What It's Like To Live With A Foot In China, Another In The U.S.

Originally published on June 11, 2019 9:07 am

China and the United States are locked in a trade fight, a technology race and competing world military strategies. Leaders of these countries seem to be pulling the world's two largest economies apart.

These tensions are especially felt by those living with a foot in each country. The NPR special series A Foot In Two Worlds reveals the stories of people affected because of their ties to both nations. Reports from both the U.S. and China show how deeply and broadly the two nations are connected and what's at stake as they reshape their relations.

In our travels, we stood in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou — on the riverbank where American traders first did business with China in the 1700s. We stood at Promontory Point, Utah, where Chinese laborers long ago helped complete the Transcontinental Railroad. And we visited a Maryland diner, meeting a Chinese immigrant who recently won elected office.

We found stories of people under pressure. Chinese students in the U.S. live under suspicion from both their host and home countries. A U.S. university is building a satellite campus in China and strains to manage the limits on academic freedom. A U.S.-based employee of the major Chinese tech company Huawei says he has lost friends over his job. A U.S.-educated Chinese man insists his country still has much to learn from America.

This is a time of unrelenting headlines about the U.S. and China. The trade negotiations show no sign of resolution; China's growing nuclear arsenal is in the news; and Tuesday is the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This 30th anniversary has already been marked by public events and news stories in the West, where the massacre is remembered as a defeat for democratic values. It is also marked by rigorously enforced silence in China. It's a lot of news — yet still not enough to feel the importance of the clash between such titanic nations. A Foot In Two Worlds dips beneath the headlines to trace some of the lives that make up the daily reality of the U.S.-China relationship. What follows are highlights from the series.

The Educator

Denis Simon is the executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture between Duke University and China's Wuhan University.
Reena Advani / NPR
We have faculty who are asking us, 'What if I write an article and the Chinese government doesn't like the article? What's going to happen to me?' And I say, 'I don't want you to pull any punches. ... But don't forget — we're not the Chinese government. We don't issue visas.' - Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University

Denis Simon, 66, is the executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University. The liberal arts school, established in 2014 as a joint venture between Duke University and China's Wuhan University, welcomes students from all over the world and sits on a small campus in the city of Kunshan, just outside Shanghai.

Simon has been in and out of China for 30 years. Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, N.Y., he became fascinated by China as a young man because he was excited about the idea that "there was going to be an alternative to what was going on in the West."

In running Duke Kunshan, Simon says his mission is to encourage more openness and awareness of the world — a task that isn't easy in such an unfree country as China. But Simon says that if the students are going to get a Duke-quality education, they have to have the freedom to debate sensitive topics on campus.

Click the play button on "Pushing For Academic Freedom In China" to hear the full story.


The Student

I'm scared because of the current political environment. I feel like the Chinese international students are targeted. - Martha, a Chinese student at a U.S. university

Martha, 29, is one of more than 340,000 Chinese students studying on university campuses across the United States. These students have increasingly come under suspicion in recent years, with some being accused of working as agents of the Chinese Communist Party or stealing academic research.

She asked NPR to use only the first name she goes by in the U.S. and not to name her university for fear of retribution in the U.S. and China.

Martha says she feels caught in between both countries, especially as trade and other conflicts have escalated between their governments. And balancing the two communities in her life is becoming increasingly difficult. Political tensions have crept into different parts of Martha's life, even her studies. Her laboratory supervisor recently joked that she might be a Chinese spy — a suggestion Martha didn't find any humor in.

Click the play button on "Students Under Suspicion In China And The U.S." to hear the full story.


The Activist

Teng Biao, a civil rights lawyer, fled China in 2014. But even at his family's new home in Princeton, N.J., the long arm of influence of China's Communist Party still heavily affects their lives.
May Tse / South China Morning Post via Getty Images
I was put under [an] extreme form of solitary confinement. I was physically tortured. They slapped me on my face for 50, 60 times, and I was not allowed to read, to write, to make phone calls. - Teng Biao, human rights activist and lawyer

Teng Biao cannot go home.

The 45-year-old human rights activist and lawyer fled China in 2014 after he became targeted by the Chinese government for challenging the constitutionality of certain laws and advocating for universal values. Not only was Teng arrested and disappeared multiple times, but he says he was also put in solitary confinement and physically tortured. His wife, Lynn Wang, was also harassed by authorities, but she tells NPR she didn't stop her husband's activism.

"What he is doing really is very important," she says. "It's right."

The couple's journey to the U.S. with their two daughters was difficult and harrowing; the family was not together for a lot of it. Today they live under one roof. But even from their new home in Princeton, N.J., the long arm of influence of China's Communist Party still heavily affects their lives.

