© Cristiana Couceiro

Luke, an undergraduate student at one of China’s elite universities, recalls the day he became a committed Marxist. It was not in the countless hours of compulsory Marxism lectures he endured as part of the undergraduate curriculum, but during his first-year winter break in Beijing. Along with 20 other young workers, he squeezed into a minivan with nine seats and was driven to a small workshop on the outskirts of the city. There, he put together cardboard packages for 12 hours in a below-freezing room with no heating.

What startled him most were the hands of the dozen young women living in the workshop, which were “swollen like radishes” from the cold. Unlike him, they had not had the opportunity to finish school. The boss of the workshop had brought them there from their hometown, and they did not know when they could go back.

“They were like slaves. I thought, this capitalist mode of production can turn people into feudal serfs,” says Luke (not his real name). As he applied acrid-smelling adhesives to the cardboard, he turned over the “tiny coincidences” that separated the lives of the young women from his own, as a student at one of China’s most celebrated universities. The women were the children of workers, as he was, and were about the same age. “I had a really strong wish,” he remembers. “I wanted to make things better.”

Luke threw himself into leftist student organising on campus, speaking to and supporting the many cleaners, cooks, guards and rubbish collectors working there. Then, last July, he read online about the arrest of 29 workers and activists who had tried to register a union at a factory belonging to Jasic Technology, a manufacturer of welding equipment. It was the biggest mass arrest of workers for three years. In August, he travelled to the Jasic site in the southern manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, following a call for support that went out to leftist student groups across the country.

Student activists at a rally for Jasic workers in Shenzhen, August 2018
Student activists at a rally for Jasic workers in Shenzhen, August 2018

On August 24, not long after his arrival, Luke’s dormitory of activists was raided by police, and about 50 students were taken into custody. The mass detention was one of the most contentious crackdowns on student protesters since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

After a series of kidnappings and arrests both on and off China’s most prestigious campuses, a total of 42 people remain in detention, including 21 students and recent graduates, as well as activists, social workers, trade-union staff and Jasic workers. Many have lost contact completely with their families, while relatives have been pressured by police not to speak to the media or to contact lawyers.

The story of the Jasic workers, and the students who supported them and set the issue aflame, highlights a paradox at the heart of modern China. While the country is controlled by a Communist party government that trumpets Marxist rhetoric, its economy has flourished since the 1980s partly thanks to the development of “state capitalism” — a liberalisation that has allowed private markets and mass consumption to thrive within strict parameters set by the state.

Last May, President Xi Jinping gave a speech to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, proclaiming him “the greatest thinker of modern times”, and arguing that the 19th-century German philosopher “pointed out the direction, with scientific theory, toward an ideal society with no oppression or exploitation”. Yet China’s government has turned a blind eye to worker exploitation as the country has become a global economic powerhouse, with income inequality exceeding that in the US.

“The objection of many on China’s new left — not just students — is that China is a socialist country in name but capitalist in reality, and that inequality, pollution and corruption are a consequence of this anomaly,” says Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at the University of Oxford.

The state’s concerted oppression of young Marxists partly reflects the tension within the Chinese Communist party’s own origin story: that it has not preserved the communist ideals behind its revolutionary success under Chairman Mao. In 1978 the party formally ditched the idea of class struggle, deeming it too divisive, and instead prioritised economic development.

“The students’ commitment to a purer form of Marxism only serves to highlight the CCP’s own drift from its roots,” says Jude Blanchette, author of a forthcoming book on China’s neo-Maoists. “This, crucially, has been why the left in China has always presented more of a challenge to the party leadership than the right.”

President Xi Jinping marking the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, May 4 2018
President Xi Jinping marking the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, May 4 2018 © Eyevine

The suppression of leftist students has extended far beyond the initial Jasic protest. Universities have attempted to shut down student Marxist societies and stop workers congregating with students on campus. In December, police turned up to a commemoration of Chairman Mao’s birthday in his hometown of Shaoshan and took away another student activist.

