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.