Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Leftist Dissent Under Xi: The Old Leftists, Part II

In "Leftist Dissent Under Xi: The Old Leftists," Part I, Dui Hua discussed the phenomenon of neo-Maoism among a number of social groups, including veterans and laid-off workers. In this post, we look at attempts to form political parties intended to resurrect the ideology, culture, and legacy of the Mao era, and the government’s reactions to these efforts.

Political Parties

Despite faltering public trust in local officials, the central government still earns the approval of many patriotic workers and veterans, especially since the launch of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which appears to have won the hearts and minds of the majority of Chinese. However, there exists a small segment of aggrieved leftists who believe their plight cannot be addressed without an ideological overhaul within the CCP. They believe that the CCP must revert to pre-reform era socialism, restore the people’s communes, re-collectivize, and provide employment, education, healthcare, and housing for all throughout China. They also think that the alternative communist parties they created are the true vanguard of socialism, a path from which the CCP has been straying for over 40 years since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms began.

Dui Hua has previously reported cases of leftist subversion from 1980-2012, where individuals received harsh prison sentences for founding political groups with the aim of overthrowing the CCP, which some on the far left believe has morphed into totalitarian capitalism. A year before Xi came to power, Dong Zhanyi (董占义), founder of the New Era Communist Party of China, was sentenced to life imprisonment for subversion and contract fraud. The party was established around 2008 with the mission to fight rampant government corruption.

Under Xi, new political associations created by the Old Leftists continue to emerge. Instead of promoting regime change like Dong Zhanyi, some of these newly formed groups call for mutual coexistence with the CCP. One such case involves Wang Shiji (王士吉), who calls himself Mao Jidong (毛继东, literally “Mao’s Successor”). Wang had attempted to set up the “China Communist Party Revolution Commission” in 1999, but was arrested on September 8, 1999. Wang completed his three-year sentence for inciting subversion in August 2002. In August 2016, at the age of 72, apparently undeterred, he founded a new party, the “Defend Mao Zedong People’s Party.” This Hebei-based party, which he claimed had about 40 members from across China, aimed to promote love for Mao and the concept of popular sovereignty. Casting it as a “fraternal” party that sounds less radical than the programs of his leftist counterparts, Wang said that his party would co-exist and enjoy equal status with the CCP, and that privatization must be stopped in order to solve China’s current problems of corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor. However, after being summoned and warned by officials in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, Wang dissolved the party, one day before he was scheduled to convene the first “national congress,” which he had claimed would be attended by representatives from a number of major cities. He is not known to have received any criminal punishment thereafter.

Wang Zheng founded the Supreme Constitution Party at the age of 48 in 2013. She commended former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai for being a genuine socialist, because, she believes, he improved the lives of ordinary people in Chongqing. Image Credit: VOA

It would be mistaken to assume that Maoism enjoys only grassroots popularity. Leftist ideologies are no less appealing among certain educated professionals looking for solutions to present-day China’s social ills. Wang Zheng (王铮), a former associate professor at Beijing Institute of Economics and Management, set up the “Supreme Constitution Party” in November 2013, two months after Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison for bribe-taking, embezzlement, and abuse of power. Bo, who won national renown with his “sing red, strike black” campaign while serving as Chongqing Party Secretary from 2007-2012, was hailed as a hero by many leftists. Wang is a vocal supporter of Bo, calling the former rising star in the Politburo a genuine socialist who spent money in Chongqing on public housing to improve lives of ordinary people. In a New York Times interview in 2013, Wang claimed that her party aimed to promote “common prosperity,” a core socialist value that the CCP has largely ignored, mostly through its failure to address widening income disparity. Although Wang never met Bo, she said Bo’s stated egalitarian views and his self-defense in court had inspired her. Wang believes that Bo was a victim of a power struggle within the CCP and her party is an answer to what she sees as serious political problems. When asked whether her party was legal, Wang retorted that "even the CCP didn’t register when it was set up… it was a revolutionary party!” Wang and other members elected Bo as the “Chairman for Life” before the party was banned by Beijing’s Bureau of Civil Affairs in December 2013.

