From 'perfect Chinese daughter' to Communist Party critic, why Vicky Xu is exposing China to scrutiny
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"If something happens to me you know I've been murdered."
It's a joke journalist Vicky Xiuzhong Xu makes in her stand-up comedy routine, but the reality is she's had a lot of death threats.
She was, not so long ago, a model Chinese citizen; loyal to her government and its ideology.
At university in Beijing, she was training to become an English-language broadcaster, politely presenting state-approved news to the world.
Today, firebrand journalist Xu challenges just about every Western stereotype of a typical Chinese student. She's outspoken, edgy, disarmingly frank and loud, and her disillusionment with the Communist Party has been so complete that at the age of only 25 there may be no way back for Xu.
Her family has warned her not to return to China; she may never see them, the people she loves, again. It is a searing separation that causes deep conflict and pain.
"What I'm doing now and the line of work I'm in was never part of the plan," Xu tells Australian Story.
"To them, I guess, I've been a bit of a disappointment."
Being an investigative journalist criticising the Chinese Government is a lonely place to be. Her closest friends in China have cut contact.
Isolation is a heavy price to pay, she says, for "just doing my job".
Driven, intense and provocative, Xu smokes cigarettes and barely sleeps as she tweets and publishes article after article exposing human rights abuses in her homeland.
She was one of the first journalists in Australia to lift the lid on the incarceration of Uyghurs in China, convincing members of the Australian-Uyghur community to go on the record with their stories of missing relatives.
It is believed that since 2017, China has forced at least 1 million Uyghurs, a Turkic-Muslim minority group, into political indoctrination camps in Xinjiang.
China calls them re-education camps, established to fight terrorism and extremism after a number of deadly attacks by Uyghur separatists.
As the lead author of a report released last week, Xu has exposed the forced labour of tens of thousands of Uyghurs and other oppressed minority Muslims, detained, "re-educated" and despatched to work in factories outside of Xinjiang that supply Nike, Apple, Adidas and 80 other well-known clothing, automotive and technology brands.
Apple, Adidas and BMW have responded to the report however, Nike did not respond to Australian Story's request for comment.
China is perpetrating a "cultural genocide" against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but in Australia, they are dancing in defiance in a bid to save their culture.
For her single-minded persistence in breaking these stories, there is an emotional toll and considerable turmoil. She is trolled, called a traitor and monitored by the authorities.
"Vicky comes under all kinds of really heated criticism and just cruel attacks, on how she looks and who she is," says Damien Cave, Australian bureau chief of the New York Times where she started as a freelancer whilst at university.
"It is a barrage of hatred that comes at her almost daily." But, he adds, "Vicky's been bold from the moment I met her. She is not someone who is going to be silenced."
And by night — in jarring contrast — Xu is an edgy, off-beat, stand-up comedian.
She engages in black humour about what fate might befall her, but the death and sexual assault threats, images with her eyes blacked out and abuse she has received online from Chinese nationals are real. And so is the perilous position in which she has placed herself.
"Vicky is under no illusions that she's taking on strong, powerful forces," says friend Julian Morrow from The Chaser. "The line between bravery and crazy bravery is always hard to get."
Writer and social activist Erin Chew tells Australian Story she is deeply worried about the impact that the China debate is having on the Australian-Chinese community, and wants Xu to be more mindful of that.
"Her explosiveness has given her a huge media platform," she says.
"But Vicky is just one voice in a complex media debate on the growth of mainland China.
"When Vicky talks about these things, she's talking without a filter … we have to be nuanced when we talk about this issue because there is this 'yellow peril' idea that still encroaches in Australian society."
What led a young woman, one of her country's "best and brightest", to turn away from her government's ideology, but not her people? It's been an uneasy, sometimes agonising passage.
There was a time, she says, of "cognitive dissonance" as she sought to reconcile two different worlds; childhood indoctrination about China with what she was hearing.
"The popular belief is that if you don't love China, you're not one of them. So, who am I anymore?" she says.
Xu well understands why "many people are just very angry" with her. Her old self would have been angry with her too.
But she says, "What they don't know is that just a few years back I was just like them."
A dutiful child of China, Xu grew up in the north-west in a "tiny" town of 200,000 people, in one of the poorest provinces in the republic. She was an only child of parents "who live very simple lives" but who invested everything in her.
"All of my parents' attention was on me. It's the very smothering style of love," Xu says.
"They drive me everywhere to save me time so I can study. Because they only have one child under the one-child policy, they want to make sure that child has the best shot they can get."
They paid for violin, maths and physics tutors as well as an English tutor. Xu attended a maths camp for prodigies at the age of 12 and studied for 17 hours a day.
