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NüProfile: Jinghua Qian on why “China-watching” is problematic, inclusion and un-belonging in Australia


NüProfile is a column featuring in-depth conversations with diverse creators working on China subjects.

Jinghua Qian has always been a creator and a questioner. 

Born in Shanghai, Qian moved to Melbourne aged four, and has since been making a name for themself through writing poetry and journalism, participating in queer, feminist and anti-racist activism, and circling through Melbourne’s spoken word scene. Much of Qian’s work is informed by the question of identity: what it means to be queer, a person of colour, Australian, and an artist. 

Qian found their way back to China in 2016, when they joined Sixth Tone’s news team for two years as a reporter and editor. Following this, they returned to Australia where they are now based as a full-time freelancer. In various forms, their work has appeared in ABC, SBS, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Overland, Meanjin, Peril, The Monthly, Cordite, Autostraddle, HuffPost, Melbourne Writers’ Festival and others. 

In a recent interview with NüStories, Qian spoke about reporting in and on China, the role of the diaspora in representing China, “un-belonging” in Australia, and more. 

You previously worked at Sixth Tone, where you were Head of News and breaking stories on gender issues in China. What was that like? 

I moved to China to work for Sixth Tone, having got the job from Melbourne. It was kind of incredible in a lot of ways to be in that space because there were so many parts of it that were new to me. Before that, I’d mostly been writing and publishing in a literary space. I’d had a piece in The Guardian and a few things like that, but I wasn’t a news reporter, so it was really interesting to move there and be a beat reporter. 

Being focused on China and on-the-ground reporting: that was new. That space of journalism on China is incredibly fraught. It’s fraught in ways that I expected because it is obviously politically charged, but I probably didn’t anticipate the personalities and egos involved in that world. I’d been in a literary culture, which I think has very different dynamics from the world of journalism. So that was a culture shock, coming from literature to journalism. 

What do you think about this notion of “China-watching” communities? How inclusive is the space for queer writers and creators, and what can be done to make it more inclusive? 

There are a lot of queers writing and talking about China. They’re mainly the people I’m in conversation with. To be honest, even when I was in China and “had” to brush shoulders with that China-watching community, I always felt very uncomfortable with it. Aside from explicit issues of exclusion or discrimination, it’s just not where my interests are, I suppose. So, I’ve never been super engaged with that community. 

I’ve had a long interest in politics, but not so much in international relations and geopolitics. I’m interested in anti-racist activism, in communities resisting authoritarian power – whether that’s in Australia or China or elsewhere. I’m interested in cultural criticism, I’m interested in queerness and feminism. I’m not really interested in China-watching”. I think I have a lot of disdain for what “China-watching” even is. As a concept, what is it? It’s like a weird colonial hangover. 

I don’t see that as being a community that can really become more inclusive. I think that framework itself is neo-colonial. It assumes a particular kind of position, and a particular lack of investment. I think that the debate in the so-called China-watching community is about “isolation” or “engagement” in a way where you don’t really care what China is like for Chinese citizens. So, I’ve never really felt like I was part of that, or that I wanted to be part of whatever that is. 

Is there a disparity you think between how gendered issues in China are talked about from a Western perspective with how they really are? 

I think in terms of anything around culture and politics, people tend to imagine that China is a monolith. That’s the same take that people have for anywhere that they’re not familiar with – a tendency to assume a single point of view or a dualism between two camps. For people thinking about China, it’s often “pro-government” and “dissidents,” and that might be the case – but not necessarily. Just as if you were talking about the United States, generally people think about the dualism between “conservatives” and “liberals,” but there’s a lot of things that don’t split along those lines. 

One of the first stories I covered was about domestic violence law. That’s an area where feminists do work and have worked fairly well with government, while also being critical of existing law and government and policing. There’s a degree of collaboration between people from all different parts of government and academia and law and whatever else, from social enterprises, around domestic violence. I think news everywhere can often look more blackandwhite than it is. There’s this impulse to try and split things into two. 

So, the current approach is oversimplified. How do you think diaspora Chinese feminist writers represent these gendered topics? Whether its domestic violence, leftover women, etc.? 