The Financial Times spoke to a total of 12 students and supporters over the past six months, of whom at least four have since been detained. Many of these students had been harassed by the police as a result of their activism. While China’s constitution claims that all citizens have the right to freedom of expression, in practice the students involved in the Jasic protests were told by their universities and the police not to speak to the media. Many, however, believe that spreading the message is more important than avoiding the risk.

The Communist party has tried to stamp out as much information about the students’ protests as possible. In one of the few uncensored articles on the protests available on the Chinese internet, the state media agency Xinhua alleges the students were swept into a conspiracy plotted by an “illegal organisation” and funded by a “western NGO” — generic accusations made against many grassroots activists in China.

The student dispute has garnered international concern. In the US, Cornell University cut off two student exchanges with China’s top Renmin University, citing limits on academic freedom and student safety. Famous Marxists and scholars from across the world, including Noam Chomsky, criticised the party’s actions and called for a boycott of Marxism conferences in China. A dispute that started in classrooms has highlighted the major identity crisis of the Communist Party of China: who are the country’s real Marxists?

By the Communist party’s own account, modern China was created on the back of student protests. On May 4 1919, following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, students from universities across Beijing gathered in front of Tiananmen Gate to demonstrate against the government’s acceptance of a treaty that meant China would continue to be occupied by foreign powers. That protest sparked a series of strikes and further protests across China. The Communist party traces its birth to the radicalised political atmosphere that emerged after the “May Fourth movement”.

At the time of the protest, Mao Zedong was a 25-year-old librarian, studying and working at Peking University, who was becoming interested in Marxism. Thirty years later, Mao’s Communist party won the Chinese civil war and founded the People’s Republic of China. He often credited the students of the May Fourth movement with being the “vanguards” of China’s revolution.

Student activists, from left, Shen Mengyu and Yue Xin, both of whom have been detained since they were photographed
Student activists, from left, Shen Mengyu and Yue Xin, both of whom have been detained since they were photographed

In the years following Mao’s death in 1976, his supporters were forced out and Deng Xiaoping rose to power. Deng embarked on market reforms and coined the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. However, the party kept many of the structures of control that exist to this day — over the press, over political participation, and through restrictions on the movement of people that can trap rural citizens in poverty.

Frustration over growing inequality, corruption and rampant inflation brought Chinese students back to Tiananmen Square in 1989. The addition of workers to the students’ protests was one of the factors that particularly alarmed authorities at the time, and galvanised Deng to bring in the army to suppress the movement.

The resulting massacre became an indelible stain on the Communist party’s reputation abroad, and is still one of the most carefully erased parts of Chinese history at home. By gathering with workers, the students were enacting a dictum reinforced by Mao over decades: that revolutionary action requires students to stand alongside workers.

This year, in the lead-up to several politically sensitive anniversaries — 100 years since 1919, and 30 years since Tiananmen — “there is a real concern that student demonstrations will show up the party as not being the sole legitimate source of authority in China,” says Rana Mitter.

Mary Gallagher, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Michigan, argues that the state’s harsh response to the Marxist students is less about their political stance than their activism in general. “This is part of a broader crackdown on labour activists, lawyers and feminists who have all tried to build more sustained movements for social change,” she says. “The party is more concerned with their ability to organise than with the substantive issues.”

When asked why such a wave of student activism was possible now, all the students interviewed pointed to China’s growing inequality. Since the implementation of market liberalisation in the 1980s, China’s level of income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient has increased rapidly, from about 0.30 in 1980 to 0.47 in 2017 by official estimates (compared with an OECD average of 0.31 and the US’s level of 0.39).

At the start of his second five-year term as general secretary of the Communist party in October 2017, Xi announced that the “principal contradiction” facing the country was the tension “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”.

The gap in opportunity has also increased. A paper by Yuyu Chen at Peking University and his co-authors shows that social mobility fell in the post-Mao era of economic reforms to pre-1949 levels, as measured by the dependence of children’s educational attainment on their fathers’ attainment. “China is now sufficiently capitalist to make Marxist categories perfectly suited to social analysis,” says Rebecca Karl, professor of Chinese history at New York University.

