Interview of a Chinese Revolutionary Marxist on the recent political situation and the state of workers’ struggle

A1:The New York Times published an article recently about the radicalization of young chinese students. Do you witness the same trend ? How does it materialize for you locally ?

Ji Hengge:

First I should introduce the context of the article of New York Times. From May to July at 2018, As many as 89 workers who worked in Shenzhen Jasic(佳士) Technology Co., Ltd tried to established a Workers Union but not accepted by the official Pingshan(坪山) District Federation of Trade Unions, and most of them fired by the factory. These workers then protected in front of the gate of the Jasic and the police station in Pingshan, Shenzhen. And they also rush into the gate of Jasic factory and the police station, these activities let the event escalate and became a public event. Some workers arrested by the policeman. After that, some Maoist Left students and youth participated the protect and established a Solidarity Group to help these workers. Sometime there’s also people from other political tendencies participated in the solidarity active. From July to 23th August, these Maoist students and youth protected and lectured in street, communities, industrial areas, though the weather is so hot. In the morning of 24th August, all these Maoist students, youth and some workers in the Solidarity Group were arrested by the policeman, most of them were forced repatriation, but some of them, like Gu Jiayue(顾佳悦)(she were arrested in Beijing), Yue Xin(岳昕), Xu Zhongliang(徐忠良) and so on were imprisoned for trial. And before 24th August, an NGO named “Worker Empowerment”(劳动力) were closed down by the government and some member of this NGO were arrested because the government want to framed the movement as an event that support by the “overseas forces”, though they had no any real relationships with this event. Although there were not so many Maoist Left students (about 30-50 people) in the scene and most workers in Jasic factory were no action, it was so remarkable in the oppressive environment of China. So the Jasic event can reported by many foreign medias, and leads to discussions about the radicalization of young students in China.

For now it’s only sufficient to say that a small portion of young students have been radicalized, but young students as a whole haven’t. Some media have reported that young Chinese students are undergoing a widespread radicalization. Labor scholar Pun Ngai(潘毅) based in Hong Kong have also exaggerated the radicalization of young students recently when she talked about Jasic events. In China, the majority of young students are indifferent to politics, they care more about getting higher score at school, securing a job, and obtaining scholarship, and so on.

However, the authorities’ tightening authoritarianism on politics and culture, on one hand made more and more students disappointed, especially after they amended the Constitution in 2018, but the majority of students haven’t reached the degree of “radicalized”; on the other hand, it drove the polarization of the ideological trends of society:

One pole is students who oppose the establishment. Their number is gradually increasing. Leftist Maoist is their mainstream, and their number have grown ten times more comparing to 2012. (We call Maoists who support the CPC, see “the contradiction between Chinese nation and foreign imperialists” as main contradiction, or think today’s China is “still socialist”, rightist Maoists; and Maoists who oppose the authorities, and think of “contradiction of classes” as the main contradiction, leftist Maoists). The other pole includes nationalists, and most of liberals: they both oppose radical transformation. Although most liberals advocate the slogan, “against the establishment, for democracy”, but they are repelled by revolution more than autocracy. Their current goal is merely counting on the power struggle inside the authorities to promote “political reform”, and to defend market economy and private ownership.

Leftist Maoists in China have been growing since the 1990s, but they remained small before 2012. In 2012, the fall of Bo Xilai (薄熙来)devastated rightist Maoists. Many people at the upper levels chose to support the new leader, while many others went astray. During this time, the once small leftist Maoists carried out propaganda actively, made many rightist Maoists youth give up on believing in “reforms inside of the party”, and adopted the standpoint of opposing the Establishment. Those leftist Maoist took over many kinds of “Marxist academic society” (“马克思主义学会”)or public welfare college associations which mainly serve workers as their main channels to carry out their work. They even turned many rightist Maoist societies into leftist Maoist societies.

