Wednesday, March 11, 2020

American Views of China Plummet Amid Coronavirus Crisis

President Trump and President Xi at the start of their bilateral meeting June 29, 2019, at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, Japan. Image credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead / Public domain
For more than 40 years, the Gallup organization has polled American opinion on China. The results of its latest poll, published on March 2, 2020, reveal a sharp drop in opinion among Americans towards China. Only one-third of Americans now have a favorable view of China.

This represents a 20-percentage point drop compared to the share of Americans with a favorable opinion of China recorded in Gallup's 2018 poll. China’s 33 percent favorability rating ties the lowest reading in recent memory and is a point lower than the first poll taken after the Tiananmen killings in 1989. For the first time since polling started, no significant percentage of respondents gave a “No Opinion” answer; unfavorable opinions of China, especially “very unfavorable” ones, are at an all-time high. The graph below depicts the changes in public opinion:

In the most recent Gallup poll, China is tied with Russia as the United States’ greatest enemy. Furthermore, for the first time in 20 years, Americans do not believe that China is the world’s top economy. Half of Americans now hold that the United States is the world’s leading economy with China a distant second, at 39 percent.

Dui Hua believes that the poor view of China in the eyes of Americans is in large part related to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. The Gallup poll was taken from February 3-16 and surveyed 1,028 American adults. During this two-week period, the number of cases and deaths of the deadly virus in China soared from 20,630 cases and 426 deaths on February 3 to 71,329 cases and 1,775 deaths on February 16. Media coverage was intense, peaking with the news of the death of the whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang on February 7. The period coincided with the decision by the United States and other countries to bar entry to arrivals from China.

According to an Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 American adults conducted from February 9-11, 2020, 70 percent of those polled were closely following the news on the coronavirus, and nearly 70 percent believed that the government should bar entry into the United States for foreigners with the virus. In this poll, 40 percent approved of the way Donald Trump is handling China versus 44 percent who disapproved. Weekly Economist/YouGov polls conducted throughout February saw the percentage of Americans who think that the US government should quarantine people who have recently been to China increase from 65 percent to 71 percent.

These frequently conducted Economist/YouGov polls corroborate the general drop in favorable opinion recorded by the Pew Research Center and Gallup. Between July 2016 and March 2020, respondents were asked 125 times whether they viewed China as an ally or enemy of the United States. While the Gallup poll focused on personal opinions toward China, this question gauges perceptions of US-China relations. At several points in 2017, a plurality of respondents assessed the relationship as positive, peaking at 43 percent saying China was a US ally or friend on November  21, 2017. That number has gradually slid, however, and in the latest poll results, on March 3, 2020, an outright majority (61 percent) of respondents deemed China unfriendly or an enemy, as can be seen in the following graph:

While disapproval of China cuts across party lines, opinions about China are especially low among Republicans. According to the Gallup poll, less than a quarter of Republicans view China favorably, and 31 percent consider China to be the United States’ greatest enemy.

In addition to the coronavirus outbreak, Gallup lists allegations of spying by Chinese students and scholars at American colleges, tensions over trade and territorial disputes, and accusations of alleged theft by China of American technology as other possible reasons for China’s dismal performance in the most recent poll. Dui Hua believes that extensive reporting of human rights abuses in China, particularly in Xinjiang, has contributed to the fall in China’s image.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Hong Kong-Related Cases

One of the “No China Extradition” posters which were common during the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, which started in June 2019. Image Credit: kowloonsingjai via Facebook
Civil unrest in Hong Kong, which entered its eighth month in February 2020, was initially triggered by a now-rescinded bill that would have allowed for the Special Administrative Region to extradite fugitive offenders to countries with whom Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty, including mainland China. At the heart of these protests is a fundamental distrust for China’s judicial system among Hong Kong people.

China has one of the highest conviction rates in the world; less than one percent of people brought to trial are acquitted. China’s judicial system routinely violates due process, and prisoners are known to have been subjected to torture and inhumane treatment.

Distrust of the mainland’s justice system deepened in November 2019 when former British consulate employee Simon Cheng spoke out for the first time about his 15 days of administrative detention in Shenzhen. Cheng, a supporter of the anti-extradition bill protests, was detained for “soliciting prostitutes” in late August. He dismissed the accusation and claimed that he had been tortured and forced to make two confession videos. Many observers believe that the charge against Cheng was fabricated and/or politically motivated.

