Today, I should be in Sanya, China, representing Canada in the Miss World Finals.
But last month when I went to Hong Kong, I was barred from boarding my connecting flight to Sanya—I only found out then that the Chinese government had declared me persona non grata.
Persona non grata, I had to look it up on Wikipedia. Apparently it means “an unacceptable or unwelcome person.” I had never been called that in my entire life.
Many of you are probably wondering how this happened. Let me start from the beginning.
I was born in China, in Hunan province. I was a model student, raised by one of those Asian tiger moms you’ve all heard about. I studied piano and calligraphy at age two, and was student council president in my middle school. Not a lot of people know this about me, but one of the things I did in school was to enforce ideological conformity among my classmates. For example, I made students watch propaganda films attacking so-called “government enemies.”
I moved to Canada with my mom when I was 13. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of my indoctrination. My mom urged me to challenge the ideas that I had been instilled with in China, and to use my own mind. I will always be grateful to her for this.
I learned the truth about the Tiananmen Square massacre, the persecution of Tibetans, and eventually, I myself even started to practice a peaceful spiritual practice that is vilified in the Chinese official press. People who practice it are jailed and tortured on a massive scale.
When I began acting, I looked for roles that moved me, and shed light on what is happening in China today: like corruption which led to shoddy schools that crushed thousands of children in the Sichuan earthquake, to official censorship, to organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience.
The stories of these victims shocked me, and learning about these people fundamentally changed my outlook on the world.
In my most recent film, The Bleeding Edge, I play a woman who is imprisoned because of her belief in Falun Gong. Like many Falun Gong practitioners in China, my character is shocked with electric batons, has bamboo shoved under her fingernails, and is sexually assaulted.
To prepare for the role I spent time with men and women who suffered these experiences. Of course, they described the harrowing, physical pain of torture—but what stuck with me was their description of the profound isolation.
In the labor camps, they’re all alone — they want to scream, to call for help, but the only people who can hear them are the guards. And yet despite the fear and the doubt, they stay true to their own conscience. They know that there are forces greater than fear.
After they told me their stories, I was like: I can’t do this. This character requires someone with incredible courage. Their hardship, isolation, desperation, the fact that they were deprived of every avenue to share about the injustice they have suffered… and yet they still stayed true to themselves.
I’m just a North American kid—I didn’t think I can do that. These are not experiences I run into in my everyday life in Canada.
The first day of filming was the toughest, we acted out scenes of sexual assault, forced feeding, and baton beating. All that happens in China. It was so heavy, and I was so scared I couldn’t do it.
I called a friend, crying. “This character is beyond me, I don’t think I have the strength to portray these people’s stories” He said: “It’s OK to be afraid in the middle of all this, which is a natural part of being human. but don’t let fear conquer you. Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear. ”
This was the reason I could do it. I went on set and exposed all my fear, which is a part of human nature. But in the process, I also recognised something in me that is true and genuine. As I acted, I felt the overriding wish to stay true to my own conscience. I experienced what I believe was the same righteous force that gave the victims the courage they had to do what they did.
I entered the Miss World competition because of its motto: “Beauty with a Purpose.” I believed that the competition might offer an even bigger platform for me to raise awareness of the issues I care about, and to promote the Canadian values of freedom and diversity that I treasure.
I know that everyone always says this, but I was genuinely surprised when I was crowned Miss World Canada in May. There were so many beautiful women in the room, I wouldn’t have dreamt to be the winner.
Immediately after my win, there were glowing news reports in China that a Chinese-Canadian girl from Hunan province had just been crowned Miss World Canada. My father, who still lives in China, was receiving hundreds of congratulatory messages, some from people he barely knew. He was so proud of me. The crown was evidence that his little girl is on her way to accomplishing her dreams.
But then, everything stopped.
The news reports about me disappeared in China, or, if they stayed online, they changed my name and used a photo of another girl instead of me.
Then I received a message from my dad pleading with me to stop speaking about human rights in China. He was scared. Although he didn’t want to give details over the phone, it was clear that Chinese security agents had visited him and told him to apply pressure on me to stop my advocacy.
