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The Introduction first defines the fluid and evolving overseas Chinese democracy movement (OCDM) or haiwai minyun, formed by Chinese political dissidents in exile. Second, it revisits exile politics as both a Chinese and international tradition and reviews the literature studying the subject matter. Third, it highlights the contributions of this project which investigates a rarely studied aspect of Chinese politics and international relations, before explaining a field-oriented personalized research approach. Finally, it presents the chapter structure illustrating that the main chapters assess the OCDM’s fluctuating trajectory, shifting operational environment and diversified activities, and characterize its distinct features compared to other national experiences of exile politics.

This project studies the overseas Chinese democracy movement (OCDM) or haiwai minyun formed by Chinese political dissidents in exile. The main chapters assess its fluctuating trajectory, shifting operational environment and diversified activities, and characterize its distinct features in a comparison with other national experiences of exile politics. This introduction defines the fluid movement, reviews the literature, highlights the contribution of the study, explains the research approach, and presents the chapter structure.


The genesis of the OCDM started with the inauguration of China Spring magazine in 1982 and founding of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy (CAD) in 1983, both in New York. Wang Bingzhang, a Chinese graduate studying for a PhD degree in pathology at McGill University (Canada), led the charge to give birth to both the magazine and China’s first overseas political opposition organization since 1949. His followers were mostly fellow Chinese students and secondarily migrants. These early activists were inspired by the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing during 1978–9, when many social activists and citizens in Beijing put posters on, and held protest rallies before, a long brick wall in downtown Xidan Street, urging political reform. This brief period of liberalization was quickly suppressed by the post-Mao leadership, with mass arrests and imprisonment of the leading participants.

The overseas movement snowballed after the Tiananmen event, which took place in Tiananmen Square in downtown Beijing during May–June 1989, when hundreds of thousands of students, intellectuals, workers and common citizens gathered to protest the lack of political freedom and other flaws in the party-state system. It led to a massacre of demonstrators by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on 4 June that year. The violent crackdown caused a mass exodus of student leaders and liberal intellectuals not just from Beijing but also the various provinces who rallied in their own localities to support the campaigns in the national capital. Ranks of the OCDM were simultaneously inflated by a large number of Chinese students and visitors who had gone to Western countries previously and stayed on due to the Beijing massacre. After the mid-1990s, a few prominent Democracy Wall veterans, again from various provinces as well as Beijing, joined the overseas dissident community, mainly because they were expelled by the Chinese government in the name of medical parole as a diplomatic trade-off with the United States (US). In the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of human rights’ defenders and dissident intellectuals have left China to join the exiles, particularly during the repressive administration of Xi Jinping (2012–).

It is a challenge to define the exile movement with precision. The above narrative is merely a part attempt to highlight the types of leading activists. It should be clarified that the term “exiles” is used as a broad reference for active participants in the OCDM in general. They include not just those well-known dissidents who fled China from various rounds of persecution or were involuntarily sent abroad by the authorities. They also include those elements that, regardless of how and when they left China, chose to become proactive in the overseas political opposition. Some came to the West as students (like Wang Bingzhang), some as migrants, and some even members of official delegations. In this sense, “exile” mainly indicates that all leading activists have been barred from re-entry to their homeland due to their “anti-China” activities abroad.

Another challenge to defining a precise overarching definition of the OCDM at this point is that the movement overall has not always been expanding – in fact the opposite is true due to deteriorating operational environments and intra-movement disunity. Many prominent dissidents have long left the struggle. The rank and file has been shrinking for most organizations. At present, dissident exiles have different backgrounds and permeate diverse walks of life in their host societies. After decades of chequered development and changing campaign tactics, the movement has become fragmented with a proliferation of different organizations.

One generic definition of the movement should be that it consists of the organizations, networks and campaigns of those mainland Chinese political activists in exile, mostly in the West but particularly in the US. Through lobbying, publicity, conferencing, training, protests and many other contentious activities, they advocate liberal democratic values to systematically expose the fundamental flaws and human rights abuses in the party-state system of China and struggle to bring it to an end. This loose definition of the movement does not imply consistent coordination or unity among the activists and organizations.

