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Resistance, Remembrance, Revolution & Rise:
A Review of “Not the Foreign Force” 

By June
May 1, 2024

Not the Foreign Force Review Op-Ed Banner

In the face of severe censorship, restricted access to primary sources, and escalating transnational repression, significant barriers exist to the documentation and dissemination of collective memories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Particularly, the narrative concerning the A4 Revolution remains notably sparse. Hence, the documentary “Not the Foreign Force,” crafted by Shanghai resident Plato Chen, assumes profound significance: it stands nearly alone as a publicly accessible depiction of the A4 Revolution. Yet, following the documentary’s release, Chen himself was covertly detained by Chinese authorities, charged with the vague offense of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” commonly employed to suppress political dissent. Chen’s harrowing ordeal silently extends the narrative of the documentary, reflecting a microcosm of China’s post-pandemic landscape: an increase in totalitarian repression against dissidents, with state power enforcing extreme censorship and manipulation of collective memory. The social control implemented under the guise of public health during the pandemic era persists, intensifying rather than dissipating with the purported easing of restrictions, becoming deeply ingrained within the populace as internalized fear and self-censorship.

Beyond the borders of the Chinese Empire, the inevitable decline of the once vibrant and inspiring A4 Revolution is indisputable. However, there exists a glimmer of fortune: through the brief illumination provided by the A4 Revolution and the three-year lockdown imposed by Xi Jinping’s regime amid the pandemic, a growing number of individuals have embarked on their own political awakening. As articulated in the latest edition of the underground journal “Mang-Mang” born from the A4 Revolution, some opt to remain and become builders of change. Despite the CCP’s efforts to erase and imprison, only bodies and objects succumb to destruction and captivity, not spirits. The faint flame ignited by the A4 Revolution crossed oceans, embraced by diaspora communities worldwide, continuing to kindle flames wherever authoritarian regimes have yet to assert control. Hence, Chinese diaspora communities worldwide have convened screenings of “Not the Foreign Force” in early April 2024.

Clocking in at less than ninety minutes, the documentary draws upon diverse video clips sourced from various social media platforms capturing anti-lockdown protests, alongside original footage obtained by the producer through clandestine channels, hitherto unpublished by the original videographers. The narrative unfolds from the Urumqi fire on November 24th, 2022, contrasting the fervor of World Cup matches with the anguish and horror wrought by the fire’s victims, delivering the documentary’s initial visual and emotional impact. It segues into a brief retrospective, recounting escalating grievances during the Shanghai lockdown, laying the groundwork for the underlying causes and societal underpinnings that swiftly ignited the massive wave of protests following the Urumqi incident. As the timeline regresses to November 26, 2022, familiar scenes unfold: original footage captures the throngs gathering on Middle Urumqi Road, the tense standoff with law enforcement, the brutal crackdown, and the ensuing bloody, violent repression that unfolded in the early hours of November 27th, 2022.

The documentary’s narrative thread remains straightforward, encompassing a singular storyline devoid of subsequent interviews with eyewitnesses or analytical commentary. This limitation may stem from objective constraints faced by the production team operating within China. Nevertheless, the documentary resonates deeply with collective memory, presenting familiar scenes, some of which have evolved into political symbols, in each segment. For instance, amidst the contrast between the World Cup and the Urumqi fire, a citizen confronts law enforcement, proclaiming, “The World Cup audience isn’t afraid of COVID, so why should we be?” Scenes from the Shanghai lockdown evoke memories of clashes between police and civilians, encapsulating the sentiment of “We are the last generation.” The depiction of the Middle Urumqi Road protest features ordinary citizens attempting to reach out to law enforcement, citizens brandishing flowers and questioning authorities, and citizens obstructing police vehicles akin to the iconic Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, among others. These circulated clips, banned on Chinese social media, have seeped into collective memory. The documentary resurfaces these clips within its narrative, serving as a reawakening and preservation of memory amidst the prevailing atmosphere of the receding A4 Revolution tide and persistent calls for a return to the so-called normality.

Moreover, the documentary briefly touches upon the aftermath of the A4 Revolution, notably mentioning occurrences such as authorities scrutinizing individuals’ phones near People’s Square in Shanghai and the arrest and sentencing of Uyghur activist Kamile Wayit. However, these aspects constitute a relatively small portion of the documentary’s entirety. Whether the author intended to maintain focus on the Middle Urumqi Road protests or other undisclosed reasons, this remains uncertain. While the documentary provides an exhaustive explanation of the A4 Revolution’s causes, it allocates comparatively less content to its ongoing ramifications, heightened censorship, and the relentless expansion of the police state. Additionally, the documentary neglects to address China’s genocide in East Turkestan and its potential connection to the Urumqi fire: roadblocks erected under the guise of counter-terrorism delayed firefighting efforts, and the pervasive surveillance and repression in East Turkestan stifled resistance during the prolonged lockdown. Moreover, certain language employed in the documentary carries colonialist undertones, such as referring to East Turkestan as “Xinjiang.” The absence of a gender perspective, such as the pivotal roles played by women and LGBTQ+ communities in the A4 Revolution or the groundwork laid by the preceding “Chained Woman” incident that catalyzed public outrage, represents another narrative gap left for future exploration. These observations aren’t intended as critiques of the production team; crafting any documentary about the A4 Revolution under fascist rule in China constitutes a remarkable feat. Rather, they serve as markers for improvement, as the endeavor to document, publish, film, and disseminate memories of the A4 Revolution spans an entire epoch and community. “Not the Foreign Force” represents just the inaugural stride taken. By comprehending both the strides achieved and those yet to be made, we can chart a course toward more innovative endeavors, ultimately aiming for the collapse of totalitarian rule.

Sitting in the theater, reflections on confronting the totalitarian state apparatus loomed large. From the beginning of the A4 Revolution to the subsequent exodus of many activists facing persecution, to the unveiling of this documentary, skepticism and derision have echoed incessantly. Countless voices, whether veiled in threats, pretense, or under the guise of benevolence, incessantly convey doubts: How can ordinary citizens resist the state apparatus? With the exile community seemingly sidelined, what impact can they wield? Even if a documentary is crafted, won’t it inevitably lead to arrests? It’s mere self-gratification, they claim. Amidst such skepticism, a poem by Tibetan poet Tenzin Tsundue, titled “Refugee,” resonates deeply:

When I was born,
my mother proclaimed, 
“You are a refugee.” 
Our tent, by the roadside, 
smoldered in the snow.

Between my brows, 
my teacher discerned
an “R” etched,
I scratched and scrubbed,
unveiling a crimson mark of pain.

Of tongues, I boast three,
but the one that sings
is my mother’s tongue.

The “R” between my English and Hindi,
reads in Tibetan:

(Rangzen means freedom in Tibetan) 

The act of filming and screening a documentary such as “Not the Foreign Force” echoes Tenzin’s teachings: we may not alter our environment, but we can understand and interpret it with self-empowerment rather than resignation. This may not immediately herald regime change or exiles returning home, but it marks a journey towards reclaiming self-determination, ensuring our bodies, spirits, lives, and communities aren’t subdued by fear, defeat, or a sense of powerlessness. Let us brandish a colossal “R” upon our foreheads: that “R” symbolizes RESISTANCE, REMEMBRANCE, REVOLUTION. Let us grasp the torch ignited by Plato Chen, and we RISE.