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NY Times, Sept. 28, 2018
China’s Leaders Confront an Unlikely Foe: Ardent Young Communists
By Javier C. Hernández
HUIZHOU, China — They were exactly what China’s best universities were
supposed to produce: young men and women steeped in the ideology of the
Chinese Communist Party.
They read Marx, Lenin and Mao and formed student groups to discuss the
progress of socialism. They investigated the treatment of the campus
proletariat, including janitors, cooks and construction workers. They
volunteered to help struggling rural families and dutifully recited the
slogans of President Xi Jinping.
Then, after graduation, they attempted to put the party’s stated ideals
into action, converging from across China last month on Huizhou, a city
in the south, to organize labor unions at nearby factories and stage
protests demanding greater protections for workers.
That’s when the party realized it had a problem.
The authorities moved quickly to crush the efforts of the young
activists, detaining several dozen of them and scrubbing the internet of
their calls for justice — but not before their example became a rallying
cry for young people across the country unhappy with growing inequality,
corruption and materialism in Chinese society.
“You are the backbone of the working class!” the protesters chanted at
one rally, addressing workers at an equipment factory. “We share your
honor and your disgrace!”
Protests are common in China, especially by workers who have nowhere
else to turn in a nation without independent unions, courts or news
media. But the demonstrations in Huizhou were unusual because they were
organized by students and recent graduates from some of the country’s
top universities, who have generally stayed off the streets since the
1989 pro-democracy movement that ended in bloodshed outside Tiananmen
In the decades since that massacre, university students have generally
helped advance the party’s economic and political agenda, focusing on
jobs, homes and other aspects of material well-being while supporting
authoritarian rule, or at least eschewing politics. As economic growth
has slowed, party officials have grown more nervous about Western
influences on the nation’s youth, who are more worldly and digitally
connected than ever before.
But the Huizhou activists represent a threat the authorities did not expect.
Carrying portraits of Mao and singing socialist anthems, they espoused
the very ideals that the government fed them for years in mandatory
ideological classes, voicing grievances about issues like poverty,
worker rights and gender equality — some of communism’s core concerns.
“What we are doing is entirely legal and reasonable,” said Chen Kexin, a
senior at Renmin University in Beijing who took part in the protests.
“We are Marxists. We praise socialism. We stand with workers. The
authorities can’t target us.”
But they have. On the morning of Aug. 24, police officers wearing riot
gear raided the four-bedroom apartment the activists were renting in
Huizhou and detained about 50 people. As the police burst through the
door, the activists held hands and sang “L’Internationale.”
Though some have been released, 14 activists and workers remain in
custody or under house arrest, according to labor rights advocates. The
local police accused the workers of acting on behalf of foreign
Since President Xi took power in 2012, the party has sought to restrict
the use of Western textbooks and stop the spread of “Western values” on
campus, referring to ideas about rule of law and democracy that could
undermine its hold on power.
At the same time, Mr. Xi has demanded that universities expand their
teachings on Mao and Marx. In May, he visited Peking University and
encouraged students to promote Marxism, saying it was important for the
university to “take Marxism as its surname.”
But some in the party seem uneasy about the proliferation of these
groups, apparently worried that their calls for greater economic
equality and worker rights could undermine China’s modern-day embrace of
While only a small minority of students are involved, they represent a
leftist critique of Chinese society that seems to be gaining traction on
college campuses, partly because the authorities have been more hesitant
to suppress it than other political discussion.
On the Chinese internet, thousands of young people participate in
vibrant Maoist and Marxist chat rooms, and some have started leftist
news websites, posting commentary on topics like pollution,
globalization and economic theory, without much interference by censors,
This week, school officials harassed young Marxists at a half-dozen
universities and prevented some from meeting, activists said. And last
year, the police in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province,
arrested Zhang Yunfan, the young leader of a Maoist reading group,
accusing him of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.”