While distrust for the legal system is widespread, some Hong Kong people do legitimately run afoul of mainland law as more of them have traveled, lived, or worked there since China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997. According to information provided by the Chinese authorities to the Hong Kong government, from 2001 to 2015, 9,400 Hong Kong people were subjected to criminal compulsory measures — summons for questioning, determination of bail, residence surveillance, detention, and arrest — in China. Most of them were detained in Guangdong for fraud, smuggling ordinary goods, or drug-related charges under Chinese law.

Releasing the number of detainees, their whereabouts, and the nature of their offences via the so-called reciprocal notification mechanism is within the Hong Kong government’s power. However, it is unclear how many Hong Kong people are left to the mercy of Chinese courts because such figures are not available. Citing incomplete information from the Correctional Services Department, then-Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee estimated that 1,250 Hong Kong people were serving sentences in Chinese prisons in 2011, of whom 800 were doing so in Guangdong. This was the last year for which the Hong Kong government provided an estimate of the number of Hong Kong people serving sentences in Chinese prisons. 

In a display of judicial transparency not exhibited in Hong Kong, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) of China sheds some light on this subject in its 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016. The court records provide the numbers of “Hong Kong-related” criminal cases for a period of 18 years beginning in 1998.

This post, the third in a series that draws on the 12-volume set, discusses criminal cases involving Hong Kong people who have been tried by Chinese courts. However, the lack of clear criteria for what makes a case Hong Kong-related as well as apparent underreporting and unclear or arbitrary categorizations, sentencing, and stipulations continue to muddle a system that many in Hong Kong already view with distrust and skepticism.

Deciphering Hong Kong-Related Cases

Table 1. First-instance Hong Kong-related cases concluded in China, 1998-2016
All Criminal Cases
Endangering State Security
Illegal Business
Smuggling Ordinary Goods or Articles


















Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.

Table 1 shows that 2,987 criminal trials of first instance concluded in China from 1998-2016 were categorized as Hong Kong-related. Over forty percent, or 1,274, of these fell under the purview of the crime “undermining the order of socialist market economy.” Within this designation, smuggling ordinary goods or articles accounted for the biggest portion; 955 cases were Hong Kong-related.

What exactly are Hong Kong-related cases? The definition is not given in the court records. However, Chinese legal experts tend to agree that such cases encompass three scenarios. Legal Study and Research states that Hong Kong-related cases are:
  1. in the widest sense, where Hong Kong residents are put on trial as defendants in China;
  2. where Hong Kong residents are the offended parties (i.e. victims in a criminal case);
  3. where the criminal conduct, or consequences of such conduct, occurs in Hong Kong.
Deciphering Endangering State Security Cases

Understanding the nature of Hong Kong-related cases is further complicated when taking into account cases of endangering state security (ESS). Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB), which tracks political and religious prisoners incarcerated in China since 1980, has information on more Hong Kong-related ESS cases than what is reported in the court records.

Table 1 shows that only two ESS cases were Hong Kong-related: one for espionage in 2006 and another in 2016 for stealing, secretly gathering, purchasing, or illegally trafficking in state secrets or intelligence for foreign entities.

Ching Cheong was sentenced in one of the most controversial 
ESS cases related to Hong Kong in 2006. Image credit: Gospel Herald
The 2006 ESS case likely concerns Ching Cheong (程翔), a veteran journalist in Hong Kong who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Beijing. The espionage charge stemmed from his attempts to obtain a manuscript copy of interviews with Zhao Ziyang, a reformist Chinese Communist Party leader who opposed the armed suppression of student protests in 1989.

Ching was accused of obtaining “classified” documents from Lu Jianhua (陆建华), a former sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for illegally providing state secrets for foreign entities in 2006. Lu, who is not a Hong Kong resident, received what appears to be the harshest sentence given to an individual involved in an ESS case related to Hong Kong after 1997. Lu has not been granted any sentence reductions 15 years into his sentence and is scheduled for release from Beijing’s Chaobai Prison in April 2025.

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments revealed that the 2016 case involved Ou Jiaming (欧家铭), who was sentenced in Beijing to 12 years’ imprisonment for illegally providing state secrets for foreign entities, with a supplemental three years’ deprivation of political rights sentence. Ou is scheduled for release in August 2023 following a seven-month sentence reduction granted to him in November 2019.

