Summary: This discussion from an activist in China evaluates the massive protests in recent months in light of what they signify for a possible rebirth of genuine Marxism there – Editors.
Covid-19 Policy in China, 2020 to November 2022
In December 2019, the police in Wuhan, China, issued a news release about “medical staff fabricating rumors about the discovery of SARS.” Within the following month, the world was shocked by the outbreak of New Crown Pneumonia in Wuhan. The paralysis and incompetence of the Chinese government in responding to public health and safety incidents was exposed. With the principle of “everything for stability,” the Chinese government immediately closed the entire city of Wuhan and gradually extended the epidemic containment policy to the whole country.
Although the policy differed from province to province, almost everyone was subjected to it: confinement to their homes, strict community rules on the number of times they could go out each week; increasingly high prices for consumer goods, and even a lack of food in areas where the epidemic was severe; if an infected person was found in a community, the patient would be isolated (later on, the conditions of isolation became worse and worse, even without medication and beds for the patient). The community as well as the patient would be isolated, safe distances were guaranteed, and the community, as well as the county in which it was located, would be completely closed off. The government made it compulsory for everyone to have regular nucleic acid tests, which had to be done almost daily for a long period of time. School children were unable to return home after the holidays; workers and some petty bourgeois who were out of work at home had no source of income; small business owners went out of business or even went bankrupt as they have fewer and fewer customers; even a section of capitalists with fewer assets were threatened with bankruptcy.
The policies pursued by the Chinese government in 2020-2021 were a short-lived victory, relying on the continuation of campaign-based governance (large-scale closures even became the norm). During this period, the authorities promoted “dynamic zeroing,” the failure of Western bourgeois democracy, and China’s “institutional self-confidence” and “great spirit of resistance to the epidemic.” But the seeds of the 2022 crisis are buried in this success. Because of the sluggish economy, the government had to sacrifice the living conditions of the masses in order to maintain the containment policy, which was the source of public discontent; because of the greater financial and administrative power of local governments (and the influence of moderate factions within the Communist Party), some local governments (especially those that were economically underdeveloped) relaxed their epidemic prevention policies to a limited extent from 2022 onwards, but this led to the even-faster spread of the mutated virus. To counter it, the central government again continued to give instructions to the localities, which had to continue to sacrifice the living conditions of the masses to keep their finances in balance.
It was the Chinese bourgeoisie itself that caused the mass movement at the end of 2022.
The Struggles in Foxconn and Zhengzhou
Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan Province (China’s most populous province), a city that is both a hub for rail transport in China and a leader in manufacturing. Since 2010, Foxconn has signed a cooperation agreement with the Henan provincial government to build a vast system of factories in Zhengzhou. According to the most important official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory had at its height produced more than half of the world’s Apple phones, driving more than one million local jobs and training a cumulative total of more than three million skilled workers. In addition, the industrial transformation undertaken by Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, has made Foxconn the sole industrial pillar of the entire city.
In October, there were numerous claims that the epidemic had also reached the Foxconn factory campus, and there were reports that workers had to work with illnesses and were often not allowed to go out for leisure. Eventually the Foxconn factory, which was already accused of practicing a sweatshop system, was met with a revolt from workers—many fled the factory and began walking home on foot from the motorway. The factory was forced to send workers back to their hometowns due to pressure. As a result, in November 2022, Foxconn announced an urgent need to recruit 100,000 workers due to “employee resignations.” This was partly because many people had given up their jobs and the factory had to recruit in large numbers to meet the demand for the new Apple phones, and partly because the three-year epidemic closure policy had led to the closure of many small industries in Zhengzhou (and indeed the whole country)—in some places less than half of the shops in the whole shopping street were still open! The government had to opt for a massive restart of industrial production. In order to support the industrial backbone of Zhengzhou as a whole, Foxconn factories claim to be offering their workers “the best deal in a decade”: an hourly wage of 30 RMB (until 15 February 2023); extra bonuses for perfect attendance; and improved living conditions for workers. Not only are Foxconn factories recruiting nationwide, but the Henan provincial government has also mobilized a pool of strong rural labor, unemployed youth, grassroots Communist Party cadres and even ex-soldiers. Some local governments have even set clear targets for recruitment. Attracted by the vigorous operation of the state machinery and the generous remuneration, the Foxconn factory achieved its target of recruiting 100,000 workers in five days.