Since liberals firmly oppose radical transformation and holds hostility to workers’ participation in radical transformation, while leftist Maoists shout slogans like “democracy”, “freedom of speech”, “fight against bureaucratism”, “social equality”, “serve workers and peasants”, leftist Maoism became very attractive to radical youth who oppose autocracy and seek equality, and is drawing more and more youth who care about politics and the society. Some political events in recent years are related to those leftist Maoist youths, such as the Maoist book club incident of Guangdong University of Technology (广东工业大学)in December 2017. We can see their presence in the #MeToo Movement in 2018. The Jasic events which caught international attentions are essentially guided by those Maoist youths. Since September 2018, Maoist student organizations at Peking University(北京大学), Renmin University of China(中国人民大学), Nanjing University(南京大学) and some other universities have launched a movement to stop the university office shutting down and deregistering their societies. But in general, those leftist Maoist youth are still a very small portion of young students. Although they had caught more attentions because they took an active part in those public incidents, their activists won’t be more than a few hundred in the whole of China.

Trotskyism, despite being marginalized by Maoists, is getting more space for propaganda because of the tendency of a small portion of young people toward radicalization, and Trotskyists’ commitment to socialist democracy. In practical propaganda activity, Trotskyism can arouse young people’s sympathy more easily compare to Maoism, but due to Trotskyists’ small number and lack of strength, most radical Chinese youths do not have much chance to learn about Trotskyism. On the contrary, it’s easier to see articles written by Maoists that defame Trotskyism.

Besides, other ideological trends are also supported by radical youth, such as feminism, LGBT liberation, etc. These trends have broken through academia and became a radical political movement and turned around to push the radicalization of some youth. For example, the #MeToo movement got many students’ support and sympathy. But the main stream of these trends have a tendency to ignore class struggle, such as when most feminists’ emphasis on sexual difference and men’s original sin but overlook the question of class struggle.

A2: Do you see a radicalization within the workers movement as well ?

Ji Hengge:

The labor movement in the Mainland hasn’t shown tendencies of widespread radicalization for the time being. In general, most of strikes were spontaneous, fighting for pay rise, social security, worker’s compensation, and so on. As the economic crisis deepened from 2012 to 2016, many factories had gone bankrupt or moved to inland areas. Therefore, the number of strikes had gone up, but their demands were lowered comparing to the period before 2012. Most workers’ struggles was presented as fighting for economic demands like relocation compensation or social insurance contribution paid by the companies. It was hard to see the demand for a union. At that time, another feature was that many labor NGOs got involved in strikes. However, labor NGOs, especially those liberal ones, had fallen into the low tide after Zeng Feiyang(曾飞洋) got suppressed in 2016. Most of them reduced direct involvements in strikes, fell back and focused on community service. Some NGOs influenced by Maoism would advertise Maoism to active volunteers.

The real economy gradually recovered after 2016, so the workers’ demands also got higher. For that time, the most organized strike was the strikes of Walmart employees, which spread to a few provinces, lasted for months. In these Walmart strikes, the government worker unions wanted to calmed these strikes and the NGOs led and influenced by liberal labor scholars (although these scholars claimed they are “democratic socialists”, they firmly support a private ownership and have no any demands for nationalization and real welfare system) wanted to control these strikes that kept them away a radical struggle line, but many active workers had organized the Friendship Society(it like a miniature of independent worker union), these self-organized active workers even struggled with moderate liberal labor NGOs, mainstream labor scholars, and government unions.

But most of strikes hadn’t mentioned the demand for a union. The portion of strikes with the demand for a union or union democratization had become smaller comparing to 2009-2012. Even most of those unions founded during the strike waves of 2010 were hijacked by personnel from the government or the companies. During the strikes of tower crane operators in 2018, which spread across the whole country, strikers didn’t even know what a union is. Workers uses a Chinese online chat app called WeChat(微信) to do most of the organizing and communicating.

The struggle of Jasic workers in 2018 also brought up the demand for a union. Although advocates are the minorities of Jasic workers, those activists are still the few workers who have union consciousness in Mainland China. However, the majority of Jasic workers did not join in the struggle during the Jasic events. Only a few activists were fighting alone in the whole process. Hence, the company solved the problem by dismissing those activists. What’s more, after those activists were expelled, the company founded a union controlled by the government and the bosses through a formal voting procedure.

Beside the strikes of factory workers, shop assistants, couriers, tower crane operators, teamsters who are basically doing manual labor, and teachers’ strikes are relatively frequently seen in these years. That’s because of some local government has excessive fiscal debt, and unable to pay teachers’ salaries and welfare, or in some cases, teachers who was registered as casual laborer or contract laborer want to be enlisted into the civil servant system and get better treatment.