"They invested a lot and I ended up being in third place," she says.
"My parents were very disappointed, third place was just not good enough."
Xu practised the violin until her chin was scarred.
Her political education started at primary school.
"You have a flag-raising ceremony on Monday mornings. And there are these slogans that you chant when students are doing these exercises," Xu says.
Students had no choice but to wear the red scarf that meant you belonged to the Youth League of the Communist Party.
"Even if you're just an eight-year-old and you don't know anything about politics, you already belong," Xu says.
"You have to show it. Everything was about conforming."
But Xu always stood out: "In a conservative town I could be loud and obnoxious sometimes."
At school she got beaten up for being a bit different in a system that she says does not allow for individuality.
In 2012, Xu moved to Beijing and enrolled at one of China's top media colleges, the Communication University of China.
She enrolled in an English broadcasting course which she says was designed to "cultivate TV personalities who are politically loyal, who seem worldly and savvy and can talk about issues with impeccable Western accents".
In 2014, Xu took a gap year and moved to Perth to teach Mandarin at a local high school.
That's when she says her education really began. She worked alongside Karin Lwin who recalls Xu being a "loyal nationalist 100 per cent".
Xu soon decided she wanted to continue her education in Australia and applied to Melbourne University to do political science and media studies.
Her parents scrimped for her fees. Just before she left Perth she saw a poster advertising a documentary on Tiananmen Square, a place she and her university friends had wandered at night after late-night partying.
And a place where, in 1989, students had been killed when they were protesting for greater freedom and democracy.
When she saw the film, Xu was grief-stricken and angry because she had known nothing about what had happened; this moment had been airbrushed from China's history. She felt betrayed.
"There was very little access to information outside of state media, state narratives," Xu says.
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre — a bloody crackdown on a pro-democracy movement erased from history in China, but still remembered by the people who witnessed the chaos that swept Beijing.
But Xu still wasn't totally convinced by what she'd seen; there were reports of CIA involvement in the massacre and she thought they could be true.
At university, she was "overwhelmed" by the negative information about China and the accusations of human rights abuses.
She stood up for the Chinese Government. Her sense of nationalism was heightened.
"I was arguing with my peers, my professors, my boyfriend," Xu says.
"I wanted to explain that some of the so-called human rights abuses are actually justified because you have a big country to run and you just simply can't be nice to everyone."
In this defensive frame of mind, she went to a tattoo parlour and inked the Chinese national flag on her ankle.
But her mindset was starting to shift.
For one of her assignments, she interviewed dissidents from China. One of them was Lebao Wu: "I thought he was a fraud and I was going to interview him and write and expose him."
He had been a maths teacher who made jokes about China's leaders online and was put in prison and forced to do manufacturing labour for 14 hours a day.
When he was released and settled in Australia he was diagnosed with PTSD and a variety of mental health issues.
His story of injustice changed Xu's life. She was shaken. "I was very touched by his story, and it made me rethink a lot of my previous positions."
She broke her first story and had her first brush with officialdom, while still at university during a trip back to China.
Xu received face-to-face warnings over an article she was writing that alleged government inaction following a flood. Authorities later stopped her at a train station and warned her again.
When Xu returned to China to visit her sick grandmother last year, a government official told her to stop her journalism work. When she arrived at the airport to return home, her boarding pass was withheld for a worrying length of time. As she prepared to fly out Xu's mother was clearly shaken.
"My mother told me, 'Maybe you want to do more comedy and less journalism and maybe don't come back again anytime soon'," Xu says.
It was a jolting moment but Xu persisted in writing stories, often about the Uyghurs. This time her father received a warning during a phone call from police. It was a call that would rupture her relationship with her family.
"My dad has stopped speaking to me," she says.
"I couldn't help but feel that it's my fault that I am in this situation and I put my family in this situation.
"But when I published my first article I was 21 and I was very young and I was not expecting things to escalate to here today so quickly."
Anyone who now has a coffee with Xu sees that her phone is constantly buzzing with interview requests, offers of foreign speaking engagements and job offers.
From a time last year when she thought she might give up journalism because she didn't think she could change things, her future feels brighter.
"Looking ahead to the future I think I'll keep dabbling in a lot of areas and fail a bunch of times and try many new things. I think I'll be fine, to be honest," she says.
There have been sacrifices, and the kind of international journalistic impact that changes the lives of the vulnerable. At only 25 she has achieved what many journalists never will.
"I think it's just going to be like a continuous path to pursue freedom. And you can never have too much freedom. Or voice. You know, you can never have too much justice," she says.
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