Younger Chinese are often described as apathetic, selfish and obsessed
with money. But Eric Fish, a writer who has studied Chinese millennials,
said that the generation born after the Tiananmen Square massacre lacks
the instinctive fear of authority of older generations.
“They’re more willing to go out on the street and stick their necks
out,” he said. “There is not as much appreciation for what could go wrong.”
The dispute in Huizhou began in July, after Jasic Technology, a
manufacturer of welding equipment, prevented its workers from forming an
independent union. China allows labor organizing only under the auspices
of the official, party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
The workers said managers had seized control of their branch of the
official union. Complaining of being underpaid and treated like slaves,
they began to organize a petition before the police intervened and
detained several of them.
The young activists learned of the workers’ plight on internet messaging
apps and took up their cause, with about 40 students and recent
graduates going to Huizhou, a manufacturing hub of 4.8 million people in
Guangdong Province. Hundreds of others spoke out in support online — so
many that several universities warned students not to go to Huizhou.
“I could not sit still,” Yue Xin, a recent graduate of Peking University
who majored in foreign languages, said in an interview before she was
detained. “I could not let myself be a mere internet commentator. I had
to stand up.”
Zhang Shengye, 21, who graduated in June from Peking University with a
degree in pharmacology, said he was inspired to join the protests by his
family’s own struggles. His father, a sailor, was laid off from a
state-owned firm during a wave of privatization in the 1990s, an
experience Mr. Zhang described as a “financial and emotional apocalypse.”
But it was in college that he decided to answer Marx’s call to “work for
mankind,” he said. Frustrated by the low wages and poor treatment of
workers on campus, he and 60 other students, calling themselves the
Marxist Research Association, published a report documenting labor
“We share a very simple sympathy for workers and the aspiration of a
better future for communism,” he said.
In Huizhou, the young activists called each other “comrade” and wore
T-shirts with images of clenched fists and the slogan, “Unity is
strength.” They marched alongside workers, holding banners that
declared, “Forming unions is not a crime.” They staged re-enactments of
the abuse the workers said they endured at the factory.
Though they identify as Maoists, the activists are decidedly nonviolent,
unlike Maoist rebels in countries like Nepal and India who embrace
violent revolution. Their philosophy also differs from China’s older
Maoists, who largely focus on rooting out Western influences in Chinese
society and are less confrontational toward the party.
The young protesters insist that they are good communists who support
Before she was detained, Ms. Yue wrote an open letter to Mr. Xi saying
that she had been inspired by his fight against corruption and his time
working in an impoverished village in the countryside as a young man.
She added that the campaign in Huizhou had its roots not in foreign
ideas, but in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a student-led uprising in
China that the party considers a precursor to the Communist Revolution.
Ms. Yue, also a leader of China’s #MeToo movement who spoke out against
sexual harassment and assault on campus, has not been heard from since
the police detained her during the Aug. 24 raid.
Friends are also worried about Shen Mengyu, one of the first students to
call attention to the workers’ campaign. She was held by security
officials at a hotel and is now under surveillance at her parents’ home,
Several workers at the equipment factory have also been formally
arrested and charged with disturbing social order. Huang Lanfeng, whose
husband, Yu Juncong, was among those detained, said the government was
unfairly punishing workers while ignoring factory abuses.
“We will never give up,” she said. “We swear to fight the evil forces
until the end.”
As the school year began, the activists vowed to press their campaign.
Mr. Zhang and others staged a rally in Mao’s hometown, Shaoshan, on the
42nd anniversary of the Chinese leader’s death this month, and called on
the government to release their friends. The police broke up the protest
and briefly detained Mr. Zhang, who was also held and released after the
Aug. 24 raid.
Mr. Zhang has circulated a petition calling on the party to punish local
officials. He wrote:
“We are here because we are deeply aware that what we do is legal and just.
“We are here because we want to repay the workers with what we have
learned for so many years.
“We are here because we don’t want to believe that dark forces can laugh
malignantly in the world we inhabit.”
Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter: @HernandezJavier.
Zoe Mou and Echo Hui contributed research.
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