The above can also be seen as a narrow definition because over the years the boundaries of the exile community have become nebulous. A broadly defined OCDM would include people who share the core dissidents’ goals and occasionally participate in their activities but may not want to be seen to associate with the movement, let alone join any dissident organization. This hesitation is caused by concerns with career and business interests in China, or the poor reputation of some exile organizations and dissidents. Nebulous boundaries are also exemplified by the existence of those organizations that work closely with the OCDM because their membership comprises many political exiles (such as Independent Chinese PEN Centre), or those organizations that are mainstream rights groups but with prominent Chinese exiles playing leadership roles over the years (though one can only think of one major case, namely Human Rights in China based in New York).


Activism by exiles of various ideological and religious strands has been a salient mover and shaper of political life in the modern world, if not since ancient times. Some were defined by revolutionary violence, but some were more peaceful; some were social movements, but some were governments in exile. Prominent cases of overseas political activities against repressive home regimes in the twentieth century include: anti-Fascist movements and governments in exile in Western Europe, post-Second World War exiles in Latin America, Southern Europe, Africa and East Asia, and exiles and dissidents from the Soviet bloc states.1

China is no exception to this historical pattern, though the OCDM is the first of its kind in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) if one excludes the struggle of the Tibetan exiles which took off with the Dalai Lama’s exit to India in 1959. One historical case that contemporary exiles like to celebrate is the Republican Revolution of 1911, which received strong support from overseas Chinese communities and created Asia’s first republic, namely the Republic of China (ROC). Its leader Sun Yat-sen famously declared “Huaqiao [overseas Chinese migrants] are the mother of revolution” in acknowledgement of the fact that the campaign was waged and supported by overseas Chinese communities under the leadership of experienced exiles like himself.2 In fact exile struggle is also part of the ideological upbringing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Its classic narrative of the world communist movement dutifully refers to the original prophet, the famous German exile Karl Marx, and the legend of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin plotting the Russian October Revolution in exile. Broadly, the CCP’s pre-1949 development also benefited from overseas experiences in Europe and the Soviet Union. Li Haifeng, former director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of State Council, emphasized that many renowned party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De all “went to Europe, the birthplace of Marxism, to pursue truth in order to save the nation and people”. He claimed that “precisely during the years of residing in Europe, many of them completed the transformation from young students pursuing revolutionary truth to mature professional revolutionists”.3 This historical background may partly explain Beijing’s fear of “young students pursuing revolutionary truth” abroad today. It should also be mentioned that the PRC hosted communist exiles from many South East Asian countries until the late 1980s.4 In short, the OCDM is part of a long political tradition, both Chinese and international.


Works covering exile politics are voluminous, mostly historical narratives based on individual national cases either as origins or hosts.5 However, study of the OCDM has been intermittent or sporadic, mirroring the wax and wane of the movement. The historic founding of China Spring and CAD’s growth has attracted little academic interest despite wide coverage by Western and overseas Chinese media. However, the Tiananmen event triggered interest in exile politics. Zhang presented a basic account of CAD and its magazine, and discussed their roles in the Tiananmen movement.6 Nathan and Barme followed the Tiananmen exodus with a focus on the roles of exile intellectuals.7 Ma deployed basic concepts of Albert Hirschman’s seminal model to define political exiles in terms of three essential components of exit, voice and struggle for return, and examined how each of these elements characterized Chinese exile politics.8 Over the next ten years after 1993, three more works emerged. He Baogang studied the functions and impacts of some exile political organizations.9 In an investigative volume, Buruma explored the life, experiences and thoughts of some leading dissidents as individuals.10 Beja examined the roles of some exile lobby and research organizations in the US’ relations with China.11 As if to show the declining significance of the movement, there were more than ten years of silence in the literature after 2003, before the twenty-fifth anniversary (2014) of the Tiananmen event ushered in new scholarly interest in the subject. Thus, in an oral history, Rowena He interweaved her own experiences with the accounts (from childhood to exile) of three student leaders exiled from China in the aftermath of the military crackdown in Beijing.12 Junker presented a quantitative analysis comparing the tactical dispositions of two Chinese movements overseas: the OCDM and the Falun Gong, a religious community banned in China since 1999.13 Chen captured the developmental patterns of dissident activities,14 and analysed their arduous international and domestic environment.15