At the moment I think there’s a great spectrum of Chinese and Chinese diaspora writing from places like NüVoices and CN Storytellers, and that split of China and diaspora isn’t blackandwhite either. There are people going back and forth all the time. So, it’s maybe less clear cut than in the past where it was Chinese nationals and overseas Chinese as two different camps. There are Chinese nationals who live in China but have studied abroad and returned, and international students who are currently overseas, or people who grew up in diaspora and are now living in the mainland. I think that’s really interesting and that’s produced a richer kind of coverage of those issues. 

That said though, among the Chinese diaspora that’s grown up in the West, I think there is also a lot of essentialism and Orientalism, as much as there is among anyone else in the so-called “West.” I definitely see things coming from the diaspora that paint a very romanticised, traditional picture of gender in China, whether that’s traditional to the distant past or traditional to, say, Maoist China, or whatever period. 

It’s probably fair to say that there’s this tendency to freeze the country in time at the point which your family left. And I understand where people are coming from with that, because you know I think for a big part of my childhood there was this frozenintime impression of the Shanghai that my family left. I think it’s important for feminists of Chinese descent who maybe don’t have their own relationship with contemporary Chinese feminism to really think about that, and engage with what feminists in China are doing and writing and thinking now. Not just reach for these historical archetypes or assumptions of what Chinese femininity is and what gender relations in China are. 

What was the Shanghai that your family left? Was that the ’90s? 

Yeah, my dad left in 1989 and my Mum and I left in 1991. So as one example, that was after the reform and opening up policy, but China then was still much less nakedly capitalist than it is now. My whole family lived in public housing, in publicly owned and allocated housing – no one owned their own place. 

So, for example, Leta Hong Fincher writes a lot about gender and the housing market  the privatisation of the housing market has had a huge impact on gender relations, right? But that’s not something that my family witnessed. My relatives who remained can tell me about that, but that’s an example of something where if you’re going to analyse gender relations in China without thinking about private property, you’re missing a giant slice of the picture. 

As another example, obviously I left China pre-internet, and you could write multiple PhDs about Chinese feminism and the internet, that’s a huge field that’s really interesting. I think if your relationship to Chinese feminism is not based on these contemporary movements, that’s diaspora feminism, maybe huaren (foreign citizens of Chinese background) feminism if you like, but it’s not about China. Which is also fine, I think diasporic Chinese culture is interesting in itself and doesn’t always have to be oriented to or claiming any sort of authenticity around China. 

Now in Australia, much of your work addresses liminal identities, what you describe as the “power of unbelonging.” Is this something you feel you embody personally? 

Yeah for sure. I think a big part of that came from spending my early 20s in an anti-racist people of colour space that often centred migrant voices over Indigenous voices. People often talked about how annoying it is to constantly be asked where you come from. And I think at some point maybe five, ten years ago that shifted for me, into thinking well, actually, I do come from somewhere. I come from somewhere super specific with its own history. 

I’m not from here, I’m not indigenous to this land. I think that’s something I don’t want to be erased: I don’t want the fact that I’m not from here to be invisible. I think part of the resurgence of my interest in China is connected to my feeling of un-belonging here, where I live in the Kulin nations [in Melbourne] and my thinking: what if I don’t try and brush over that? What if you really think about what it means to be wearing all those things inside you? 

So, often the go-to response that people reach for is to claim citizenship and say, I’m Australian, you shouldn’t ask me that, I belong here, etc. And at some point, I guess I wondered if there’s another response. This is something a lot of other people have written on and theorised about. And that’s why I think often my response to questions of inclusion in any space is: why do we want to be part of that? Is that something any one can be incorporated in, or is it fundamentally limited? 

Do you see your work as challenging white hegemony in the Australian settler colonial project? Does it have this political purpose? 

For sure, I do. I think that’s very explicitly part of my aim, even though it comes out in really different ways. Sometimes I write explicit political commentary, but more often than not I’m doing work around history and culture and art. I’m an art critic which feels like a sideways way to engage with that but actually it isn’t. So much of what “Australian-ness” is, is built up through arts and culture, so I guess I’m speaking back to this kind of myth-making. 