It is unclear why the following cases are not classified as Hong Kong-related in the court records despite all the defendants being Hong Kong residents:
  • Xu Zerong (徐泽荣) is a mainland-born Hong Kong permanent resident who was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment in Shenzhen in 2001 for illegally trafficking in state secrets for foreign and illegal business entities (read “Cracking Down on Dissenting Versions of History” for a more in-depth dissection of Xu’s case). Xu was detained in Guangzhou in August 2000 while working as a university researcher. He was released in June 2011, following three sentence reductions totaling 24 months.
  • Chen Zhaolu (陈兆禄), born in 1917, was one of the oldest ESS prisoners with close connections to Hong Kong. Sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment at the age of 87 in 2004 in Guangzhou for an unspecified ESS crime, Chen was also a Xinhua News Agency employee with residency in Hong Kong. He was accused of collecting intelligence, this time for Taiwan. Due to his advanced age, Chen was released on medical parole in 2009. Dui Hua has not received any updates about Chen following the expiry of his prison sentence on October 24, 2014.
  • Chen Yulin (陈瑜琳) and Wei Pingyuan (魏平元), are former employees of Xinhua News Agency, which served as China’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong before the handover. They were sentenced in 2004, when state propaganda started describing the former British colony as a “nest of spies.” The court found that they had provided information for the British Secret Intelligence Service during the years leading up to the handover in 1997. Both men are still in prison despite multiple sentence reductions; they are due for release in 2020.
The impending release of Chen and Wei prompts question as to where they will serve their supplemental deprivation of political rights (DPR) sentences. Chen was given a supplemental seven years’ DPR sentence in 2007, when his life sentence was first commuted to 19 years and six months. DPR sentences entail surveillance and bar individuals from giving interviews, publishing articles, and voting.

In January 2020, a Chinese government source informed Dui Hua that individuals serving DPR sentences are not allowed to leave the mainland and will be sent back to public security should they attempt to cross the border. However, previous events suggest that authorities in China may exercise discretion allowing Hong Kong residents to return home before their DPR sentences expire. For instance, Ching Cheong returned to Hong Kong on February 5, 2008, just one day after he was released on parole. Ching had a one-year DPR sentence to serve, which expired in 2009.

The leniency given to Ching, however, does not appear commonplace because his case was expedited by international attention. Less publicized cases may not enjoy the same swiftness. In 2011, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, a pro-Beijing political party, reportedly received seven complaints from Hong Kong people who had been barred from returning to Hong Kong while they were serving DPR sentences. Their Hong Kong identification documents had not been returned to them after the completion of their prison sentences.

Illegal Business

Table 1 shows that 24 illegal business cases from 1998-2016 were Hong Kong-related. This non-ESS offense is noteworthy because the following case involving two booksellers from Hong Kong is highly political.

Wang Jianmin (王建民) and Guo Zhongxiao (呙中校) are both Hong Kong permanent residents. Wang and Guo were sentenced to prison for illegal business, bribery and bid rigging in 2014. Wang was sentenced to five years and three months, and Guo received two years and three months. Originally from the mainland, the duo was accused of earning around HK$7.8 million by publishing two magazines that featured political gossip in China, a small number of which were sold to the mainland.

Although Wang is an American citizen, he entered China on his Hong Kong documents. He did not benefit from American consular protections because his US citizenship was not recognized by China. American diplomats were not allowed to attend his trial nor were they allowed to visit him in prison.

Smuggling Ordinary Goods

Since 2010, the Supreme People’s Court has released three regulations that assign to courts throughout the country the responsibility for publicly releasing judgments. The latest regulations, published in August 2016, require courts to release more information with greater detail. Smuggling ordinary goods and products is the most common crime committed by Hong Kong people in China. Most of these cases were not political: they dealt with cross-border parallel traders who procured electronics, foodstuffs, cosmetics, medicine, and infant formulas tax-free in Hong Kong to resell for profit in the mainland.

Table 1 indicates that there were 573 Hong Kong-related cases of smuggling ordinary goods and articles from 2012-2016. Based on information culled from online judgments, only 56 cases, slightly less than 10 percent, involving 62 Hong Kong residents as defendants were published online during the same period.

The court statistics do not provide information on the type and length of sentences meted out to Hong Kong residents. The graphs below illustrate the missing information based on the 62 Hong Kong residents who were sentenced in China from 2012-2016:

Most Hong Kong residents convicted of smuggling goods and products received criminal detention not exceeding six months, a sentence typically served in a detention center and carried out by public security. The Criminal Law states that individuals serving criminal detention are allowed to return home for one or two days each month. Given that cross-border law enforcement is not permissible, it is unclear whether Hong Kong residents can benefit from this provision.

Based on findings collected from online judgments, about one-third of Hong Kong people were sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment for smuggling goods from 2012-2016. Seven of them remain imprisoned at the time of writing. One of them was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment and will remain incarcerated until April 2033. He was given a combined sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Quanzhou, Fujian, for smuggling both ordinary goods and waste.