However, after the workers arrived at the factory, the capitalists quickly changed their attitude and broke the original high-tech contract, trying to “put the labor issue on hold” in order to start work as soon as possible. What is even more frightening is that a crack has finally emerged in the official, so-called dynamic zero-zero defense [against Covid]. As a result of the rush to gather labor from all over the country to resume work and production as soon as possible, a large number of workers were infected with the new coronavirus, which began to spread on a large scale on November 20. The bourgeoisie, however, did not show any mercy to the sick “workforce” and on November 21, when work resumed at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant, a large number of workers who tested positive refused to go to work because of their illness, while workers who tested negative demanded to “return to work after the plant has been cleared” because of their fear of their disease. The workers also demanded that the factory be cleared before they could return to work because of their fear of illness, and produced labor contracts stating that if the zero-Covid policy could not be implemented, the employer would have to pay the relevant amount as stated in the contract.
Invalid contracts, heavy labor; an out-of-control epidemic, a false zeroing out; an angry working class and a bourgeoisie bent on preserving its own interests and in collusion with the bureaucratic clique. These finally led to the intensification of the conflict and the beginning of the struggle. On the night of November 22, the workers, whose negotiations with the capitalists had broken down, directly launched a violent struggle, gathering inside the factory and launching a storming of the management area inside the factory. From November 22 to 23, the Henan government mobilized a large police force in the vicinity of the factory. There were violent clashes between the workers and the police: both sides attacked each other with sticks. Some video footage shows how the wall of police was beaten back by the agitated workers. On the morning of the 24th, the Foxconn factory finally gave in to the workers and gave each of them 10,000 RMB before sending them home. There have been some scattered struggles around the Foxconn factory since then, but the overall situation has calmed down.
Three things are noteworthy in this struggle: 1) apart from the ordinary civilian police, the armed police, who are part of the national defense force, have also been deployed in a massive crackdown, which means that this movement, although still pursuing economic interests, has gone beyond those legitimate struggles of the past in the eyes of the authorities; 2) instead of wearing their own uniforms, the police are all wearing the protective clothing of medical personnel. Symbolically, the government itself unveiled the class nature of the anti-epidemic policy: the defense of the state apparatus in the interests of the bureaucratic-capitalist alliance (or more precisely, the fusion of Chinese bureaucrats and capitalists as a whole into one class, not just an alliance), rather than the communist propaganda of “serving the people”; 3) The workers have not set up their own organizations (which is also unrealistic, as most of them only work short hours), nor have they created or used traditional media (newspapers, leaflets, etc.), but have used short videos or live broadcasts through software platforms like Tik-Tok to carry out spontaneous propaganda activities. This shows both the creativity and the immaturity of the workers: the software used by the workers has always been considered by the intellectuals a “hedonistic tool to corrupt the minds of the people,” but their use has forced the intellectuals to reflect on their superior attitude; but while the workers broadcast their violent struggle against the capitalists and government policies, they thank those who rewarded the viewers of the broadcast. The consciousness of the masses remains mixed. More importantly, no Marxist ideological group has intervened in this workers’ movement—in fact, there is no strictly Marxist organization in China at present.
Another issue of concern is the relationship between the Foxconn workers’ movement and the subsequent protests. As will be discussed below, there is a certain disconnect between the heroic actions of the workers and the protests of the university students and citizens. Indeed, most people are only aware of the Urumqi fires and not the Foxconn workers’ movement, and the workers’ actions had only a small impact on the student movement.
Fire in Urumqi
After the end of the Foxconn workers’ movement, a fire suddenly broke out in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang, on the evening of the 24th. Officials claim that only 10 people died, but the citizens of Urumqi (through their WeChat App, rather than underground newspapers) generally question this result. The masses believe that the death toll is far greater than the official figure and that officials must be held responsible for the deaths; some claim that the authorities were unable to get the fire brigade close to the building, in line with the anti-epidemic policy, and that people were burned alive because the access doors to the residential building were blocked. When the official press release said that the matter was not serious, there were many skeptical voices on the internet.
Urumqi citizens spontaneously mourned the dead, which later turned into a protest that took to the streets. At one point the protesting citizens stormed the front of the city government building, which prevented the leaders of the Urumqi government from engaging in dialogue with the crowd, a first for China in the 21st century. On the following day, the 26th, the Urumqi municipal government declared the epidemic “zeroed,” ending the closure of the city that had begun on August 10th, and the whole of Xinjiang was gradually allowed to enter and exit freely.