You’re based in Footscray in Melbourne’s west. Melbourne is currently struggling with COVID-19, facing increasingly strict lockdown and curfew measures. How has the pandemic affected your work? Do you think COVID has sharpened anti-Chinese sentiment? 

I think it has politicised it more. Over the past few years, anti-Chinese racism has become more and more connected with criticism of China as a nation state. That’s criticism that I mostly think is very valid. But a lot of the anti-Chinese racism in this moment, especially with COVID, has a lot more other political baggage attached, related to various criticisms of China’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic, as well as other human rights abuses. Whereas I think when I was growing up or even five years ago, anti-Chinese racism was just being told to go home, it was a lot simpler. Now it’s really complicated, you have to read a newspaper to understand what racist slur you’re being called. So that’s kinda funny in a way. 

COVID has affected my work in really complicated ways, and in other ways not so much because I’m a writer and I sit at home on my laptop anyway. But it’s a very weird space to be in. I’m really inspired by the momentum that the Black Lives Matter movement has gathered. I didn’t think that I would see so many people from all kinds of different sectors talking about abolishing the police in really mainstream platforms. 

I wonder if the combination of all the different things that have happened this year give people the space to imagine more radical change than the normal amount of analysis, which is choosing between similar reforms, generally. I do feel cautiously optimistic about how people imagine justice right now, after this year. I hope that it helps to germinate some bigger ideas about what justice looks like. 

Regarding specifically COVID and anti-Chinese sentiment, do you think it’s validated some of this classic “yellow peril” colonial thinking? 

That hasn’t needed to be validated. In Melbourne, Andrew Bolt is our biggest and most well-known commentator: massively influential, consistently racist. He has not ever really suffered for it, despite the Racial Discrimination Act case, despite numerous violations, and lawsuits and whatever else. It’s the same in other cities and states. 

Racists in Australia shift their focus now and then from the scapegoat of the week, and since September 11 non-Muslim Asians have been in the crosshairs less. That’s a really noticeable shift. But racists in Australia have always had plenty of fuel and plenty of support from powerful, prestigious forces. They’ve always had columns in the newspaper, they’ve always had a platform in mainstream media, they’ve always had the support of the government. So, I don’t think COVID has necessarily boosted that. 

There are reports of more attacks, and I do feel a shift in the political discourse of how alien Chinese Australians have become. But at the same time when I read a lot of these stories about anti-Chinese harassment or violence, I think, that stuff has been happening all along, it wasn’t not happening in 2019 or 2018. I do wonder if it’s been connected to COVID maybe more than feels accurate to me, but that’s just based on my anecdotal feeling. 

Almost like COVID is a scapegoat, whereas you think it’s more systematic, imbedded. 

Yeah. I mean I think COVID is a way to get media attention on anti-Chinese racism. Which is fine, go ahead and do that. Personally, I don’t know that things are so hugely different. 

I just worry about this being like, oh this is irrational, this anti-COVID racism. Like, all the other types of racism are also irrational. And yet it also does have its own logic, it has a logic that I don’t agree with but one that’s pretty pervasive. 

That definitely makes sense to me. Do you think the trajectory of Australia-China relations is all downhill from here? 

I’m pretty concerned, it’s just so bad. It’s so bad on all fronts and it’s really going into this space I think of being “pro” or “anti” China rather than anything else. Rather than critical of China for certain things and still able to have conversations. It’s a bad time. 

It feels like there’s so much media attention, but a lot of it is really misinformed, kind of obsessive but unproductive. You can read 700 articles and learn nothing. 

You’ve written about Asian representation, including in a review of Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’. How do you feel about the sudden interest in Chinese stories and representations, and do you think they’re succeeding in depicting Chinese stories? 

I think there are some really great examples. Personally, I really enjoyed that film and I think there’s a lot of art, literature and media being produced by all kinds of diaspora writers and artists that are really exciting and interesting. But I do think that sometimes there’s a fairly rose-tinted perspective of Asian culture from diaspora makers as well. Like we were talking about before, this sort of self-orientalising. I think that’s a concern thrown into the mix with all the other geopolitical shit and the sense of constantly having your loyalty questioned. 