Yao Wentian, aged 78, a Hong Kong publisher who has 
been imprisoned since 2014. Image credit: The Stand News
There was at least one highly political smuggling case involving a Hong Kong resident. Perhaps due to the sensitivity of the case, the judgment of Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian (姚文田) has never been published online. Yao was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years’ imprisonment in Shenzhen for smuggling ordinary goods. However, he is widely believed to have faced reprisal for preparing to release a book critical of Xi Jinping. He earned his first sentence reduction of eight months in April 2019. Now aged 78, Yao still has three more years to serve before his sentence expires in March 2023. Dui Hua will continue to seek clemency for Yao through its Chinese interlocutors.

Building trust?

The Hong Kong government has yet to respond to public inquiries about Hong Kong prisoners incarcerated in the mainland. It is not known to have visited detention centers, prisons, or other carceral facilities in any of the cases discussed above. There is a pressing need for the government to conduct routine visits of those incarcerated in a judicial system that is vastly different from that of Hong Kong. The government’s inaction in this regard hardly inspires trust. Dui Hua’s Executive Director John Kamm has repeatedly urged Hong Kong officials and pro-Beijing legislators to do more to safeguard the rights of Hong Kong people in the mainland but has only received tepid responses.

Transparency is crucial to understand the legal process of controversial cases and to strengthen accountability for human rights violations. The disclosure of Hong Kong-related cases in the court statistics signals a welcome step in reducing the opacity of mainland China’s justice system. However, the fundamental question of how many Hong Kong people are imprisoned in the mainland remains largely ambiguous because of the lack of a definition of Hong Kong-related cases. The actual number of cases, especially those in connection to ESS, is likely to be higher than what is reported in the court statistics. Dui Hua’s findings on smuggling cases also suggest that China’s vow to improve judicial transparency leaves much to be desired.

Both China and Hong Kong should make regular disclosures about Hong Kong people imprisoned in the mainland, including their offenses, whereabouts, sentence reductions, parole status, and any form of clemency they receive. Judicial transparency could be a positive step to build trust in China’s justice system, a system that is widely criticized for being both oppressive and opaque.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Leftist Dissent Under Xi: The Young Leftists Part II, Leftist Students Join in Labor Activism: Jasic and Beyond

In Leftist Dissent Under Xi: The Young Leftists Part I, Who Are the Young Leftists?, Dui Hua  outlined the rise of a new generation of Chinese leftists and their swift repression by Xi Jinping's Communist Party.
Timeline of the Jasic protests in Shenzhen. Image Credit: The Dui Hua Foundation

Double Solidarity Marks the Jasic Protests: Young Leftists in Support of Workers

Unlike many other labor protests across China, the protests at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen in the summer of 2018 were unusual because of the role leftist students played. These students made an unprecedented move to intervene in a labor rights dispute by venturing into public space side by side with workers.

In April 2018, welding machinery workers at Jasic Technology attempted to form an independent trade union. The nation’s sole legally-mandated All-China Federation of Trade Unions had been tasked with securing better wages, abolishing punitive fines, and improving working conditions. The Federation failed to achieve these goals, prompting the workers to take action. Several workers were dismissed because of their effort to unionize.

The conflict escalated at the end of July, when over 20 workers and one student were arrested for protesting abusive treatment by police. From July 28 to early August, Shen Mengyu (沈梦雨), Yue Xin (岳昕), and sympathizers from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Nanjing University, and Sun Yat-sen University formed the Jasic Workers Solidarity Support Group. In solidarity with the workers, they began posting articles, open letters, photos, videos of speeches and peaceful demonstrations in front of the Jasic factory on digital media. They raised funds for workers, formed human chains, held banners, and chanted slogans alongside dozens of workers from Jasic and nearby factories.

The student-worker coalition demanded the unconditional release of all detained workers and the punishment of police and mob members accused of beating workers. The Jasic protesters also requested the reinstatement of all previously dismissed workers. In less than a month, this student-worker coalition would be no more.

On August 10, 2018, members of the Jasic Workers Solidarity Support Group submitted an open letter calling for the Shenzhen Pingshan District Procuratorate to investigate the police’s unlawful detention of workers in Shenzhen. The members (from left to right) were Zheng Yongming (郑永明), Shen Mengyu (沈梦雨), Xu Zhongliang (徐忠良), and Yue Xin (岳昕). Image Credit: @yuexinmutian, via Twitter

Triple Solidarity: Old Leftists in Support of Leftist Students and Jasic Workers

While young Marxists garnered widespread attention for bearing the subsequent brunt of government suppression, “old leftists” also took part in the Jasic protests in a display of solidarity with their young counterparts and the Jasic workers. The South China Morning Post reported that over half of the approximately 80 Jasic supporters who joined the rally on August 6 outside of Yanziling police station in Shenzhen’s Pingshan District were Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members and retired cadres. Many of them held portraits of Chairman Mao as they protested and were active members of Utopia, China’s leading Maoist internet forum.