In 2013, the Shandong High People’s Court upheld the life imprisonment sentence of Bo Xilai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, who tried to revive Mao-era culture by encouraging locals to sing revolutionary songs. Image Credit: CCTV

Since Xi put Bo and other big “tigers” behind bars on corruption charges, the threat posed by Wang’s political party to the CCP was negligible at best. Nevertheless, Wang remained a target of police surveillance because of her high-profile support for Bo. In 2016, Wang organized a protest against the demolition of Xinghai Square in Dalian, an iconic landmark built by Bo when he served as the mayor from 1993-2000; the demolition is part of a drive by the new leaders in the north-eastern port city to wipe out the lingering “poisonous” legacy left by Bo. In the same year, Wang published articles calling county- and township-level elections a “black-box operation” and Xi the “most unruly leader.” Wang’s insistent demands for Bo’s political rehabilitation led to her detention in Beijing in March 2017, this time for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Hefei, provincial capital of Anhui, was later instructed by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate to investigate this “important and sensitive” case in December 2017. In July 2018, she was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Wang is currently scheduled for release in March 2022.

The "Genuine Communist Party"

A small group of leftists continue to seek regime change by forming political parties which they believe represent genuine vehicles for Mao Zedong Thought. Dui Hua discovered several names of prisoners belonging to the so-called “Genuine Communist Party,” a virtual party founded in 2010 by a Jiangsu worker naned Chen Jianmin (陈剑敏). Chen, who was born in 1962 and is also known by his internet nickname Zhou Qun (周群), founded and led a party entitled “The Central Committee of the Chinese Proletarian Revolution.” Unlike Wang Shiji and Wang Zheng, Chen, through his party, openly calls for the overthrow of the ruling CCP and condemns Chinese leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping as “fake communists” and “capitalist bureaucrats.” Although the party claims to convene weekly online meetings, the minutes posted on its party website indicate that the meetings have been sparsely attended by a mere handful of netizens.

Chen has now been placed “under supervision,” (beikongzhi 被控制), according to information posted in May 2019. The wording suggests that his personal liberty is restricted with an unknown coercive measure being placed on him. Information from the party’s online forum also reveals that since 2013 seven members of this party from Fujian, Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, Gansu, and Jiangsu have been beaten, received administrative detentions, or have even been committed to psychiatric hospitals.

Dui Hua’s research also found that some “young leftists,” believers in Marxism or Maoism born after Mao’s death in 1976, have joined the Genuine Communist Party. One of the known members was Ye Dongdong (叶东东), a sophomore in Chongqing Vocational College of Media in 2013. In February of that year, Ye was detained for ten days after putting up public notices in Chongqing and his home province, Gansu, that claimed China is a capitalist, not a socialist, country and promoted the Genuine Communist Party. Four years later, in November 2017, Ye was re-detained and later indicted in Longnan, Gansu, for inciting subversion. Ye stood trial in the Longnan Intermediate People’s Court in 2018, but the trial outcome is unknown.

In a separate case, another Genuine Communist Party member, Zhou Liangliang (周亮亮), completed his three years’ sentence for subversion in Beijing in 2016. Dui Hua unearthed this case from a civil judgment handed down by the Chaoyang District People’s Court in December 2016. In this civil case, Zhou, born in 1983, was the plaintiff, seeking compensation because he had been dismissed by a power consulting company in 2013 on the grounds that Zhou was a member of the “illegal” Genuine Communist Party. Zhou was also accused of using the company’s Internet connection to plan and publicize activities aimed to “overthrow the government and party and subvert state power.” Unsurprisingly, the court found that Zhou had been lawfully dismissed. The company was not required to pay compensation to Zhou.

Read the other installments in this series to find out more about contemporary China’s young leftists and their activism.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Leftist Dissent Under Xi: The Old Leftists, Part I

                               Souvenir plates with images of Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong. The “Great Helmsman" is among the series of honorifics given to Mao. Image Credit: RFA

In the West, Mao Zedong gained notoriety as a totalitarian dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of people. His promotion of an extreme cult of personality and two political movements in particular, the Great Leap Forward, resulting in the Great Famine, and the Cultural Revolution, which Mao masterminded to crush his political foes, were among the most destructive aspects of his leadership. Although by some estimates Mao Zedong caused more deaths in peacetime than either Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, the portrait of the man who “brought calamity to an entire nation still hangs in Tiananmen Square and is still found on the banknotes we use every day,” wrote Mao Yushi in a critical essay in 2011. (Mao Yushi, who is not related to Mao Zedong, is a prominent economist who won the Cato Institute’s 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.)