They put fear into a father, making him afraid to be proud of his own daughter. His generation grew up during the Cultural Revolution. They saw the Tiananmen Massacre and the Party’s political campaigns. They have seen how hard the Chinese government makes it for people to be true to their convictions, to maintain integrity. It deliberately tries to strip the Chinese people of their dignity, and doesn’t hesitate to use the most precious part of human nature—kindness and tenderness for one’s family—as a weapon against us.
We even have a saying now, “being invited to tea”—when security officers issue vague threats of reprisal if relatives overseas don’t be quiet. That’s when they show you who has the baton, and that they won’t hesitate to use it.
It’s a common experience for Chinese rights advocates around the world.
Forcing families to “cut off ties” with each other is just like how, during the Cultural Revolution, children were made to denounce their parents for supposed “ideological errors.” This is the dark, old school communist way of doing things that China usually tries to hide from the West.
I am afraid, and I am concerned for my father’s livelihood. But as I reflect on what to do, it become clear that I couldn’t give in to fear.
If I allow myself to be intimidated, then I would be complicit in continued human rights abuses. If everyone allows themselves to be silenced, the Communist Party would be able to continue abusing the Chinese people, without any consequences or accountability.
So instead of being silenced, I went to the media and wrote about my dad’s experience for the Washington Post. Later, I testified before Congress about the Communist Party’s torture and killing of religious minorities, intimidation of families overseas, and other injustices.
And when all the other Miss World contestants received invitations to the Finals in Sanya, my invitation letter never came, so I wasn’t able to apply for a visa. There was no official explanation. I think the Chinese government was just going to pretend I didn’t exist, and hoped I would simply go away.
As the start date of the competition approached, I wanted a definitive answer. As it turned out, Canadians and citizens of 20 other nations don’t need a visa in advance to travel to Sanya, China—we can apply for a landing visa upon arrival. So I decided to try my luck.
But when I landed in Hong Kong on the way to Sanya, I discovered that I had basically been banned. After a telephone interview with a Chinese customs official, Officer Chen, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to board my connecting flight.
What kind of precedent does this set for future international events?
China is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Does that mean our young athletes around the world who aspires to participate in the Olympic Games will have to self-censor from now on in order to get into the Olympic Games? What happens to the athletes that are of Uyghur or Tibetan heritage? Do the athletes who believes in Christianity or practice Falun Gong have to abandon their beliefs? Do we all have to change who we are, just to get into China?
And if that happens, how will the world respond?
If my case is any indication, it will be a quiet response indeed. The Miss World Organization says it wants to support “Beauty with a Purpose.” But when I was barred from competing because I support human rights, it didn’t take a stand.
The Canadian government has also unfortunately not spoken out. I don’t want to be too critical, since it is a new government that is still developing its China policy. Maybe they didn’t say anything because Canada doesn’t want to be seen as interfering with China’s visa policies.
But that’s not the issue. This isn’t just about whether a beauty queen is allowed to enter China. It’s also not just about whether millions of Chinese emigrants can feel safe and free in their adopted countries.
It is about whether we can freely express our beliefs without having to worry that our family members back in China might be threatened, or that our careers—as athletes, pageant contestants, journalists or academics or … dress makers—will be endangered.
It’s about whether countries around the world who deal with China are willing to defend the very principles that animate their own societies, in the face of a regime that disdains those values, and fights against basic human dignity every day.
The Chinese government continues to do these things because the international community continues to let them. The Chinese government has found that these bully tactics work, because we have accepted them for so long.
It is difficult to take a principled stand in the face of both temptation and threats, and I know the difficulties faced by international organizations and governments in dealing with China.
But we cannot discard our values in the face of pressure.
In the case of Hollywood, big movie studios should stop complying with the wishes of Chinese censors; American universities should stick to their own values of academic freedom, rather than setting up joint ventures that are controlled by Communist Party committees; international medical groups should no longer turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence that tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience, mostly Falun Gong practitioners, have been killed for their organs, and instead they should publicly call for an independent investigation, rather than pretending that we’re helping China to “reform.”
The Chinese people are suffering, and they’re suffering alone. But we have the ability to speak up for them. We can and should give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. We can prove that it’s possible to stand against tyranny.
Together, I hope that we can show the Chinese Communist Party that our most treasured beliefs and principles are not for sale. Even more, I hope that the Chinese people will see that we stand with them—not with the Communist Party that seeks to control their minds and stifle their freedoms.