Recent Read: “Inside China’s crackdown on young Marxists”

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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