The literature as a whole has merits useful to this project, in analyses of specific issues, individual activists, some campaign activities and milestone developments. There is space to try an integrated, historical and comparative investigation of the evolving movement and its dynamics, at the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen event and the fortieth anniversary of China’s economic reform. The OCDM’s trajectory reflects a major impact of China’s own meteoric rise to global power and international relations. Symbolically, the OCDM has persisted as China’s only political opposition movement and the world’s major extant case of exile politics against a party-state. Despite its present marginalization, weakness and fragmentation, as is common in the evolution of many other exile movements, the OCDM remains a distinctive arena of activity in the eyes of all parties concerned, including the practitioners, the diaspora, domestic activists, the Chinese government, the political establishment in the host states, transnational civil society, and Taiwan. In particular, the movement continues to receive attention from Beijing, which castigates it as one of the overseas “anti-China” forces. The fact that the Chinese party-state has survived and apparently thrived may not be ultimate proof that the movement has become a meaningless subject matter. Few works on exile politics would have been written if the judgement of the activists’ effect must be whether they were the main force which successfully brought down or replaced the home regime. Assessments should go beyond exiles’ capacity to sway state policies, and examine the various civic political realms; and go beyond prominent dissidents’ rise and fall, infighting and disrepute, to assess lesser-known figures’ mundane but useful pursuits, with all their theoretical implications.


Though broadly using the theoretical frameworks of diaspora and exile politics in some parts of the analysis, this book is predominantly an empirical and historical project. Data collection depended as much on extensive personal networking as on the usual scholarly literature research. I spent the period from July 1980 to April 1989 in Beijing mainly as an undergraduate and then postgraduate student, hence carrying some sort of Tiananmen syndrome with me since coming to Australia afterwards. During my later years in Beijing, I was acquainted with some fellow students and intellectuals who later became leading activists in the Tiananmen Square event during May–June 1989. Due to this background I have cared about the OCDM, occasionally participating in its activities, though mostly as a detached observer, and have enjoyed some personal convenience in researching for this project while remaining analytically critical. Investigation mainly relied on primary sources and field research. Primary sources refer to the memoirs of some democracy veterans, literature and reports generated by the movement itself through its own online media outlets and many online thematic discussion forums, a host of self-broadcasting platforms accessible on YouTube, and independent international Chinese-language media such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Field research entailed interviewing the major dissidents and their international supporters and funders, and observing a number of organizations’ activities, mainly in the US, Taiwan and Australia. It must be admitted that while trying my best with referencing, it is hard to pin down the sources of some of the ideas and information used in the discussion due to the very personal nature of data collection such as personal interaction and communication with activists over many years. To facilitate the reader, organizational affiliations and basic background of those whom I have interviewed and/or communicated with, including the exiles, their supporters and academic researchers, are listed in the References, in addition to similar information being provided in various ways when they are first mentioned in the text.

Chapter 1 lays a broad historical foundation for the analysis in the following chapters. It presents an account of the evolution of the overseas Chinese democracy movement. Main contents include: the genesis and dynamic development of CAD, the organization’s role in the 1989 movement, and the boom of the exile movement after 1989. It also discusses personal and factional infighting as a commonly perceived crippling factor in the development of the movement, and highlights the beginning of the decline of its overall momentum from the late 1990s.

Chapter 2 systematically explains the wax and wane of the dissident movement, and sheds light over the crucial international, Chinese, Taiwanese and diasporic factors which seem to determine the overall trajectory of the exile struggle. The theory of diaspora politics is adapted and deployed to underline a downhill and more arduous operational environment of the movement which led to its nadir from a moral and political height achieved during the first half of the 1990s. The chapter also critically engages a widespread doom and gloom verdict on exile activism.

Chapter 3 presents a more positive assessment of the movement by highlighting and analysing the trends which have emerged or strengthened from about the second decade of the twenty-first century, reshaping and recharging the movement. A challenging operational environment has bred broader activities, creative tactics, professional and specialized groups, cosmopolitan activists and niche contributions to domestic campaigns. The rise of revolutionary communication technology, particularly social media, has been embraced by the exiles. The chapter then uses broader and realistic theoretical lenses to revisit the evolving and diverse exile politics in order to explore its influence.

Chapter 4 intends to illuminate the distinct characteristics – and especially harsh operating parameters – of the OCDM through a comparative exercise. It first compares the OCDM to movements targeting other authoritarian states, including the exile politics of the Soviet bloc, Latin America and East Asia. Second, the chapter specifically compares the mainland Chinese case to the exile politics of Taiwan. It discusses the ways dissidents from these states have tried to influence political development in their homelands, sway the host states’ policies towards the repressive home regimes, mobilize the broad diaspora communities and deal with the divide among their own ranks. The purpose of these endeavours is to place the overseas Chinese democracy movement in a broader perspective and sharpen the understanding of its unique features.

The Conclusion presents an integrated overview of the OCDM, including its future prospects.

1   For a summary of exile politics in history, see Shain, Yossi (2005a), ‘Introduction’, in The Frontier of Loyalty: Political Exiles in the Age of the Nation-State, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, pp. 1–6.

2   Huang, Xiaojian (2014), ‘Verification of Sun Yat-sen’s idea that Huaqiao are the mother of revolution’, Shanghai Branch of China Party for Public Interest, 10 October, available at

3   China News Service (2011), ‘Li Haifeng talks about the transformation of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy towards overseas Chinese: the core is to protect compatriots’ interests’, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, 5 July, available at

4   Chen, Jie (1994), ‘Shaking off a historical burden: China’s relations with the ASEAN-based communist insurgency in Deng’s era’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 27 (4), pp. 443–62.

5   For a comprehensive literature review, see Goddeeris, Idesbald (2007), ‘The temptation of legitimacy: exile politics from a comparative perspective’, Contemporary European History, 16 (3), pp. 395–405.

6   Zhang, Juli (1990), China Spring and the Chinese Alliance for Democracy’, International Communication Gazette, 45 (1), pp. 3–17.

7   Nathan, Andrew (1992), ‘Historical perspectives on Chinese democracy: the overseas democracy movement today’, in Roger Jeans (ed.), Roads Not Taken: The Struggle of Opposition Parties in Twentieth-Century China, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 313–27; Barme, Geremie (1991)‎, ‘Traveling heavy: the intellectual baggage of the Chinese diaspora’, Problems of Communism, 40 (1–2), pp. 94–112.

8   Ma, Shu-Yun (1993), ‘The exit, voice, and struggle to return of Chinese political exiles’, Pacific Affairs, 66 (3), pp. 368–85.

9   He, Baogang (1997), ‘Political organizations in exile’, in The Democratic Implications of Civil Society in China, London: Macmillan Press Ltd., pp. 85–105.

10 Buruma, Ian (2001), Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, New York: Random House.

11 Beja, Jean-Philippe (2003), ‘The fly in the ointment? Chinese dissent and US–China relations’, The Pacific Review, 16 (3), pp. 439–53.

12 He, Rowena (2014b), Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

13 Junker, Andrew (2014), ‘The transnational flow of tactical dispositions: the Chinese democracy movement and Falun Gong’, Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 19 (3), pp. 329–50.

14 Chen, Jie (2014), ‘The overseas Chinese democracy movement after thirty years: new trends at low tide’, Asian Survey, 54 (3), pp. 445–70.

15 Chen, Jie (2018), ‘The Chinese political opposition in exile: a chequered development’, Europe-Asia Studies, 70 (1), pp. 108–29.