Other older leftists who were too weak to take to the streets contributed articles for leftist forums or websites. On July 28, as soon as he learned that workers were being detained, Wu Jingtang (吴敬堂) called on all “comrades” to support the Jasic workers in the name of Chairman Mao. Up until his death in early 2019 at the age of 82, Wu was revered for leading thousands of workers to protest the sale of Tonghua Iron and Steel Group in 2009, which they feared would threaten their jobs, and then successfully pressuring several corrupt officials to step down.

After the Jasic protests were crushed in late August, another veteran leftist activist Gu Zhenghua (古正华) wrote in defense of the young Marxists. He openly countered the state media’s accusation that the Jasic protesters were “manipulated by overseas forces.” Gu, who called himself a devoted follower of Chairman Mao and previously worked for the Chinese press, was 90 years old when he penned the article in September 2018.

During the month-long protest, Jasic student activists deliberately eschewed politics. In online posts, they pledged to espouse Marxism or even Maoism by standing with both the CCP and the working class against “local vicious forces.” On August 19, 2018, Yue posted an open letter to Xi, stressing that her activism aligned with Xi’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Yue attested to the unswerving loyalty of other solidary group members: they were neither plotting a revolution nor pressing for political reforms. They focused solely on helping Jasic workers safeguard their well-deserved labor rights. Jasic supporters young and old wore T-shirts with the slogan “Unity Is Strength,” a patriotic song about the People’s Liberation Army.

Shen Mengyu, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Unity is Strength,” above left, was taken away by unidentified men on August 11, 2018. Yue Xin and other members of the Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Support Group, above right, protested her disappearance on August 13. Image Credit: @wangshi77 and @yuexinmutian, via Twitter

But the tactic of using Marxist or patriotic rhetoric to get the CCP on their side failed. On August 24, anti-riot police raided the students’ apartments in Huizhou and detained approximately 50 people, including Shen Mengyu, Yue Xin, Zheng Yongming (郑永明), and Gu Jiayue (顾佳悦). Most were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” The New York Times reported that the activists held hands and sang “L’Internationale” as the police broke through the door.

In response to the police raid on the same day, state-run Xinhua News blamed non-governmental organizations and foreign forces for fanning the Jasic protests. These reports made no mention of the workers’ grievances or their rationale for protesting. Xinhua’s allegation was based on the fact that Fu Changguo (付常国) was an employee of Shenzhen-based Dagongzhe Migrant Workers Center, a local non-governmental organization said to have been “fully funded by an overseas NGO.” Fu is one of more than 50 protesters detained, disappeared, or placed under residential surveillance for participating in the Jasic labor movement.

Aftermath of the Jasic Crackdown

A year after the Jasic crackdown, almost 40 students, workers, and other Jasic supporters with records in Dui Hua’s political database remain in custody or have disappeared and their status remains unclear. In January 2019, about five months after their last public appearance, Shen, Yue, Zheng, and Gu briefly resurfaced in a 30-minute confessional video aired by state security officers to former members of the Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Support Group. In the video, all four pled guilty and admitted to being brainwashed. Shen was reported to have been incited by a “radical organization” to engage in subversive actions to overthrow the CCP.

Observers believe their confessions were staged and scripted because Gu and Shen looked “dull and unresponsive” in the video, a quality observed among rights campaigners, celebrities, and even foreign nationals who have been forced to make confessions on TV since 2014. In many cases, these confessions are made before formal legal proceedings against the confessors have begun. In this sense, the use of public shaming violates the presumption of innocence, and these confessions seem to function more as a show of power rather than any substantial indictment of guilt.

Campus activism has also been quashed. Universities warn students not to participate in protests. Despite its reputation as a wellspring for democracy movements, Peking University ousted leaders of the Marxism Society who were sympathetic to the Jasic workers and replaced them with “loyalists” from the CCP or Communist Youth League in September 2018. In addition to warning students off activism, the university branded the Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Support Group’s activities as “criminal,” in a November 2018 message to all students.

