase God to bolster loyalty to Xi Jinping. That isn’t too far from the truth-
“Any religion must comply with CCP’s United Front, that is one department in the CCP. They don’t allow any religion to tell the truth… historical truths, social truth, or speaking up for anyone suffering injustice or unfair treatment…
Not only [do these restrictions apply to] Christian churches, but also other religious organizations. The most prominent example would be the XinJiang muslim crackdown. They are sending [Islamic] believers into concentration camps. The same [is happening] with Tibet and Buddhism. They are still under extreme suppression from the government…”
Steven feels most for the suppression of LGBTQ people. His own road to discovering his identity has been challenging. As a queer person, his upbringing was lonesome, or he puts it,
“I was just a ghost… I couldn’t find people with the same mindset
as me. There were underground places for gay people to hang out, but in the public I’ve never seen anyone show it. There is no public affiliation or presentation of any LGBTQ contents in the place I lived… There were no people in my family that talked about LGBTQ content…
I basically went through it by myself. I sought information on Google, and I watched Youtube videos. I would isolate myself, but when I would [return to reality]…[It is the same as] in other conservative societies. There is no public advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights.”
I thought of when Steven first got settled in America and tried to find a church, a story relayed by my brother. He faced intolerance from a conservative church after he revealed his orientation. To Americans, this would just be another sad example of intolerance, but it is interactions like these that are essential to change. It also shows there is a difference between homophobia in American conservative areas, and that which is seen in China.
“In America there are different churches. Some churches are hostile toward LGBTQ+ rights [while] others really support it, but overall there is acknowledgement. From acknowledgement we will have acceptance, from acceptance we will have affirmation. The problem in China is there is no acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ rights.”
“If there is no acknowledgement there won’t be any acceptance. People won’t even know what [it is]. They would say ‘Oh, Steven, oh my son, you are being affected by the devil’s spirit’… We have to tell people that LGBTQ, queer, groups are just one part of society. We should treat each other equally.”
LGBTQ people face even greater challenges under the CCP, “Unfortunately, the government ignores queer people. There is no governmental advocacy for LGBTQ people who suffered unfair treatment like conversion therapy. Some gay kids [are] being sent to conversion therapy by force. There is a kind of physical torture, like the electric shock as well as injection of medicine [they are subjected to]. They have no way to seek legal aid.”
As this grim picture took shape, I noticed how it changed Steven’s voice. It had grown louder and quicker. He continued,his demeanor almost frantic, scoffing, and chuckling incredulously at each injustice he dug up.
“The failure of protection is from the state. The government doesn’t protect us from discrimination, and on the other hand they don’t allow us to organize our own group. What else can [we do]? It is kind of a false dilemma, like [they say they are just going to ignore you] and [there is no] criminalization of homosexual activities, but if you suffer any unfair treatment and seek legal aid- No. It won’t be provided to you. Also, if you are going to organize a social group by yourself like an LGBTQ advocacy group- No. You are not allowed to do that. So how can I survive in that society?…”
The protections lacking in China are more common in America. Steven’s appreciation of rights and freedoms in America borders on fascination. Freedom of speech, information freedom, and individual rights have allowed Steven to come alive as his own person. “In China, it is a collectivist society which means I belonged to a group and I had to be very loyal to my group…In China it is group oriented, group loyalty. It doesn’t matter what individuals think, it matters what the group thinks… In America there is a great emphasis on individualism [where each person has] an independent identity, they have their own ideas, own thoughts, they have their own emotions…”
Yet every benefit has its downside. Individualism and freedom of speech, taken to the extreme, can lead to misinformation and division. The last few years have drawn attention to the issues of who or what is controlling news and government, and what information is being trusted by the people. In the midst of misinformation and civil and political unrest, some people may be worried the US is on track to become like China. Steven believes the benefits outweigh the dangers,
“…In America there is a majority party and a minority party, so [arguments are pretty common]… In America there is information freedom so people will figure out what is the best way for them to act in the future… No matter if the person is a Democrat [or] Republican… they can always find like-minded people… American people, they know how to advocate for change, for justice. They are brave, they know the responsibility of being a citizen for a republic, and they know what they want…”
I found this hard to accept at first. I thought about how divided the US becomes when people cloister with others of their same beliefs. I myself have fallen into misinformation, feared for the future of America, and even simply felt lost and confused in the face of all the political turmoil. I asked him again what he makes of the misinformation so I might feel the same kind of clarity and confidence that he had. He put it to me like this,
“I wouldn’t worry about misinformation too much… Fake information will never be true. The rumors will always be rumors. The truth is truth…” But what good is the truth if it never makes traction? Steven would know that well. How could he be so sure that the truth will come out, and things will get better? Well, it is only a matter of time,
“Only time can evaluate what is true, what is false, what is rumors, and what is a fact. When time moves on we will figure out what [the truth] is, that it is not like what I saw on social media. The truth can be justified. Rumors will stay rumors.” He said it’s like he said before- Acknowledging, accepting, affirming. When people reach the end of this process, change will come. The heart of Steven’s advocacy relies on this process, and perhaps it’s time for it here too.
Steven will need patience. He cannot return to China until things change because it would be too dangerous. He was so convinced of this danger that he wiped his phone’s memory in order to not be stopped while leaving China. In the meantime, he is working on building a new life in America. He came here in 2020 to study biomedical engineering and open up new career possibilities. The problem is, he only has enough money to pay for school, and he has no way to work since he doesn’t have a visa. His only option is to apply for citizenship. He has been working with a lawyer to find the quickest way to become a citizen, “There are many ways to achieve citizenship in America… I will figure out which way is the best way for me to seek citizenship. There is no best way [in general] to seek citizenship… it’s about which one fits my situation best.”
A path seems to be opening for him in the form of seeking asylum. Last time we spoke, he was trying to recover his phone’s memory to prove that his advocacy puts him at risk. Asylum is a thorny bureaucratic road to citizenship, but if Steven is willing to take on the CCP’s jungle of obstacles, then I believe he has a bright future before him in America, and hopefully one day the future he desires for China will be realized as well.