The Interview: Anastasia Lin, a worldly Miss World Canada

Miss World Canada, Anastasia Lin, on the truth about beauty pageants, criticizing China, and how that puts her family at risk

Anastasia Lin moved to Canada from China at age 13. A fierce critic of China’s human rights record, she wrote a Washington Post op-ed in June about her activism and how it puts her father, who still lives in China, in danger. Lin also recently spoke at a U.S. congressional hearing regarding religious persecution by China’s Communist Party. A University of Toronto theatre graduate, she will compete at Miss World this December in China.

Q: What do remember of your childhood in China?

A: Chinese culture is—I won’t say a part of me—but it’s deep in my memory. At 11, I was president of the student council. We were asked to organize activities that aligned with what the government wanted. Our student council was asked to organize activities where students sit in the classroom and watch when CCTV—the official news station of China—was broadcasting government propaganda. There’s a lot of persecution going on in China, but there’s this one group—Falun Gong—that’s been persecuted terribly, and they’re demonized on the news.

Q: Why did you come to Canada?

A: My mother thought a western education would be better for me. She taught western economics and international finance in university and she felt the Chinese education system might be a little too rigid for me. I’m more of an outgoing, opinionated person.

Q: How did you first learn about human rights abuses in China?

A: When I came to Canada, my mother gave me a booklet that said something different than what I’d heard about Falun Gong. I thought, “The Chinese government can’t demonize and alienate them.” I read about the Tiananmen massacre in 1989—which is unheard of in China. I never heard that Tibetans were unsatisfied with their status in China, or that the Uighurs were unhappy. From the news, most Chinese people would think everyone is one big family.

Q: Do you consider yourself a Falun Gong practitioner?

A: I started to read the book of Falun Gong because I wanted to research what the group is really about. I started doing the exercises. I don’t know why people give the title of “Falun Gong practitioner.” It’s just a meditation practice with spiritual principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. If it weren’t for their persecution, people would probably view them as fancy yoga practitioners.

Q: What got you into pageantry?

A: When I was 16, I went to a human rights assembly, and Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Miss World Canada 2003, was speaking. At that time, news about the Chinese government harvesting the organs of prisoners of conscience had just broken. After she got off the stage, I went to speak with her. She told me that pageantry is a good platform if I have something I care deeply about and want to speak up about it. But it was only in 2013 that I first tried out for Miss World Canada.

Q: How does one prepare for trying out in Miss World Canada?

A: We have charity competitions, where you have to raise funds, and online competitions, which is like a People’s Choice Award. We also have to post videos about “beauty with a purpose”—that’s the motto of Miss World. In the finals, there’s an evening-gown competition and a swimsuit competition. In 2013, I declined to participate in the swimsuit competition. A lot of people say that’s why I got second runner-up, but I was happy with the result.

Q: Why did you decline the swimsuit portion?

A: I work in a lot of TV and film projects that reveal human rights abuse and often I act in the role of a victim. For my films, I have to interview a lot of people who have been sexually abused in labour camps or prison. I feel like if I expose myself in that light, for these people who look up to me as their support, this image would be counter-productive to the films. The organization told me I can choose not to participate, but it will greatly hurt my chances to win the crown. I think it was the right decision. This year, the Miss World competition cancelled the swimsuit competition. I was really happy about that.

Q: What is it like for your dad—a businessman in China—knowing his daughter is speaking out about Chinese human rights abuses?

A: At first, I didn’t dare to tell him much about it. He lived through the Cultural Revolution. Family members turned against each other. The society turned against individuals. When he first visited Canada in 2012, I showed him some of the movies I had acted in. He was really proud of me. He said, “My daughter is a great actress,” and I could see he was genuine. But after he went back to China, he told me, “Don’t always speak at events. Don’t always show your face. You can do what you want at home, but it’s different in public.”

Q: But you kept acting in these activist movies. Why?

A: There aren’t a lot of Chinese actresses who really dare to participate in these kinds of projects. They all know the risk of not getting a visa to go back to China, or having family members harassed. I just felt these stories must be heard.

Q: What was it like to win Miss World Canada 2015?

A: When they announced me as the winner, I didn’t feel the kind of excitement I had imagined I would at that moment. My mind went blank. I felt there was this huge responsibility that dropped on my shoulders. My first thought was “What am I going to do now? With this platform, I can do so much, but it comes with such a huge responsibility.”

Q: What was your family’s reaction?

A: My mom was so thrilled. She was in the audience. The second night, when my father got the message from me—I sent him a photo, and he posted it on WeChat—congratulatory messages just flooded in. He was thrilled. I’d never heard him laugh like that.

Q: And what happened in the ensuing days?

A: Three or four days later, he sent me a message with a really harsh tone: “You’re not participating in any political or human rights activities. Otherwise, I will stop supporting you.” He also hinted at threats that security forces made. He told me if I keep silent, they might have a way to survive in China. That’s when I realized something serious had happened.

Q: What kind of threats did he receive?

A: He was very vague. I’m still not sure exactly what happened. He wasn’t even supposed to tell me about it. They probably told him to just put pressure on me. I assume they’d prefer me to self-censor. That’s what a lot of Chinese people do.

Q: Instead, you wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about your dad being threatened.

A: My story is only the tip of the iceberg. It got a lot of attention because not a lot of Chinese people dare to speak about this. They know they’re being monitored. Chinese people know their phones are being tapped. But if no one speaks up, they will keep on doing this. I think the best way to protect my father is to bring as much attention as possible to this issue. If I back down, they will know there is a way to manipulate me. They’d probably do more. I am my father’s voice. I am a lot of people’s voice. If I don’t speak out, then they have no voice.

Q: Have you spoken with your dad since the op-ed?

A: I called him. When he hears my voice, he says he’s in a meeting and hangs up. He knows his phone is being tapped. He tells me not to call—just text message.

Q: Do you worry about not being able to talk to him again?

A: Yeah. I had nightmares of China turning into a war zone and never being able to talk to my dad again. I’m really scared. I have faith, though.

Q: What are your goals in the next year as Miss World Canada?

A: Miss World is being held in Sanya, China, this year. I hope to get a good result. If it weren’t for this, I probably wouldn’t have the chance to visit China safely.

Q: With your activism against Chinese human rights abuses, are you worried about being censored at the pageant?

A: I hear a lot of people say I’m anti-China. I’m not. I’m against the abuse that’s happening there, but definitely not China—not the people, not the culture. I have a message about freedom, and I think Chinese people will welcome that. Not being able to speak on television or in mass media is not a problem. My presence will already give a lot of people support and hope.

Q: Will your dad be there to support you?

A: I’m sure he’ll be there at the finals if he’s able to attend. I just hope nothing happens to him in the next four months.

Q: What do you think of how pageantry is perceived in pop culture?

A: There’s the stereotype that these girls are superficial and the industry is glamorized. People think we’re all trying to match the standard of beauty pageants—to have big hair, big nails and a glittery dress. I had the bias too. But after getting to know these girls and the organization, I started to see that these are really brave girls. It really takes courage to put yourself out there for people to judge.