The New Light People’s Development Association at Renmin University, too, is having a hard time recruiting members because migrant workers were pressured by the university and their contractors to leave the organization. Many students also quit after being summoned by university teachers. In November 2018, Nanjing University students were forbidden to register a Marxism reading group in reprisal for writing public letters and delivering speeches supporting the Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Support Group. VOA reported that on November 1 two Nanjing University students were beaten by university guards and thugs on campus while delivering a speech in which they announced their intention to form a Marxist reading association independent of the philosophy department. Their stated aim was to “study the original work of Marxism” and “pay more attention to workers and peasants.” The students were dragged away to an administrative building and later escorted to a police vehicle.

In September 2018, leftist students from various universities and Jasic workers commemorated the 42nd death anniversary of Mao Zedong in his birth province Hunan. Image Credit: Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Support Group’s GitHub

While China continues to sing the praises of Chairman Mao’s legacy, leftist students attempting to commemorate Mao’s 125th birthday in December 2018 were singled out for punishment. At least two Marxist students were taken by police for attempting to attend events related to Mao’s birthday. According to the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group’s Twitter account, Qiu Zhanxuan (邱占萱), who presided over the Peking University Marxism Study Society, was forcibly taken near the university gate by plainclothes police while on his way to attend a memorial he had organized for Mao’s birthday. In a video posted in early 2019, Qiu alleged that he had been strip-searched, slapped, and forced to listen to Xi’s speeches at high volume during an interrogation session in February 2019. Zhan Zhenzhen’s (展振振) whereabouts remain unknown after he was taken away on January 2, 2019 for joining a similar ceremony in Hunan, Mao’s native province.

Several leftists not known to have travelled to Shenzhen to join the Jasic protests have also faced suppression. Leftist scholar Chai Xiaoming (柴晓明) was put under residential surveillance at a designated location for “subversion” in Nanjing on March 21, 2019. Chai was a lecturer at the School of Marxism of Peking University and a part-time editor at the Maoist website Red Reference. One day before he was detained, Chai was involved in the publication of an article by distinguished mainland scholar Jin Canrong (金灿荣), a professor at Renmin University. Jin had called on China to take a different path to modernization.

In August 2018, police from Guangdong raided the Beijing office of Red Reference, confiscating computers and books. Editor Shang Kai (尚恺), a supporter of the Jasic protests, was detained on criminal charges of picking quarrels and provoking troubles. Information concerning Chai, Shang, and the police raid remains sparse.

A year before Xi came to power in 2012, He Bing, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, called Bo Xilai’s promotion of “red culture” in Chongqing absurd. “In this absurd time, they encourage you to sing revolutionary songs, but they do not encourage you to wage a revolution.” Almost eight years on, the criticism about the now-disgraced Bo still rings true.

The love for Mao and Marx as a part of modern Chinese patriotism does not translate into love for Xi or his ruling CCP. The “old leftists,” comprised of mostly state-owned enterprise workers and veteran protestors, find themselves increasingly alienated as today’s socialism directly contradicts the system they remember under Mao. Young Marxists also have reasons to feel aggrieved: the motherland they have been taught to love is falling short of their romanticized version of Marxism due to pervasive labor problems and a broad range of other socioeconomic issues. The Chinese government not only ignores these issues, it represses any attempt to raise them in the public sphere. In Xi’s China, even calling attention to existing problems either propagated or tolerated by the infrastructure, no matter how local or apolitical, is an offense to be met by everything from legal obfuscation to intimidation to detainment and being disappeared.

From pro-democracy activists to rights lawyers and religious leaders, the CCP has crushed scores of activists who promote any of the seven political “perils” that Xi warned against in his infamous Document No.9. The reliance on the ideas of Marx, Lenin, or Mao to pave the way for Xi’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has made clear the ideological contradictions between the CCP of yesterday and today, which will continue to impact the Party.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics increasingly looks like an unembarrassed capitalist oligarchy, with “Chinese characteristics” as a catchall term to justify the demand for total fealty. Leftist supporters, both young and old, who do not toe Xi’s line face similar or worse fates than those who try to spread democratic ideals such as a multi-party system and judicial independence: the ideology they espouse may be more threatening to the Chinese government than those ideals which can be dismissed as “coming from the West.”

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Leftist Dissent Under Xi: The Young Leftists Part I, Who Are the Young Leftists?

Xi Jinping leads members of Politburo Standing Committee and other state leaders in celebrating the 200th birthday of Karl Marx in the Great Hall of People on May 5, 2018. Image Credit: Xinhuanet

In May 2018, Xi Jinping led a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday. During the event, Xi delivered a speech hailing Marx as the greatest thinker of modern times and holding up Marxism as the guiding ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The days before and after Xi’s speech were marked by numerous celebratory events, including the placement of a golden Marx statue in Xi’s hometown.

