“Our respondents share sensitive stories that could lead to their arrest” — H Talk Asia

A group of Chinese students at foreign universities has launched a political magazine to fuel the momentum of the “White Paper” protest movement, a wave of impromptu demonstrations that swept across major cities in late November. Sparked by a deadly lockdown fire at an apartment building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, the protests also targeted the ongoing lockdowns, mass surveillance and mandatory zero-COVID policy scrutiny. Some protesters held up blank sheets of A4 printer paper, and others called on President Xi Jinping to resign and call elections. Tong Sheng, the magazine’s co-founder, told RFA Mandarin about the new publication’s mission.

RFA: How did the project start?

Tong Sheng: After we met in Berlin, several like-minded friends got together to discuss things and decided to start a magazine to make our own effort to fight for a little space of expression.

RFA: The first edition of Mang Mang, which could be translated as “reckless” in English, with associations to wild plants, was officially published on New Year’s Eve with the column “Remembering the little things of our time”.

Tong Sheng: Our main task is to capture the details of the era we live in. First, we found that the collective memory of people living in China, be it their memories of protests or other forms [of dissent], is constantly being manipulated by repeated propaganda. The regime now controls much of the discourse and information channels and does not allow others [non-state] journalists to express themselves or to report objectively.

Meanwhile, the censorship is getting stricter. They used to just censor the messages, then moved to public accounts on WeChat, then comments on Weibo, with more and more keyword searches constantly being censored.

people are suffocated; we have no opportunity to express ourselves. Counteracting this trend, we believe, requires small platforms that are capable of holding those reminders of the brutal things this regime has done to us, as well as things that have happened to marginalized people around the world or in different parts , to be hosted from China, whose voices have been overshadowed by the mainstream.

We can’t just let it happen [debate and information] come and go in waves, as is happening on the internet right now — we need a record.

An illustration in the first issue of the magazine depicts each member of the Mang Mang team as a plant. The spirit of the magazine is written on the wall: “Inside and outside the high walls, wild growth.” Photo credit: Mang Mang

RFA: For your first issue, you interviewed people who participated in the White Paper movement, Chinese transgender people seeking asylum, and a psychologist working in China. What were the biggest obstacles to this coverage?

Tong Sheng: The biggest issue when talking to people in China is their security and how to maintain information security of both parties during the interview. The second largest is trust and expectation. Our interviewees tell us very sensitive stories that could lead to their arrest. How can we live up to this trust and these expectations? We can’t pay anyone; we can hardly afford our own printing costs. So we have to ask ourselves if we are conveying what they are saying to our readers correctly.

During the production process, I was most moved by the round table discussions, for which we distributed questionnaires to enable more [white paper movement] participants so that their voices are heard. Your comments were the simplest and most direct. For many it was the first time they took to the streets. Some were in China and some abroad, all sharing their anger and expectations. Many of them also had high expectations of us, which gave us both motivation and pressure.

RFA: Are the other Mang Mang editors all foreign students like you?

Tong Sheng: There are more than 10 people in Mang Mang’s team. Some have jobs, but most of them are foreign students. Some major in media…so this is a way of putting their ideals into practice.

“Our respondents share sensitive stories that could lead to their arrest” — H Talk AsiaA print version of Mang Mang is also planned. Photo credit: Mang Mang

RFA: What is Mang Mang hoping to achieve in 2023?

Tong Sheng: There were many obstacles and difficulties to overcome just to produce the first edition, and we put a lot of energy into getting it to print. We need to find a way to keep the team working sustainably and raising the necessary funds so that everyone can devote all their energy to the magazine.

We hope that Mang Mang can play a role in the new wave of transformation that has broken out [China] Since the protests… [For example], workshops and book clubs are founded in many places. We hope to defend our collective memory.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.