Xi extensively quotes Mao and Marx but has done little to implement their ideas, instead focusing on maintaining party control over businesses and civil society. His embrace of Mao is seen by some as an attempt to create a similar cult of personality: last year, “Xi Jinping Thought” became part of the Chinese constitution, making him the first leader to insert his own named ideology into the document since Mao.

Despite being a socialist country by name, China has no meaningful social safety net and its labour laws are poorly enforced for the worst-off workers. As a result, family health problems, a bad boss or an economic downturn can be the blow that knocks someone down to a position from which they can’t climb up.

Mi Jiuping, a 36-year-old Jasic Technology worker from rural Hunan province, had experienced many of these knocks before he became an advocate for his fellow workers in Shenzhen. “There always has to be someone who goes first. If everyone is afraid, we workers will never get our day of freedom,” Mi was quoted as saying in a short memoir of him, written by colleagues and supporters and published on social media.

Photo collage by Cristiana Couceiro

In May, Mi drafted a petition asking Jasic to stop its alleged beating of workers and allow them to form a union. While organising a trade union is not illegal in China, all unions must have party approval and be overseen by the party’s union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. But the ACFTU tends towards maintaining party control rather than listening to workers, and unions are in essence often run by a company’s management.

Mi met with two months of delays from the local party body that oversees trade unions. Then, in early July, Jasic assigned Mi and his fellow organisers to new positions and escorted them out of the factory. On July 27, Mi tried to re-enter the factory with other workers and has been detained ever since.

In an online statement posted on July 29, Jasic denied beating workers or blocking their union. The company said it had fired workers lawfully, in order to protect the company’s normal running, and that it was supporting the building of a union.

The FT’s numerous calls and emails to Jasic have gone unanswered. The grounds of the factory on the outskirts of Shenzhen are bordered by a concrete wall with an electrified fence. Inside, workers live in dormitories; outside, a path winds through a well-maintained tropical park with newly built high-rise apartments on the other side.

At the gate to the factory, a security guard shooed the FT away with a smile, saying that nobody would be willing to speak. The English version of the Jasic website links to the Xinhua article that accuses the workers’ organisers of being supported by an “illegal organisation”.

Several of the students interviewed said their political awareness had been sharpened by the contrast between their own privilege at university and the lives of the workers around them. One, who wished to go by the pseudonym of Zhang Rui, recalled spending an evening at Peking University in 2016. Inside the red-carpeted auditorium of their hall, students performed songs and dances to commemorate the December 9 movement, a mass demonstration in 1935 when students protested against the Japanese occupation of China. That same day, library workers at the university held up red banners protesting about the late payment of their salaries.

A group photo of students and activists involved in the Jasic protests, taken in August last year. Those highlighted in red were detained. Four have since been released
A group photo of students and activists involved in the Jasic protests, taken in August last year. Those highlighted in red were detained. Four have since been released

“Seeing the naked layers of Beijing let me feel for the first time the broad notion of ‘class,’” said Zhang. “After that, I went to experience being a casual worker and further felt their suffering. After I read Marx’s Wage-Labour and Capital, and works on political economy, I realised the culprit was not any particular capitalist but capitalism itself, and so started following the Marxist path.”

By being born mostly in the mid-1990s, these students “did not inherit political baggage”, in the words of one political commentator, who requested anonymity. They came of age when China had become relatively prosperous and — due to the one-child policy — as only children in whom their parents had invested everything. During their childhoods, the vast majority of China was politically stable and growing its economy rapidly.

“They had never lived through a deeply politicised time, and so, to them, the connotations of their Marxist slogans feel completely different to when the party was using them,” says Pun Ngai, professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong.

The desire to do something good with one’s privilege was often cited by the student activists. Their places in China’s best universities — the training grounds for future Communist party leaders — were won through competing in the gruelling gaokao entrance exam. For a student born in 1995, merely getting into a university puts them in the top third of their cohort; getting into Peking University or Renmin University puts them in the top 0.02 per cent.