Other than that, the distribution of strikes as well as labor NGOs suggest that the coastal areas are hotter than inland areas. Cities like Shenzhen(深圳), Guangzhou(广州), and Dongguan(东莞) are the places where labor NGOs are located most densely, many strikes happen there. The city of Wuhan(武汉) in the central China has ten million population, with more than 5 million workers. It only has 1 labor NGO, which is operating poorly.

Overall, it’s not highly possible for workers to be radicalized in the near future. This has something to do with the tight totalitarian ruling approach adopted by the CPC. Since 2018, the authorities started once again to stress measures like Party organizations entering private enterprises or “union reform” in private enterprises. The goal is to take total control of workers’ activities in private enterprises, to cut off any possibility for other oppositions’ involvement of workers’ activities. Under this totalitarianism, most workers won’t be radicalized gradually. Instead, they may get radicalized rapidly in large scale when economic, political or military incidents occur. It also presented a significant challenge for revolutionary communists in China, i.e. it will be hard for us to get sufficient practical experience of labor movement in a long time.

A3: Do you see new links between the youth movement and the workers ?

Ji Hengge:

This kind of connections are mainly present in Maoist societies. Because they advocate the slogan “serve the people”, they emphasize the connections with underclass workers, especially industrial workers. The methods they chose to connect with workers are as varied as their factions.

One of the methods is to infiltrate into the All-China Federation of Trade Unions(中华全国总工会) and become one of its staff. But the outcome was not visible for the time being. And many Maoist activists were assimilated by the system, and became a bureaucrat of the establishment.

The second method is approaching underclass workers through public welfare activities such as voluntary medical consultation and voluntary art show, or labor research. Some would use labor NGOs as an intermediary, which is the most common method due to its convenience, but the propaganda and agitation effect among workers of this method is yet to be evaluated.

The third method is sending graduate groups to work in factories, immerse them into factories, so that they can introduce worker activists into their underground groups, and mobilize a strike to attract more workers. But this method doesn’t seek to establish a stable trade union or other kinds of worker organization. It’s a kind of guerrilla warfare: a group would move to another factory after the strike.

The recent Jasic events presented a new method, i.e. voicing support for protesting workers. There had been rightist Maoists voicing support for workers before. Although it had been rare to see leftist Maoists using this method, it did cause relatively bigger social influence this time. However, despite the determination and courage showed by those leftist Maoists youths who supported workers at the scene, their flaws are also exposed:

1) The characters of far-left adventurism, sectarianism, and bureaucratic ultimatism; For instance, they caused direct conflicts with the instrument of power like the police and state security without considering their own weakness: only a few dozen people participated in the action and then exposed their organization network. The CPC is very strict about organized political activities. Besides, they didn’t fall back when the sighs of suppression was shown, which is when the police had sent the supporters’ parents to persuade them, on the contrary, they still claimed to be “the victor”; If some participant had different opinion about the situation or strategy, they would criticize him or her for “not being supportive for the workers”, and even called them “spy” in some cases. They often refused leftist youth of other factions to join the voice support activities in the name of “safety concern”.

2) They put “strategy” above principle in their declarations. They wrote their declarations like oaths of loyalty to the CPC leadership hoping to reduce political risk and obtain support from rightist Maoists. They put the hope of defending workers’ right in the CPC leadership rather than workers themselves in those declarations, even though most participants of the support group do not support the CPC in their heart.

The above two points hindered their strength, and dispirited liberals and many other leftist youths. Even the majority of Jasic workers didn’t show their support for the protest. The result is that the protest failed, worker activists got heavier repression, and a labor NGO which didn’t have much to do with the protest was shut down.

The CPC had started to notice these links between students and workers, so they have smashed some leftist college societies. For example, they suppressed the Maoist society of Guangdong University of Technology in November 2017, and arrested their activists. They suppressed and interrogated Zhiyuan Society(致远社) of Nanjing Agricultural University (南京农业大学)in 2017. After the Jasic events of 2018, they hindered the annual registration of Maoist societies of Peking University, Renmin University of China and Nanjing University, and put their activists under surveillance. The CPC leadership would think that those leftist students may walk the path that they themselves had walked in the 1920s, and become a threat to the regime, so they hope to suffocate their program in the cradle.

A4: Do you see a new interest in the works of Trotsky ?

