Australian journalist Vicky Xu starts a new life in Taiwan

Xu says the democratic island is like a parallel universe version of what China could have been.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA Mandarin
2024.06.06
Australian journalist Vicky Xu starts a new life in Taiwan Vicky Xu at her martial arts studio in Taiwan, June 6, 2024.
Lee Tsung-han/RFA

Vicky Xu, a Chinese-born Australian journalist who was the target of a widespread campaign of online abuse by agents and supporters of Beijing after she exposed forced labor in Xinjiang, is fighting back against Chinese Communist Party propaganda by living her best life in democratic Taiwan, she told RFA Mandarin in a recent interview.

Xu, 29, has been learning martial arts and living a quiet life in Taiwan after quitting social media in the wake of trolling by pro-China accounts, who labeled her "anti-China" and "a traitor" as well as circulating fake nude photos of her.

"It's not I who's the traitor," Xu said indignantly. "It's the Chinese Communist Party."

She said the government, who criticized her via state media in the wake of her expose of forced labor in Xinjiang, was betraying its own people.

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Vicky Xu in Taipei, June 6, 2024.(Lee Tsung-han/RFA)

Xu co-authored a report on forced labor in the region that was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI, in 2021. Xu has previously also written for both the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The New York Times.

Xu has since reopened some social media accounts, and was drawn to Taiwan because she is unable to go back to China now, and regards it as a relatively safe place from which to stand and face her demons, the traumatic legacy of the online abuse campaign.

Since being followed and stalked in Australia in the wake of the ASPI report, Xu said she now reacts with fear when she encounters people of East Asian appearance while out and about, and wanted to live for a while in Taiwan to overcome that phobia.

"My main impression since I've been living here is that people can live decently, and with dignity," Xu said, adding that part of the draw was being able to speak Mandarin and eat Chinese food.

"It feels like a parallel universe, another China," she said. "It's a great place, and people who know me and know what I do respect me, or are even proud of me," she said.

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Vicky Xu plays the violin in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Vicky Xu)

"There are so many issues in China where the government doesn't treat people like human beings, and then the people themselves don't treat each other as human beings," Xu said. "The situation is very serious, and I think it needs to change."

"Even if people abuse me in China, I still care about their interests, and about their safety," Xu said. "For me, as a journalist, telling the truth is the most important thing. There's no point otherwise; I don't want to waste my life."

‘Betrayed’

Xu was once a staunch supporter of the Chinese Communist Party, getting the five stars from China's national flag tattooed on her ankle and posing on Tiananmen Square as a young woman from a small city in the western province of Gansu, a stop on the high-speed railway linking Xinjiang with the northwestern city of Lanzhou.

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Vicky Xu shows off her tattoo of the five stars from the Chinese national flag in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (Courtesy of Vicky Xu)

She studied English-language broadcasting at Beijing's Communications University, before accidentally finding out the truth about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on a trip to Australia, which she describes as a "betrayal" for the young patriot she once was.

"I was so shocked because it was a huge example of how the Chinese Communist Party betrayed its own people," she said. "June 4, 1989, was a huge stain on the history of Communist Party rule."

"The Chinese people are educated to be loyal to the party, and to love the party, but that's not possible for a normal and logical person ... because the party doesn't love you," she said. "It just wants to suppress everything, including the concentration camps in Xinjiang and all kinds of human rights abuses."

For Xu, who once bought the party line that the massacre was CIA propaganda, the revelation was a turning point.

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Vicky Xu testifies on transnational repression by Beijing at the Czech Parliament. Undated. (Courtesy of Vicky Xu)

"[It] was the starting point for my political enlightenment, and for my doubts about the legitimacy of Communist Party rule," she said.

She said she secretly visited a number of survivors, family members of victims and former police officers in a bid to understand more about what happened that summer.

Xi ruling through his own trauma

Eventually, Xu dropped out of her broadcasting degree and went to Australia to study politics instead.

Since then, she has come to an understanding of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping as the product of multiple generations of trauma.

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Vicky Xu entertains guests with her stand-up comedy routine. (Courtesy of Vicky Xu)

"I really think Xi Jinping is ruling the country through his trauma, because very controlling people are usually acting from a deep sense of fear," Xu said. "During the Cultural Revolution, his father was put in prison and his step-sister committed suicide, while Xi was ostracized by the rest of the offspring of party leaders and locked up in the party school."

"When he escaped and ran back home to get something to eat from his own family kitchen, his own mother reported him to the authorities," she said.

Xi should be getting psychotherapy, she said, but that nobody would dare to offer it to him.

Xu has even made these ideas into a stand-up comedy routine about "giving Xi Jinping a hug," that she performs from time to time.

Death threats

Yet Xu still has times when she feels isolated, and remains vigilant for any sign of surveillance or harassment from supporters of Beijing, following her experiences elsewhere.

"I have received threats of death and sexual violence," she said. "I had people standing guard in front of my home, and even intruding into the house to take pictures for no reason."

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Vicky Xu speaks to RFA Mandarin, June 6, 2024.(Lee Tsung-han/RFA)

"When it comes to people like me, the Chinese Communist Party’s secret police, agents, or state security can harness the power of several provinces and departments to hunt me down, harass me, or intimidate me, or harm everyone in my social circle that they can see," Xu said.

"It's quite scary, because it feels like I'm being haunted," she said. "I might be walking down the street in Australia, and everyone around me is living a normal life, but I have a ghost behind me, and when I turn around to look, I'm the only person who can see it."

The constant fear has taken a toll on Xu's mental health, leaving her with severe depression and other symptoms.

"One way I overcome it is to look at it like I would martial arts or surfing," Xu said. "If you don't look at the wave when it approaches, you'll be knocked off the board. In boxing, if you don't look at your opponent, you'll be beaten up ... worse, if you shut your eyes."

Xu has been working hard on her martial arts, both for self-defense and mental health reasons, since she got to Taiwan, and finds regular sparring sessions a good way to forget about her troubles.

"For me, the most important thing about martial arts isn't who I can beat up, or defeat, but that I am getting stronger, both physically and mentally," Xu said, adding that Hong Kong martial arts legend Bruce Lee is a hero and a role model for her.

"I want to be the next Bruce Lee, only female," she said. 

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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