“Even inside this ivory tower of Peking University, there are many forms of oppression exerted by the powerful,” said Zhang, listing teachers’ sexual harassment of students, censorship on university forums, and the “large-scale calling in [by staff] of leftist students who care about social issues for disciplinary meetings, to the extent of calling our parents”.

Ironically, the waves of censorship, reprimands, arrests and disappearances have served to radicalise the students further. A week after the first mass arrest of workers and supporters at Jasic Technology on July 27, student groups from 11 universities had circulated petitions for their release, gathering more than 1,600 signatories. Although the students are organised primarily by their university groups, their cross-country collaboration was made possible first through domestic social media, and then the better-encrypted platforms they sought refuge on after their public accounts were blocked following the July arrests.

Yue Xin, a student at Peking University, had already become famous before the summer for her #MeToo open letter on social media asking her university to properly investigate sexual harassment. She, like Luke, came to Shenzhen to support the Jasic workers. In August, I interviewed Yue, after contacting her via one of the several encrypted messaging apps used by the students. These apps are mostly blocked by China’s “Great Firewall” of internet controls and thus require anti-surveillance software, or VPNs, to access. Yue had no other choice: her old account on WeChat, China’s dominant messaging service that is also heavily censored and surveilled, had been shut down.

The day after we spoke, police raided Yue’s dormitory, taking her and about 40 other students. Her social media posts have been censored. What remains of her online is the skeleton of her WeChat account: her nickname, Mutian, followed by two sunflower emojis; and her profile photo, with her hair in two bunches, giving the workers’ salute of a raised fist.

Her social feed was hidden from view for others, but before she was detained she sent me a screenshot of what she had posted (sneakily, as with some other social media apps, WeChat does not inform users when their content is censored). Her last post, on August 8, was a photo of her breakfast served on a bamboo steamer at a steamed bun stall, captioned “morning in the migrant workers’ village”.

Below it is a photo of Jasic supporters with a quote from the writer Lu Xun: “Today’s so-called education, in every country in the world, is in reality nothing more than a way of creating machines that suit their environment.”

The rapid organisation, geographical diversity and number of students involved in the Jasic support group arguably makes it a movement, albeit a small one that is far from the mainstream of student life.

As a whole, the leftist students have abandoned the rote learning of party-approved Marxist theory offered in their compulsory “political education” university classes. Although they had to memorise the Communist party’s formulations of Marxist slogans, they “didn’t learn any concrete Marxist ideas”, as one puts it. Instead, they have taken up action: talking to workers, especially on campus, and helping them to organise. Sample activities run by the Marxist student societies at Renmin University and Peking University involve night classes and film screenings for those workers.

Leftist students studying social sciences combined this emphasis on living alongside workers with their degrees’ requirements for fieldwork. One student said that he came to Shenzhen as the result of his teacher encouraging him to find internships in workers’ support groups in the area.

Qiu Zhanxuan, former president of the Marxist student society at Peking University, left, and student activist Zhan Zhenzhen, both now in detention
Qiu Zhanxuan, former president of the Marxist student society at Peking University, left, and student activist Zhan Zhenzhen, both now in detention

Because of this, several students were already placed in workers’ rights organisations in Shenzhen before the Jasic protest. After the first mass arrest of workers in late July, a dozen or so students arrived. Then on August 11, Shen Mengyu, a graduate of Sun Yat-sen University, who was one of the first to arrive at Jasic, was bundled into an unmarked car by three men. After the kidnapping, more students such as Luke poured in from across the country, bringing the total number in Shenzhen to about 50.

In December, the Jasic Workers’ Support Group invited students and supporters to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Mao’s birth. “A wave of progressive students has emerged, who remember well Chairman Mao’s lesson: that the youth must walk a road that meets with the workers,” read one invitation on social media. On the day itself — December 26 — a square in Mao’s birthplace was filled with red banners and portraits of the chairman, carried by everyone from ageing Maoists to millennials. Among them was Zhan Zhenzhen, a Peking University undergraduate and activist. The same day, police arrested Qiu Zhanxuan, the president of Peking University’s Marxist society, who had organised a memorial celebration. A week later, the police took Zhan too.