Ji Hengge:

Some writings of Trotsky have been published openly since 1990, such as Literature and Revolution; Stalin–An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence; My Life, which is the most widely published and sold one with many translation versions. In recent years, Trotsky on Chinese Revolution, Trotsky on Anti-Fascism, Trotsky Recounts the October Revolution, which collected and translated by Shi Yongqin(施用勤), and the History of the Russian Revolution translated by Ding Duben( 丁笃本) have been published. And Problems of Everyday Life translated by Shi Yongqin haven’t been published. Books like Selected Works of Trotsky and Selected Writings of Trotsky, collected and translated by official scholars, had been published during 2006-2012. Besides works of Trotsky’s, three-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher got published in 1992, and republished in 2013.

For the number of publications, biography was the best seller. The History of the Russian Revolution wasn’t so bad, but other political works were very hard to sell. It reflects the fact that most people are reading Trotsky’s works out of curiosity about Russian history rather than political causes. And some people bought them for academic purposes.

Besides publications, The Chinese Marxists Internet Archive ( organized translation projects for many writings of Trotsky’s. It helped to spread Trotsky’s works. But only those who were close to or already accepted Revolutionary Marxism would read them. Only a few people have interests in Trotsky’s works.

In Mainland China, Trotskyism is still on the margin of political trends of thought. “Anti-totalitarianism” such as The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System by Milovan Djilas, and George Orwell’s and Bukharin’s works were more popular. But the most welcomed are Friedrich August von Hayek’s works. In the eyes of official scholars and most intellectuals, the struggles between Trotsky and Stalin were just for supreme power. Most of them think that Trotsky and Stalin are both dictators inherently. “Socialist Democracy” that Trotsky talked about were just fancy words. He wouldn’t have been a lesser dictator than Stalin.

As for leftist Maoist youth, which are the mainstream of radical youth, most of them are still hostile to Trotskyism. They continued the utterance which the CPC used to criticize Trotskyism in the time of Stalin and Mao. Most radical youths accepted those slanders and misrepresentations, made by Maoists about Trotskyism, when they started to learn politics. This is a difficulty we have to face while doing propaganda.

A5: Is the youth organizing against oppression of minorities ?

Ji Hengge:

There is no sign of this for the time being. On the contrary, Islamophobia is very common among youth. It made many people acquiesced the authorities’ high-pressure policies in Xinjiang(新疆). Besides, many liberal youth oppose the national recognition policy adopted by the CPC. They even oppose nominal national autonomy, thinking that there should be only one “Chinese nation”. This is actually a kind of Han chauvinism(大汉族主义).

Ethnic minorities are rare to be seen in discussions of radical youths. Many leftist Maoist youth would sympathize with the Uyghurs(维吾尔族) under high pressure, but they seldom speak about it openly. There are two reasons: first, discussion about nationalitiesis strictly confined, it’s difficult to talk about them openly. Second, most Maoist youth do not support the right of self-determination, which is inherited from the time of Mao for there was no self-determination when he was in power.

Some religious Uyghur and Tibetan(藏族) people would hate Han Chinese(仇视汉族) for religious reasons or social polarization, but only a few people would like to start an independent nation. Among Uyghur and Tibetan intellectuals, those who support independence are usually in exile. Those who remain in China usually oppose independence. Many of them even support the CPC, for they think Xinjiang would be controlled by extreme Islamists while Tibet would return to unification of the state and the church easily without the CPC’s high-pressure policies. Some liberal intellectuals of those nations would advocate more autonomous and democratic rights for Xinjiang and Tibet.

Many young students even dare not to discuss politics due to high-pressure control in Xinjiang and Tibet, especially among Uyghur students, because snitches are so common that they would be persecuted or suppressed by the school or the government as soon as they talk about politics. For this reason, it’s hard to tell what’s on the minds of Uyghur and Tibetan youth.

Trotskyists are one of the few forces among radical leftists in China that supports the right of self-determination. We would strive to combat national oppression and Islamophobia, to promote solidarity of working class among all nations, at the same time, to propagate against extreme Islamism(极端伊斯兰主义), extreme Lamaism(极端喇嘛教主义) and discrimination against Han Chinese, despite the fact that few people accept these ideas in a China where Han chauvinism prevails. We hope for the chance to spread Revolutionary Marxism to those radical workers and youth of oppressed minorities. This is the important foundation of socialist movements in minorities like Uyghur and Tibetan.

November 15, 2018