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.