Outside China: Student shrugs off cultural inhibition to protest and advocate for change
COMING from a society that discourages protesting, Chinese student Feifei Liao talks about her experience in organising advocacy campaigns as an international student in Melbourne. Echo Chen has the story.
Many international students join clubs on campus or work part-time as part of their extracurricular commitments, but few take part in political advocacy in a foreign society despite the vibrant political scenes in Melbourne.
Local community and student groups often take to the streets or gather in front of the State Library to advocate issues ranging from Aboriginal rights to tuition fee cuts. Yet it has unusual to see international students among them until recent years.
In 2012, a rally supporting fair and free election movements in Malaysia attracted Malaysian students in Melbourne to gather at Federation Square. Last year also saw students from Hong Kong protest against the Occupy Central unrest back home.
While these protests echoed political events happening in international students’ motherlands, Chinese student Feifei Liao and her Melbourne-based group Proud to Be International Students (PTBIS) ran campaigns against local policies such as advocating for public transport concessions for international students in Victoria.
Feifei has been a member of PTBIS since March 2013. She still remembers when she first listened to PTBIS’s introductory presentation at a launch event by the Melbourne University Chinese Debating Group.
“I thought ‘Wow, that’s interesting. That’s what I always wanted to do but didn’t find a way to’”, Feifei described her excitement on discovering the opportunity to speak out.
Before that, she thought it was impossible for international students like her to organise political advocacy in Australia due to a lack of connections with the government.
“But our leader at the time was working as an assistant for a local MP, so that made it easier for us to talk to government members.”
Even after working at PTBIS, Feifei thinks mutual communication between governmental institutions and international student groups is still the most challenging part in their advocacy. She feels it is especially difficult for students from other countries to effectively approach the government within the legal framework, while the government rarely takes the initiative to reach them directly.
Feifei said their campaigns sought to narrow the communication gap. The group managed to talk with various organisations and eventually submitted a formal petition to parliament.
As PTBIS’s public relation manager, Feifei organised publicity activities to gain wider public attention on the Myki concession issue. She sought support from university student clubs in Victoria, and tried to present her group at events held by other local and international organisations, even if they weren’t always successful.
When Feifei first told her parents in China about what she was doing, there was doubt over whether the campaigns she took part in could run successfully. This came from her parents’ attitude towards the Chinese government’s oppression on student protests.
“But then my father said, ‘well, it’s good to get in and get to know things’”, she laughed, saying her parents were supportive and not really worried about their daughter’s ability to cope with difficulties.
Feifei thinks her father particularly has confidence in her, saying he has a big impact on her ways of thinking and acting whether at home or abroad.
“Usually, because you’re a girl, people would think you’re too fragile and shouldn’t do a lot of things. But my father… thinks there are lots of difficulties that happen, so you need to think about how to cope with them. He often said, ‘you need to learn by yourself’.”
And Feifei has certainly learnt the possibilities of running student advocacy in Australia. Comparing the different political systems in Australia and China, she considers Australia to be much more democratic and protective of freedom of speech.
Despite various challenges, she believes international students like her who come from authoritarian countries face less restrictions and risks when they organise political activities here.
When she contacted local politicians here, Feifei says that they had to be polite and patient, and “even if they could not help you, they would say, ‘well I think that’s fair’ or give us advice”.
The campaigns have also become a rewarding personal experience to Feifei. Through meeting people in various positions across different organisations, she thinks she has improved her organisational skills and obtained different perspectives.
Having studied abroad for more than six years, Feifei says her life in Australia, and especially the time she spent on running campaigns, has changed her a lot.
Reflecting on her past attitude towards Melbourne’s frequent protests, Feifei said she used to think similarly to many students, that “it’s none of my business”, especially because many of the protests were about local Australian issues.
But afterwards she started to participate in events relevant to the needs of international students. She spoke about why she valued those advocacy events even, if they were not all successful.
“It’s important that we’re meeting people and making friends for a whole life… we join the group because we share the same values,” she said.
Yet Feifei was not surprised to learn that only a small handful of friends showed genuine interest or confidence in what her group was trying to achieve. She considers such attitudes as understandable, because students like her from oppressive societies are used to having to accept what the authority imposes.
She hopes international students here can realise they have the opportunities to protest and change the current situation, even though they are not local citizens.
“Here, it’s possible to improve,” she says. And because of her advocacy experience, she feels “it is really important you feel it’s possible and [as long as] you’ve got hope then you’ll be more willing to do it.”