China has allowed some room for the public to question the officially sanctioned reputation of Mao since the “Great Helmsman” died in 1976. Nonetheless, scholars, journalists, and other public figures can stand accused of “historical nihilism” if they reject Mao’s legacy of liberating China from Japanese occupation and Western imperialism, and critics may risk ruining their careers for holding “hostile” views on Chairman Mao. Because of his critical essay, Mao Yushi has even received death threats and has been widely vilified by Mao Zedong’s supporters. Criticism of Mao Zedong in the public space continues to be considered politically incorrect today, because Mao Zedong Thought, or Maoism, is enshrined in China’s constitution and represents the ideological orthodoxy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao’s ideology provides justification for the CCP to prevent the spread of destabilizing western values, such as multiparty democracy, and maintain its “perennial ruling party” status.

After Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, his policies and rhetoric have often evoked memories of the Mao era. Just ahead of Mao’s 120th birthday on December 26, 2013, Xi Jinping said, during a visit to Wuhan in July 2013, “We must turn Chairman Mao’s old residence into a base for patriotism and revolutionary education.” Xi’s promotion of the singing of “red (revolutionary) songs” in official settings as diverse as government offices, schools, television stations, and even prisons strikes a chord with adherents of Mao Zedong Thought. Some observers believe that Xi manipulates Maoism to cultivate a sense of pride and consolidate support from the powerful group known as the princelings (i.e., sons and daughters of prominent CCP officials). He does so, not just to bolster ideological support for himself, but also to foster an aura of respectability on behalf of their “revolutionary” parents, who contributed to or even sacrificed for Mao’s socialist cause, according to veteran China analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam, author of Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?. In 2015, one Maoist observer even lauded the Xi era as “a golden period” for the leftists, as Xi “has ushered in fundamental change to the status quo, shattering the sky.”

But despite this leftist revival, many adherents of Mao who are nostalgic for his egalitarian ideals continue to find themselves disillusioned with Xi’s “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” largely due to pervasive corruption and social inequality. They make up a large pool of leftist dissenters who refuse to acknowledge the achievements made by the CCP over the 40 years of economic reform. Leftist dissent, however, is far from being monolithic. The dissenters are from diverse backgrounds, have assorted motives, and use different means to channel discontent. There is also a generational divide within this group.

This post defines “old leftists” as the generations who either lived through the Mao era as adults or adolescents, or have only vague but fond childhood memories of Mao before his death in 1976. Many of them are veterans and employees laid off by state-owned enterprises; both groups believe that pervasive corruption is the root cause of their problems. As many of them grew up during the Mao era with limited means and educational opportunities, they do not necessarily understand what Mao’s ideology or legacy entail. They may uphold the simple belief that Maoism is a panacea for their livelihood problems, due in part to state propaganda campaigns to deify Mao since 1949. Many old leftists take part in tens of thousands of mass incidents across China every year in the form of protests and collective petitions, whenever public policies put their material benefits at risk. A small fraction of these “old leftists” even proclaim themselves the real descendants of Communism, in the belief that China’s problems must be solved by a reversion to pre-reform era socialism, which would amount to a complete ideological overhaul of the current core philosophy of the Chinese government. They resort to forming political associations in order to challenge the CCP as the legitimate leader of the one-party state.

State-Owned Enterprise Workers

Leftist ideologies appeal to many grassroots workers, especially employees of state-owned enterprises. As of 2013, state-owned enterprises employed around 37 million people. Once the pillar of Mao’s planned economy, they are nostalgic for Mao’s promise of an “iron rice bowl” (i.e., guaranteed lifetime employment). The generation of the urban “sent-down youth” born in the 1940s and 1950s was ordered by Mao to “receive education from living in rural poverty” and many were consequently deprived of the opportunity to receive higher education when Mao suspended university entrance exams in 1966. Members of the generation of Mao’s sent-down youth have been less competitive in the job market than younger generations. They see economic reform and marketization as anathema because the state-owned enterprises provided a livelihood for most of them. From 1993-2003, the restructuring of state-owned enterprises resulted in around 28 million redundancies. Despite Xi’s 2018 remark that “state-owned enterprises would grow stronger, better, and larger,” labor protests against the privatization of state-owned enterprises show few signs of abating in the Xi era.