Just months later, the CCP would engage in a crackdown on leftist supporters who not only shared the same ideological bedrock as the CCP but were actively working to apply Marxism at the local level. The tactics used by the party may not surprise those familiar with the CCP’s handling of any dissent regardless of political ideology. However, the stark contrast between the tone struck by Xi in May and the party’s blatant rejection of those same ideals when carried out by its citizenry served as another reminder of the CCP’s intolerance for dissent, even that which seeks to bring local standards in line with the government’s stated values.

This is the first entry in a two-part post that examines dissent among the ideological left in China. In October 2019, Dui Hua examined the grievances of the “old leftists,” including their efforts to form political parties. Dui Hua has also chronicled leftist subversion in China from 1980-2013. This post turns to a young generation of Marxists who emerged more recently and quickly faced repression in Xi’s China. The second part of this post, which will be released shortly, discusses the young leftists’ roles in the 2018 Jasic workers’ protests, as well as the consequences they faced after the government crackdown.

The emergence of young leftist dissent, which culminated in the outbreak of workers’ protests at Jasic, a welding company, in the summer of 2018, represents an unlikely challenge for the CCP. Xi is continuing China’s decades-long effort to instill the political ideology of the CCP as the rightful successor to Marxism in the education curriculum. He also widely celebrates his own thoughts on socialism by adding “Chinese characteristics” to Marxism. To ensure loyalty and broaden the appeal of his Sinicized version of Marxism for future generations, Xi’s government launched a mobile app in early 2019 to educate school-aged children about the CCP’s ideological orthodoxy.

Despite escalating political indoctrination among China’s youth, a group of self-declared Marxist students came to prominence under Xi’s rule. Most of them were born in the 1990s and early 2000s with no first-hand experience of Mao’s revolutionary zeal for class struggle. Growing up amid China’s economic boom, these young leftists find that the Marxist ideals trumpeted by the CCP in school do not line up with the realities of the society in which they are living. Rather, they see aggravated ideological contradictions in Xi’s “new era,” including increasing state capitalism and social injustice, especially corruption and a widening wealth gap. At the core of their disillusionment are rampant labor rights abuses, including wages in arrears, long work hours, and unlawful layoffs.

Old leftists have joined these young dissenters and harnessed social activism when their interests conflict with government policies. Having grown up in Mao’s China without the benefit of formal Marxist education, their activism is rooted in what they perceive as the tainting of Mao’s ideals by corruption and capitalist tendencies. In contrast, many young leftists are well educated and motivated by the pursuit of social justice derived from Marxist values of equality. These young leftists come from diverse backgrounds, but they began their activism at universities with the formation of various Marxism-Leninism or Mao Zedong Thought discussion groups. In an unprecedented move, this activism would expand beyond the campus as students took their cause into society to support the Jasic workers. 

Diverse Backgrounds

The young Marxists who emerged in Xi’s era were students or graduates from various disciplines and social backgrounds. Many of them attended China’s most prestigious universities. One student Marxist from Peking University who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said that he read the works of Marx to find ways to help China’s underclass. As the son of migrant farm workers, he believes that he has a sense of social responsibility. 

Other activists, like several members of a Marxism study group formed at Guangdong University of Technology in 2017, were born to less well-off families. For instance, chemical engineering student Ye Jianke(叶建科) grew up in Heping, the poorest county in Guangdong. Zheng Yongming (郑永明), a graduate of Nanjing Agricultural University, is a native of Ganzhou, a state-designated poverty city in Jiangxi. Sun Tingting(孙婷婷), a Chinese medicine graduate from Nanjing University, similarly grew up in a poor family in Jiangsu. In November 2017, the study group members took part in a group session and were detained for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” Afterwards, Sun released a public letter in which she described the difficulty of paying her legal fees. 

If the well-to-do backgrounds of some students made for unlikely Marxists, it did not deter the students’ convictions. For instance, Shen Mengyu (沈梦雨), whose parents are university lecturers, became a student leader who openly supported the Jasic protesters. Shen graduated with a master’s degree in computer science and mathematics from Sun Yat-sen University. Despite a family background and educational qualifications pointing to a bright future, Shen chose to work in a car factory in Guangzhou after graduation to experience life as a proletarian. In an interview with Asia Weekly (paywall), Shen said she did not consider herself a Marxist until she attended graduate school and learned about labor issues by attending talks and following leftist websites online.

