Recently, I spoke at a virtual event on Chinese politics and Western perceptions of China. During the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked if any of the speakers were concerned that rising tensions between the United States and China could lead to a new Cold War or even full-blown military conflict.
The moderator directed the question to me, the only U.S.-based panelist who was also born and raised in China, but he repeated it with a slight modification: do any of your friends or relatives worry about a potential war between the two superpowers?
I appreciated the moderator’s thoughtfulness in trying to create some distance between me and a sensitive subject. I figured that was also the reason he had omitted the second part of the question: if there is a war, which side will you take?
“I’m going to be very frank here,” I said. “I myself am deeply worried about the possibility of war.” I explained that war between my birth country and my adopted home is neither implausible nor inevitable. To dismiss this remote yet real prospect would be irresponsible, but so is the assumption that the existing hegemon and a rising power are destined for battle.
In responding to the question, I avoided getting excessively personal. I did not confess, for example, how many times during the past few years I have woken up in the morning, scrolled through news alerts on my phone, read about the latest provocation from either side of the Pacific, and smelled fire and metal in the air. Or how often I have looked out the window and pictured scenes of combat in the city streets. I know I am only indulging my imagination, seeking a visual outlet for my anxiety, but my sense of vulnerability is not imaginary.
Wars take many forms. What we call the Cold War was a hot war for millions on the margins of empires. Today, I can feel the weight of a border on my back, and borders are where wars begin. I have developed a habit of checking on the three most important documents I own: my Chinese passport, my U.S. visa, and my PhD diploma. I open drawers and cabinets to make sure they are in their right places. I trace my fingers along the emblems on each, symbols of power and prestige in different places and contexts. I wonder which would be the first to lose its value, which might become a burden, and which could grant me shelter and safe passage if the time comes.
My American friends think I’m paranoid. A few familiar with my writing tell me that I have nothing to worry about: in the eyes of Uncle Sam, my harsh critiques of the Chinese government would certainly dispel any misgivings my nationality might raise. These people mean well, but those who take the safety of belonging for granted cannot comprehend the incurable condition of exile. I understand the risk of dissent against an ever more belligerent Beijing. To be severed from one’s native land inflicts an immense loss, but that loss is my private pain. It’s not meant to serve as currency to purchase another country’s trust.
Many Chinese nationalists similarly assume that, by denouncing Beijing’s policies, I have aligned myself with Washington’s objectives. They accuse me of fanning the flames of geopolitical conflict—I did not know that a junior academic could have so much power!—and gloat when simmering hostilities between the two countries endanger my being. According to some messages I receive on social media, any precarity I face as a Chinese immigrant in the United States, including the wave of anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a rightful punishment for betraying my race and my motherland.
I hear in these charges the same question the moderator spared me from: whose side are you on? Being able to contemplate this as an intellectual exercise is a mark of privilege. When I left China in 2009 to pursue my doctorate in physics in the United States, I was embarking on a narrow but well-traveled path. For generations of restless Chinese youth, a career in the sciences was one of few ways out of the old country. Unlike the possibility of war looming in my anxious mind, the dilemma faced by Chinese scientists abroad at the eve of the Cold War was not premised on a hypothetical conflict. Should they stay in the United States, despite their second-class status, or return to China and help it rebuild? They had crossed the ocean as citizens of the Republic of China, a U.S. ally in the Second World War. After the Nationalists lost the civil war to Mao’s Communists in 1949, the overseas scientists’ quotidian struggle with racial discrimination was compounded by political suspicion. These scientists took no part in the communist revolution, but to be racialized is to endure perpetual foreignness, to be tethered to a distant homeland and implicated in its every ill.
During the next few years, hundreds of diaspora scientists made their way back to China. Decades later, I learned about their stories from state media and government-issued textbooks. They were national heroes whose patriotism had withstood the temptations of the West, whose Herculean efforts had established the foundations of modern science and education in a new China. Little was said of the brutal persecutions they suffered during Mao’s campaigns. Their work on the nuclear and space programs was glorified. The ethics of building weapons were never discussed.
Notably, relatively few overseas Chinese scientists followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan. Their love and longing were for the land of their birth and its people, not the state that ruled it. Political uncertainties in the homeland also compelled many Chinese scientists to remain in the United States. As soldiers from the two countries fought each other on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. government effectively banned Chinese scientists from going to China, fearing technology transfer. Borders closed along ideological divisions, sealing fates behind them.
When relations between Washington and Beijing thawed in the 1970s, Chinese-American scientists could set foot in their native country for the first time in a quarter-century. Treated like repatriated jewels from the imperial palace, they met with the highest levels of the Chinese government. Headlines from their visits appeared in party newspapers beneath quotes from Chairman Mao, a daily feature of these publications during the Cultural Revolution.
I peruse these reports in online archives and ponder how the scientists might have felt—whether they were aware that tens of millions had died during the Great Leap Forward or that their former colleagues who chose China decades before were toiling away in labor camps. In the years of political fanaticism, Western science was deemed counterrevolutionary, and experience overseas was akin to treason. Is participating in state propaganda too high a price for a brief visit home? Where is home when a person’s two homes are at war? For those whose hyphenated identities straddle a divided world, life is a series of compromises; every step is heavy with regret.
Across the Pacific, the same group of immigrant and refugee scientists were cast into another sweeping narrative: one about escaping communism and embracing freedom, and one in which the United States stood as a beacon and magnet for oppressed people around the world. But freedom and oppression do not exist in simple dichotomy, nor can two words encapsulate every experience of liberty and persecution. Those in the United States who would drum up a new Cold War with China have convinced themselves that the last Cold War was just and that their side won, that democratization is a one-way street and authoritarianism is an alien menace. Distinguishing among various forms of freedom—economic opportunity, social stability, civil rights, the ability to move and to stay—and accounting for the costs of each one would complicate this self-congratulatory view. Blind to the ravages laid upon the rest of the world in the name of defeating communism, such people also refuse to admit that the national-security apparatus set up to protect liberty at home has achieved the exact opposite. Like older generations of cold warriors, what they desire is not a world safe and free for every person but a hierarchical order in which their position at the center is secure and their ability to project power is uninhibited. It’s a world where people like me are disposable by design. To gain admittance to their society, I must renounce part of my being.
I sense the ground splitting beneath my feet. I reach for the rift, one palm on each side. I do not pretend that I can stop the tectonic shift, but my body can bear witness. By asserting my complete self at this time and place, I reject the false binaries that attempt to tear me apart.
Yangyang Cheng is a research scholar at Yale Law School and a particle physicist.