May 5 marked 200 years since the birth of Karl Marx, the father of communist thought. China held a number of events to commemorate the German thinker, with President Xi Jinping exhorting members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to devote themselves to reading Marxist works. “Unceasingly promoting the sinification and modernization of Marxism is totally correct,” Xi proclaimed.
Yet as The Diplomat has covered before, China’s official embrace of Marxism has not translated to robust protections for workers – the vaunted proletariat the CCP is supposed to champion. That tension was laid bare once again this week, as a group of student activists were arrested for supporting workers in their attempt to form an independent trade union.
China has only one legal trade union, the catch-all All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). But far from acting as a traditional union, the ACFTU largely functions as an arm of the CCP. Most controversially, ACFTU leaders at specific company branches are not elected by local workers, but appointed by government officials. And there is no legal alternative to the ACFTU; independent labor organizations are banned.
Despite the restrictions, at times workers try to band together and press for workplace reforms. That was the case this July at a factory operated by Shenzhen Jasic Technology Co Ltd. Workers, according to China Labor Bulletin, complained that they were being treated “like slaves,”with the company withholding pay and underpaying promised benefits. The workers sought permission to unionize from the local branch of the trade union federation, but the officials “reportedly refused to help and instead worked with managers at the Jasic factory to establish an enterprise trade union that specifically excluded the worker activists.” When workers persisted in forming their own union, two of the organizers behind the effort were beaten and dismissed. Workers gathered to protest, and the police got involved – by arresting protesters.
Protests continued as the workers complained on social media, culminating in the detention of 30 people on July 27. Of those, 14 reportedly remain in custody a month later. But even as the workers were being detained, supporters from across China were pouring in to reinforce their efforts.
As South China Morning Post reported, Chinese university students and old school leftists – including former CCP cadres – had both joined the movement by early August. From the SCMP report:
At noon on Monday [August 6], about 80 supporters staged a second rally under the scorching sun outside Yanziling police station in Shenzhen’s Pingshan district, about 50km (31 miles) from the border with Hong Kong. More than 40 Communist Party members and retired cadres, who are part of the country’s leading Maoist internet forum, Utopia, joined the rally.
One elderly Maoist protester proclaimed to SCMP that “this is a great awakening moment of workers… This is a turning point for Chinese workers’ resistance.”
Ironically, however, Mao’s CCP is now among the greatest obstacles to the Chinese workers’ rights movement. As is the case with every social movement in China, the authorities look at grassroots anger and discontent and see a potential threat to “social stability,” orchestrated by nefarious “hostile foreign forces.” Those charges have been leveled at activists involved in a range of issues, from feminism to LGBT rights.
Workers’ rights is not unique in this regard, but it is perhaps the most ironic example. As its advocates argue, the labor rights movements is inspired directly by the same Marxist works Xi Jinping is fond of extolling. As one of the student activists, Yue Xin, wrote in an open letter to Xi (translated by China Digital Times):
As for those who accuse us of reading Marxist works at the covert direction of foreign powers, the type of people saying this have lost all sense of political opinion. Since its birth, the Chinese Communist Party has adhered to Marxism-Leninism as its guiding philosophy. Implying that we study Marxism only at the behest of foreign powers is tantamount to accusing the Party itself of being an external force. It’s like saying by pursuing fairness and justice, fighting against evil groups, the Party is actually engaging in reactionism.
Yue’s letter made an impact, though not in the way she had hoped. On August 24, Yue, along with more than 50 other student activists, was detained in an early morning police raid. Reuters reporter Sue-Lin Wong, who had previously visited the apartment where the students where staying and where the raid took place, posted a video sent by a student reportedly depicting the arrests.
In their article about the latest detentions, Wong and Christian Shepherd report on other intimidation tactics targeting the student activists, from flying their parents in for mandatory “training sessions” on how to better control their children to sending university administrators to convince the protesters to leave.
In her letter, Yue denounces the idea that she and her fellow protesters had ulterior political motives:
We are not a foreign force, nor a student revolution, nor do we make any other political demands. All we want is to fight for justice for the Jasic workers. We will always remember the central Party leadership’s trust and high hopes for us. We believe justice will be done.
In other words, these activists see themselves as fulfilling the Party’s broader mission – even as the CCP’s own forces see the protesters as a threat. The protesters are keenly aware of the divergence between classical Marxism and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – “Marxist theory is a mandatory course in China … but if you want to learn original Marxism, you need to read on your own,” Yue once wrote on social media.
In this context, even previous CCP propaganda has become potentially threatening. As Jun Mai reported for the South China Morning Post, a group of young people in Guangzhou faced stern questions from the authorities over their screening of The White-Haired Girl, a ballet made into a film considered a classic of revolutionary China. The ballet tells the story of a Chinese peasant mistreated and abused by a rich landlord family – until her fiancé and an armed band of communists return to overthrow the villain and bring justice to the oppressed villagers.
During the Cultural Revolution, The White Haired Girl that was one of a handful of CCP-sanctioned artistic works that correctly upheld communist values. Now, apparently, its message of retribution for oppression is too radical for the Party authorities to stomach.