Another notable figure, Yue Xin (岳昕), was born to a typical middle-class family. Her family has an apartment in Beijing, and she had a materially trouble-free life. In a now-censored essay about social injustice and inequality published online, Yue expressed guilt for her privileged upbringing, something not afforded to many ordinary Chinese people. Yue became interested in workers’ rights in 2016 when she visited Jakarta as part of a language exchange from Peking University. Prior to her trip, she believed in constitutional democracy. Seeing that the Indonesian political system failed to improve the lives of Indonesian workers who continued to suffer capitalist exploitation, she began to follow labor issues in China more closely upon her return to China in 2017. These views led her to join various campus activities to promote workers’ rights.

Leftist Campus Activism

University students did not appear particularly vocal about labor issues, even after a spate of suicides at Foxconn starting in 2010 and other labor protests that rocked the manufacturing hub of Guangdong. Although many students likely experienced mistreatment while working to support themselves, there were no known collective student efforts to improve workers’ conditions until around 2014.

That year, over 200 sanitation workers in Guangzhou University Town launched a two-week strike to seek severance pay and assurances that the new employer assuming the regional cleaning contract would continue to employ the workers. The striking workers received help from many of the area’s 200,000 students. These students signed an open letter supporting the strike, raised funds, and even brought food and water for the workers. Nevertheless, except for Shen Mengyu, who conducted on-site research about the strike, few students identified as Marxists.

These efforts led to improvements in working conditions, including safer and more hygienic workplaces as well as better-defined work hours and duties. This success also sparked an interest among leftist student groups to improve the treatment of “campus proletarians” like cooks, construction workers, and janitors. In November 2018, Inkstone, a subsidiary of the South China Morning Post, wrote of several Marxist student groups in Jiangsu and Beijing. At Nanjing University, students from Marxist labor rights groups sympathetic to campus workers took up canteen work and organized square dance events. The New Light People’s Development Association at Renmin University supported migrant workers by organizing free clinics, night schools, and dance parties. Only months later, these groups would be suppressed by government action.

Perhaps the best-known student group is the Peking University Marxism Study Society, which was founded in 2000. In late 2015, the society released a report detailing inadequate labor protections for the university’s maintenance staff, including unlawful pay cuts, insufficient social security coverage, and abhorrent living conditions. The report, based on responses from 100 interviewees on campus, urged the university management to act to improve working conditions in accordance with Chinese law.

A follow-up survey conducted in 2017 by Zhan Zhenzhen(展振振) indicated that the university had made no substantive improvements to staff conditions. Perhaps recognizing the risk in making overt criticism, Zhan’s May 2018 report avoided naming and shaming, instead calling on university management to ensure the protection of basic workers’ rights. Although Zhan did not face any disciplinary action for his survey, Peking University warned workers not to cooperate with him lest they be laid off.

While only a small minority of students are devoted to left-wing campus activism, the CCP fears a student-worker coalition that highlights labor rights and broader socio-economic inequalities. The CCP believes such criticisms undermine its vested interests in the increasingly capitalist markets. When the party believes a line has been crossed, it has not hesitated to crack down on leftist student groups, using a variety of methods including coercive measures. Zhang Yunfan (张云帆) was among the first students to have his leftist activism met with such resistance.

A former member of the Peking University Marxism Study Society, Zhang started working in Guangzhou University Town after graduating from Peking University with a major in philosophy in 2016. In 2017, Zhang organized Marxism reading groups at Guangdong University of Technology for like-minded students and graduates. Three of the activists mentioned in this article—Sun Tingting, Ye Jianke, and Zheng Yongmin—were members. In addition to labor rights, Zhang’s reading groups were keen to discuss current affairs, even “June Fourth.”

After a group session on November 15, 2017, Zhang, Ye, and a few other members were initially charged with “illegal business activity” but later detained for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” A month later, Zhang and Ye were placed under residential surveillance at a designated location and released on December 29, 2017. Sun and Zheng were also detained in early December and released on bail within a month.

While the Marxist students shared similar passions to improve workers’ rights, some of them expanded their focus to explore women’s rights. Marxist student Yue Xin emerged as a critical voice in China’s #MeToo movement, which began in January 2018. She helped trigger a public reckoning when she began investigating an alleged rape that occurred almost 20 years ago and possibly led to the suicide of a Peking University student in 1998. In April 2018, Yue and other students requested that police disclose information about the investigation of a former literature professor who is believed to have raped the student who committed suicide and coerced other students into sexual relationships. In an open letter Yue published on April 23, 2018, she recounted intimidation by Peking University. The university said that she would not be able to matriculate unless she deleted all related information from her electronic devices.

Many politically engaged students, including those profiled here, reached an important level of commitment with their involvement in the Jasic labor protests of summer 2018. The next post tells their story.