Unlike the Tiananmen protesters, China’s new leftist students are not calling for a change in government. Instead, they say they are calling for the Communist party to return to its own roots, and carry out Mao’s promise of workers’ liberation. Rather than criticise leaders or the party, in their public writings they have taken care to criticise each individual police unit that has opposed them, telling them they are disobeying the spirit of the Communist party.

“Don’t forget your original intentions,” goes a famous Communist party slogan that, at the start of Xi’s second term, was posted on billboards in Beijing’s high-end shopping district of Sanlitun, displacing the iPhone adverts that usually sit there. The student activists have had impact at home and internationally — and scared the party — because they remind everyone of these original intentions.

The speed with which the movement spread is a “red flag”, says New York University’s Rebecca Karl, because the students seem to “speak the same language as the party-state but actually threaten a carefully co-ordinated idea of nationalist social harmony and co-operation”.

Members of Peking University's Marxist society demand information about the detention of two students, January 3
Members of Peking University's Marxist society demand information about the detention of students, January 3

While some students describe themselves as “Maoist-Leninist-Marxists”, others simply say they prefer to be described by their aims: supporting workers. “Mao is a popular influence because he was the populariser of Marxism in China, and his writings still remain the most compelling vision of Chinese Marxism,” says the University of Hong Kong’s Pun Ngai. “The students also learn Maoism from the workers that they encounter on the ground. For example, the construction workers would compare their social status and wage payments with [those of workers during] Maoist China. Many households still hang Mao’s portrait.”

The use of Maoist language in the students’ writings can sometimes make them sound like they come from another age. But it may have helped cover the group with the protection of the Communist party’s own rhetoric, while also resonating with “old comrades” — veteran party members who joined in more revolutionary days and who have supported the group through crowdsourced fundraising.

The student activists themselves are generally not party members, despite having the academic credentials to apply. At Peking University, the Marxist student society, whose leaders took part in the Jasic activism, has faced a takeover by a group of students selected by the university. The old Marxist student society’s president was taken into detention in December; by contrast, the new leaders are Communist party members who hold discussion groups on Xi’s philosophy rather than meetings with canteen workers.

Last month, police arranged to meet a group of student activists and played them a video. The film began with a cheerful television anchor’s voice, followed by footage of four detained students renouncing their activism. It was the first time the group had seen their friends Yue Xin and Shen Mengyu, along with two other activists, since their detention five months earlier, and the production style echoed the many forced confessions produced and aired in China since Xi came to power in 2013.

“I joined an organisation that attempted to use the workers’ movement to subvert the [Communist] party and the state,” says one student in the video.

Chinese police routinely use torture to extract such forced confessions for videos, according to the advocacy group Safeguard Defenders, which has noted at least 100 victims of such confessions since 2013. Friends of the detainees said they thought the confessions were forced, with one commenting that the students looked so unnatural they assumed they had been “drugged”. “Their expressions are dull and their faces colourless, and seem partly swollen,” said one friend. “It makes you wonder what kind of treatment they were receiving inside [detention].”

The remaining student activists wrote a blog post describing their opposition to the forced confessions, calling it a “ridiculous performance put on by the police”. “We have never hidden our views or actions,” they wrote, denying the police accusation that they were “brainwashed” or the puppets of foreign forces. “The forces of justice always prevail, ugliness is eventually unmasked . . . what can you [the police] do to save yourself, once you’re engulfed by the sea of the people?” That same day, seven more students were taken away by police.

At one point in my conversations with Luke I asked him what his hopes were for the fledgling Jasic workers’ movement. “The workers and students have lawfully defended [workers’] rights, but have been cruelly suppressed by local negative forces,” he wrote back, careful to draw the distinction between local and central government. “I believe, no matter what the result, once a flag has been raised, once a lamp has been lit, once a path has been opened, then more people will see the truth, find our direction and unite.”

Some time later, I heard that Luke too had disappeared.

Yuan Yang is an FT correspondent in Beijing

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