Since 2014, China Labor Bulletin has documented hundreds of protests joined each year by state-owned enterprise workers across China. In these protests, workers sometimes employ Maoist rhetoric to advance their claims in defence of their rights. One such protest over labor retrenchment rocked Nanyang, Henan, on September 9, 2014. Hundreds of workers laid off by a state-owned pharmaceutical factory took to the streets to commemorate the 38th anniversary of Mao’s death. They chanted slogans against privatization, corruption, and capitalism, and “Only Mao Zedong Thought Can Save China!” A middle-aged female protester interviewed by the prominent Maoist website Utopia described her life during Mao’s era as “heaven” because workers enjoyed free or low-cost medical services, education, housing, and retirement benefits. She likened the plight of workers in present-day China to “having fallen through the eighteen levels of hell.”

Laid-off workers join a spontaneous parade in Nanyang to commemorate Mao Zedong on the 38th anniversary of his death, carrying his portraits and banners, and demanding unpaid pensions from a privatized pharmaceutical factory.                    Image Credit: Utopia

Today, many of Mao’s supporters continue to converge on Hunan, Mao’s birth province, to pay tribute to the Great Helmsman they have long revered. On April 23, 2018, around three hundred retired workers, many of whom were former state-owned enterprise workers, protested against the policies of the Shaoyang City government in Hunan. They demanded punishment for police officers who fired tear gas at them when they petitioned against cutbacks in post-retirement medical benefits. The protesters, whom unofficial media reports called “Mao’s fans,” gathered to sing red songs to express their discontent.


Official statistics released in 2018 indicated that China had 57 million veterans, and the number has been increasing by several hundred thousand each year. Those who answered the party’s call to fight in the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War or other earlier wars especially feel that they are not afforded the dignity they deserve from the state. Since being demobilized, they have been assigned low-end jobs, subsequently laid off, or granted only limited medical care and other benefits. Many demobilized soldiers believed their material benefits were squeezed by corrupt officials and consequently joined the ranks of leftist protesters to defend their rights. Disaffected veterans typically wear camouflage uniforms to convey pride in their past military service. To show allegiance to the CCP, they also wave national flags, sing red songs, and carry photos of Mao. Xi’s attempts to pacify veterans, however, appear to have achieved little. The Ministry of Veterans Affairs, created in March 2018 with the goal of streamlining bureaucracy concerning veterans’ benefits, has become another site frequented by protesting veterans who feel that local officials have ignored their complaints.

Expressions of discontent by veterans often become flashpoints across China. On September 20, 2018, a group of veterans converged on the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs. In attendance was a 91-year old veteran who complained about local governments’ failure to comply with the CCP’s veterans’ benefits policy. Hundreds of veterans sang “Unity is Strength,” a patriotic song about the People’s Liberation Army popularized by Mao. They were soon drowned out by plainclothes police loudspeakers ordering the veterans to stop singing. A veteran petitioner reported that none of them were allowed to meet with a ministry representative. Some were sent back to the Jiujingzhuang reception center. While most were subsequently sent back to their original residences, some were sent from the reception center to the network of infamous “black jails.”

In an undated photo, Hubei veteran petitioners hold a banner that reads, "Firmly Support Xi Jinping, Follow the Party Forever." Image Credit: RFA

Perhaps the most notable incident over the years was the veterans’ protest in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, in June 2018. A group of veteran petitioners were assaulted by government-paid thugs. The incident crystalized the broader anger of veterans who came from across the nation to Zhenjiang to express solidarity with their comrades. Video footage from witnesses showed that around 100 veterans gathered outside a hospital with banners that read, “We are CCP members, not criminals.” Another online video even shows a protester shouting over a loudspeaker, “Perish together with the reactionary government.” Checkpoints were set up to prevent other veterans from entering the city. Police dispersed the protesters on June 23, injuring dozens of them, and sent many back to their home cities.

At the time of writing, at least nine veteran protesters in the Zhenjiang protests are known to have been sentenced on April 19, 2019 to two to four years’ imprisonment on charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” or aggravated assault. On the same day, the Weicheng District People’s in Shandong sentenced another group of nine veterans to three to six years’ imprisonment for similar offenses.

Read about the old leftists attempts to actively promote neo-Maoism in Part II.