Something I’ve been watching more and more and getting more concerned about is this rise of diasporic Chinese nationalism, which Brian [Hioe] from New Bloom has written about. There are all these different actors in this space, and that’s worrying. Especially because I think Asian Australian arts and culture representation has been such a big part of my work, with my own art and performance but also with literary magazines like Peril, Liminal, Djed Press, that I think do quite cool and critical work. But I definitely do see the slow growth of this Asian pride that is uncritical, I guess, and I feel worried about that. 

You’ve worked extensively with grassroots arts organisations and community radio. How important do you see these organisations, and do you think they face a somewhat perilous future? 

I think grassroots arts and media organisations are super important. I think it’s so much more important to think about democratising media through these tiny organisations that train and platform people regardless of who you are, rather than focusing more on high-profile prestige organisations and their staffing. But definitely almost all the POC I know in Melbourne, so many started in community radio and are now in different kinds of media. 

I was at 3CR Community Radio for about three years (as a broadcaster with Queering the Air). Now people are having a lot of conversations about diversity in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service and experiences of racism that people have had in those organisations like Kodie Bedford being told she sounded too country 

I remember one of the first classes in the 3CR training course was someone saying “every voice is a radio voice” – put away that idea that you have to sound a particular way to be on radio. I do think community media and small arts collectives are really essential, but also the entire media sector, even massive organisations, are in a really precarious state. It’s definitely hard to imagine how any of us can be secure. 

You’ve recently started a new project Underfoot, which is a series of virtual audio tours uncovering the secret history of Footscray. How does this challenge existing histories and portray the suburb’s changes? 

I created that with my friend Liz Crash. We’ve been friends for almost 20 years. And I think both of us are just massive nerds, we both spend a million hours digging around in archives just for kicks. How that project came about, we were just like, what if we made local history but it was us and we were upfront about ourselves being queer, leftist, feminist ratbags? What if we foregrounded our memories and inclinations and biases and interests and made the methodology really transparent that we were looking for activists and queers and migrants in the archives? 

We were looking for people like us and looking to write in what’s often missing from local history in a way that’s anchored to the places around us in this hyperlocal way that’s also digital, that people can access from anywhere. We chose Footscray because we both live here. And we’re obviously biased, but it is a really interesting place. It’s super rich in migrant history, in Indigenous history, in industrial and labour histories and activism, activism on all these different causes and perspectives. 

Do you have any tips for people interested in writing? 

Write, self-publish, publish with small literary journals, read, pitch, read for your own pleasure, and also read thinking about the kind of writing that you want to do. Read closely the publications you would like to write for, and the writers whose work you really admire, really take it apart and think about what lessons you want to learn from that, and how to pitch. 

As an editor, I think that when I get pitches, often they’re too little or too much. There are a lot of really great pitching guides, but I think just some general tips I would have for people in thinking about pitching is: convince me that you have an angle as well as topic, show me that you can write beautifully in the pitch itself. Even if the pitch is just four sentences, try and make them engaging and original. 

You don’t necessarily need this for every story but show why you’re the best person to tell it, or whether you have a special skillset or a special perspective. Obviously that’s more important for firstperson writing, but if you’re reporting as well what are you bringing and I guess especially if you’re pitching to a publication that has staff reporters, you need to make a case for why you’re better placed to cover something than their staff writers, because that is what a publication will default to. 

Really tailor your pitch to the publication and what you know their remit and their style is, but also don’t think that you can only pitch something they’ve done before. I think sometimes people get stuck between those two things. You want to pitch something they would publish but you don’t want to pitch something they’ve already done, because they won’t publish the same story twice. So I guess finding that sweet spot where you understand the overall kind of style and genre and topic that they would cover, but you’re suggesting something original. 

About the author 

Annabelle Jarrett is completing a MSc in International Affairs in London. Having previously lived in Beijing, she is interested in the intersection of women’s issues and contemporary China. She enjoys writing on these topics, as well as tracking broader sociopolitical currents. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram 

About the editor 

Jessie Lau is a writer, journalist and artist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics—with a focus on China and other parts of Asia. Her work has been published by The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Channel 4 News, The Nation and The Economist, among others. She serves as a Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a Hong Kong and China reporter with the South China Morning Post. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie