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U.K. Labour Party candidate, born in China, writes about women's private evolutions

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: In this summer's U.K. election, the Labour Party candidates include Yuan Yang. She posted a video this spring, standing on a suburban street.


YUAN YANG: A general election has just been called, and it is time for change. My name is Yuan Yang, and I'm your Labour MP candidate for our new constituency of Earley and Woodley, which covers Shinfield and South Reading.

INSKEEP: She describes her London suburb as prosperous and diverse. It's the home of many tech companies, global businesses that have attracted immigrant families - including her own. She was born in China, to a family that moved to Britain when she was 4. She grew up to become a journalist and, for a time, returned to China to report for the Financial Times, going back and forth between her democratic society and an undemocratic one. Do you come home and sometimes get the feeling that we in the West, or in democratic countries, do not fully appreciate what we have?

YANG: Oh, absolutely. I do not think we fully appreciate what we have, and it's that cliche about not knowing what you have until you start to lose it.

INSKEEP: Now, Yuan Yang faces two big dates that represent two sides of her life. She has a book coming out July 2. "Private Revolutions" tells the story of four women she met in China. She's had to cancel the planned book tour because of her other big date - the election July 4. She quit her job in journalism, and she's campaigning.

YANG: I was at a gathering recently where - and I was answering questions from residents. And one of them said, Yuan, you sound like you're an optimist in the way that you talk about the future. And I thought about this, actually, and I think I am optimistic by personality, but I also think that my optimism - my hope for a renewal of British democracy - comes from seeing the exact opposite, which is the rise of authoritarianism in China, the crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong in 2019 and onwards and the kind of tightening of restrictions around speech, around what journalists can do and, you know, the closing down, I think, of China to the outside world.

And coming back to the U.K. has been a breath of fresh air in terms of our ability to write, to knock on somebody's door and ask them who they might vote for and what they think of the prime minister. These are the kinds of things that are unimaginable for activists and journalists in China.

INSKEEP: Yang is in her mid-30s, and that is part of the story because she wrote her book about four Chinese women who were around the same age. All four were born around 1990. All four grew up as China opened economically. All tried to seize whatever opportunities they could in an unfree society. One woman, called June in the book, was born in a village so remote, it was a three-hour walk to the nearest paved road. The details of her life are excruciating. Her father is severely injured in a knife attack, and her mother dies working in a coal mine. June remains determined to get an education.

YANG: I think there's something tremendously liberating about having nothing to lose, and so for June, for some of the other characters - and their mothers, to some extent - the decision to jump into an unknown life comes from knowing that if they were to stay on the farm, there'd not be very much left for them.

INSKEEP: June gets out of that village, gets an education and finds tech jobs in Beijing. The four women's stories reflect modern China's rise, as well as the recent tightening of surveillance and restrictions on speech.

YANG: I really wanted to bring out, in this book, what it felt like to go through these changes. You know, how do they impact the way that you see your relationships with your family, with your children, with your loved ones, the way that you date, the way that your friendships work, the way that your friendships evolve as you all move into different cities and so on? The much darker side of that was at the same time as doing all of this and enjoying my time with these fascinating women, I also constantly had in the back of my mind the security of my interviewees and the censorship and the surveillance. The experience of it was a mixture of that kind of delight and playfulness and the thinking of the greater political scene that we were in.

INSKEEP: What do these four stories tell you, first, about China and the way that it's changed in the last couple of decades?

YANG: There's both the optimism in that experience of boom time. For many of the women, if they were born in the villages, they would have been born into rural poverty, as my father was when he was born in the '60s. Their parents would have experienced, you know, the start of the economic boom, from the - what's called the reform and opening-up era of the late '80s onwards. If you're born into that kind of climate, you're born into a climate where everyone expects to do better than their parents - and to do kind of incredibly better, in fact - in ways that were not imaginable or not achievable...


YANG: ...In your family's history because the whole country is being lifted out of poverty at such a rapid rate. And so people are conditioned to expect more, to be ambitious. And then, as those millennial women are entering the workforce and kind of coming into the late 2010s, they hit the start of the slowdown. You know, that's the flip side of the story of optimism. It's the story of mismatched expectations and what happens now that your ambitions are far greater, your aspirations are maybe far greater than what you can materially realize, given the slowdown, so half of the book, I think, is about the adjustment to that reality and, you know, what people say to themselves to handle that reality.

INSKEEP: I am impressed by the ambition of the women you profile. There's one named Siyue, as you describe it, has a terrible time in school. She is just not suited for the kind of rote learning that is common in Chinese schools but ends up teaching herself English and becoming a teacher. Am I right about this?

YANG: That is right, yes, and it's done through what I can only describe as very unexpected routes. Now, Siyue - I think she and the other three women who are the central characters of the book have one thing in common, which is that they are idealists. They dream far beyond what's practical, I think, and they also really don't meet the expectations of their parents - in some ways surpassing them, in some ways completely kind of confounding them by going in the exact opposite direction that their parents had hoped for them. So I think Siyue and June - you know, they're one in a million people, and yet the struggles that they encounter and the ways that they respond to it, I think, do typify many parts of the modern Chinese personality and the modern Chinese imagination, which is this desire to surpass what's come before you and, in many ways, to dream in extravagant and idealistic ways.

INSKEEP: Yuan Yang is the author of "Private Revolutions: Four Women Face China's New Social Order." She's also a Labour Party candidate for Parliament in the U.K. elections coming up in a few days. Thanks so much.

YANG: Brilliant. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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