Tue, Jan 08, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Giving Marxism a new compass

By Joseph Tse-Hei Lee 李榭熙

The Chinese government’s crackdown on Marxist study groups at university campuses has intensified to an unprecedented level, with several student advocates being arrested on dubious charges in Beijing, Nanjing and Guangzhou.

Although it is a political irony for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to turn against young Marxists, the contradiction reveals the absence of an overarching ideology that legitimizes a one-party dictatorship in an increasingly diverse environment that is shaped by corrosive class tensions and rapid technological change.

Since assuming power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has worried about the spread of Western values and norms amid an economic slowdown. An indoctrination campaign requiring that the teachings of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Karl Marx be taught in school curricula across China has created an unexpected backlash.

After studying the history and development of socialism in modern China, many passionate, idealistic and conscientious students were shocked by the unequal access to education, healthcare and job security, especially when migrant workers on campus were treated like second-class citizens in a prosperous and affluent society.

Embracing communism as a moral compass, students have participated in Marxist study societies, and sympathized with grossly underpaid and badly treated workers.

Last summer in Shenzhen, students publicly advocated for and joined factory workers in their fight for greater rights at Jasic Technology Co Ltd, where laborers were reportedly beaten and detained by police after they were banned from setting up an independent union.

Today’s Marxist student activists are decidedly nonviolent, as opposed to Maoist rebels in neighboring Nepal and India. They proclaim to be inspired by the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist movement across China that emerged from student protests in Beijing on May 4, 1919, and precipitated the founding of the CCP in 1921, but the students repudiate any parallels with the pro-democracy uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.

Politically progressive students perceive Marxism as a meta-narrative of human society, in which an ongoing struggle for universal liberation unfolds between capitalists and laborers. They debate, in a Marxist mode, that the global capitalist structure can only be dismantled through multipronged struggles.

In this socialist crusade, they have found it necessary to connect the demands of Shenzhen’s factory workers with similar grievances across China. When all the lower political and economic classes pursue what Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello call “globalization from below,” this mode of collectivism might bypass the state’s watchfulness and ensure victory for everyone.

Seen from this perspective, the labor strikes in Shenzhen were not just about the problem of capitalist exploitation. They were largely driven and refashioned by social activists to reclaim human dignity, economic freedom and political agency for the working poor; to stop workplace abuses of employees by business conglomerates; and to secure the right to elect union leaders in full freedom.

Such grassroots protests are always vulnerable to state repression. Fearing these isolated industrial actions might spread into national unrest, Beijing reacted harshly.

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