"We enjoy everything here — I like the people here," says Wang. "But still the missing part is family ... [our] parents, sisters, brother and relatives are in China."

Click the play button on "Human Rights Lawyer Fled China But Still Feels Its Influence" to hear the full story.


The U.S.-Educated Technocrat

Wang Zhenyao is both the head of Beijing Normal University's China Philanthropy Research Institute and the president of the China Global Philanthropy Institute, where he works to train China's wealthy on using their money philanthropically.
Reena Advani / NPR
I cannot imagine China as an enemy of the United States. - Wang Zhenyao, head of Beijing Normal University's China Philanthropy Research Institute and president of the China Global Philanthropy Institute

Wang Zhenyao's life started out difficult. Born in southern China's rural Hunan province to poor farmers in 1954, Wang had an adolescence that ran parallel to the Great Leap Forward, the failed effort to modernize the country's economy. It created one of the worst famines that China has ever experienced. "We almost died," Wang tells NPR.

Still, he managed to go to school, become a teacher, go into the army and work for the government. Wang traveled to the U.S. twice in the 1990s, and both times he came to Harvard University: once as a visiting professor and again as a graduate student in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. That is when he found his passion for philanthropy. Wang liked so much the way Americans executed philanthropic endeavors that he decided to take what he had learned back to China.

"Most Chinese people actually want to learn from the United States," he says.

Today, he is both the head of Beijing Normal University's China Philanthropy Research Institute and the president of the China Global Philanthropy Institute, where he works to train the country's wealthy on putting their money toward important causes.

Click the play button on "Wang Zhenyao, A Chinese Technocrat, Finds U.S. Education An Asset" to hear the full story.


The Politician

Lily Qi attends a fundraiser in 2016 to support Emerge Maryland, a training program for women interested in running for elected office. She is now a state delegate for Maryland's 15th District.
Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post/Getty Images
I wouldn't trade where I am with anything. ... Only in a country like this can you run for office and get elected by people who can't even pronounce your last name. - Lily Qi, state delegate for Maryland's 15th District

When Lily Qi was elected state delegate for Maryland's 15th District last November, she was the first Chinese-speaking foreign-born politician to win a seat in the state's General Assembly. In what Qi saw as her mission to get Asian Americans "a seat at the table," during her campaign she effectively mobilized the large Asian American immigrant community — a notoriously politically unengaged population — in her district not just by literally speaking in a language many of them could understand but also by persuading the community to get out and vote.

Asian American immigrants are the "missing voice [in politics] that nobody is missing," Qi tells NPR.

Qi's story doesn't begin in a place known for democracy. The 55-year-old was born in Shanghai and grew up during China's Cultural Revolution. "It was a scary time," says Qi, who recalls the public beating of teachers and threats by the Chinese communist government to "cleanse" people's brains.

Given an opportunity to attend college in the U.S., she left Shanghai, China, in 1989. After she began her studies at the then-Manchester College in Indiana, China's massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square prompted the U.S. to offer an easier path to permanent residency for Chinese students including Qi.

Even though her journey to the Maryland State House would not be easy, Qi says she's thankful nonetheless. "This is an amazing country that allow[s] people like me to not only become successful but also to pay back in such a significant way," she says.

Click the play button on "Lily Qi On Life From Chinese Immigrant To U.S. Politician" to hear the full story.


The Descendant

Russell Low, 66, of San Diego, whose great-grandfather, Hung Lai Wah, emigrated from China to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, stands near the railroad grade, near Kelton, Utah, on May 8, shortly before the 150th anniversary of the railroad's completion.
Terray Sylvester / Reuters
We're all descendants of some brave person ... who decided that, 'No, I'm going to do this. I'm going to come to America.' - Russell Low, whose great-grandfather worked on the Transcontinental Railroad

A century and a half ago, thousands of Chinese workers helped build the Transcontinental Railroad spanning the United States. Hundreds died working in dangerous conditions and freezing mountain temperatures. They were underpaid and discriminated against.

Their American descendants now want recognition of their Chinese ancestors. On May 10, nearly 500 descendants gathered outside Salt Lake City for the Golden Spike festival to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad and to highlight the complicated legacy of Chinese rail workers in the United States.

Russell Low is one of the descendants who went to pay respects to a railroad-building ancestor: his great-grandfather Hung Lai Wah. Low was also in Utah to commemorate his great-grandmother Ah Ying, who escaped an abusive household and Chinese gangs in California. The love story of Low's great-grandparents was documented in San Francisco papers of the time.

He hopes stories like his remind Americans that many of them share an immigration story: "I think that's one of the things that makes us uniquely American."

Click the play button on "Railroad Workers' Descendants Notice Lack Of Credit For Chinese Immigrants" to hear the full story.

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