Many Chinese analysts—largely Liberals, but also some Marxists—claim that this signifies an awakening in this minority Uyghur province and a direct revolt against Chinese Communist rule, but the true reaction of the masses is far from being summed up in this way. In fact, under decades of rule, an increasing number of Han Chinese—the main ethnic group in China—have been pouring into northern Xinjiang, outnumbering even the native minorities. It is true that the ethnic minorities are subject to more government control—for example, their passports have to be stored in police stations and cannot be used at will—but in this instance it cannot be said that ethnic sentiment among the minorities was mobilized, let alone that the citizens of Urumqi saw themselves in rebellion against the Chinese Communist Party. Even when the marching crowd broke through the police and rushed to the city hall building, they still sang the Chinese national anthem. In one iconic photograph, citizens representing the resistance still held up the Chinese flag.
In fact, discontent with the “zero-covid” policy—and furthermore, disquiet over the economic crisis, as the lower-class masses were denied access to the workplace and lost their work income—was the main cause of the events in Urumqi and the series that followed.
Protests in Schools
The events in Urumqi set off a wave of protests across the country, and on November 26, students at Nanjing Media College spontaneously mourned the victims of the Urumqi fire and held up [pieces of] white paper in protest. In the days that followed, 207 schools across the country saw posters of protest or gatherings of protest.
The consciousness of the students was more complex, but remained primarily opposed to the “zeroing” policy—students entering university from 2019 onwards have had little freedom to go out throughout their university life. On the basis of this common consciousness, a number of universities have seen the emergence of the liberal slogan that appeared in Beijing’s Sithongqiao on the eve of the 20th Communist Party Congress: “No to Cultural Revolution but Reform.” These liberals believe that the Chinese authorities are following the old path of the Maoist era. But there was also the singing of the International and chanting of “Long Live the People” (a famous phrase used by Mao himself)” in the universities. Surprisingly, seven of China’s “Eight Great Academies” took part in the event; the only one that did not was the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, which was put under martial law around November 21 after someone wrote the slogan “Down with Xi Jinping” on the walls of the school. An impressive poster at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, based on a poster from Mao’s time, read, “If art does not interfere with politics, it will die because of political interference.” In some universities, statues of Chen Duxiu, ([the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, purged by Mao in 1927] who was suddenly brought back from the margins of history thanks to a TV series in 2021), Lu Xun (considered the greatest Chinese leftist writer and the “National Spirit” of China) and Nie Er (one of the authors of the Chinese national anthem) were also used by students to create political-artistic works.
Some Chinese Marxists did intervene in person in the university protests, but on the whole those who sang the International and commemorated Mao were not all Marxist in orientation; this group of students was just as likely to be extremely opposed to the ethnic migration of Blacks into in Guangzhou as favoring the overthrow of the government. The International and Mao can be symbols of both revolutionary Marxists in China and of the “old Maoist left” who want the government to reform itself and move back to the path of “real socialism.”
Of those schools that had protests, media and art schools, which are considered to lack a tradition of humanistic criticism, tended to have larger protests, while those universities that are considered to be better (the so-called 211 and 985 universities) rarely protested. Peking University and Tsinghua University are considered to be China’s top institutions, but student protests there are far from comparable to those at Nanjing Media College; meanwhile the university acts in the first instance to continually pacify students and prevent anything from escalating into protests. The only exception may be Renmin University of China: students at this school, once considered to be in the conservative camp, staged a massive protest that directly secured the partial unsealing of the school.
Eventually, to prevent students from further inflaming the situation, the university decided to let students go home for an early holiday.
The Motivated Cities, the Quiet Villages
The students’ protests took place at a time when there were massive citizen protests in all of China’s major cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Lanzhou and Chengdu. The most famous incident took place in Shanghai. The city has a road called “Urumqi Middle Road,” where citizens gathered spontaneously to mourn and protest. Here, for the first time, the crowd chanted “Down with Xi Jinping, down with the Communist Party,” followed by Chengdu, a large city in western China. The mass protests in Beijing were equally loud. In addition to the usual protests, the traditional Stalinist-Maoists in China were boosted by an anarchist sympathizer with Mao who urged the masses, “Down with revisionism, we want a democratic Communist Party.” The protests in the cities also affected Chinese students abroad, who launched protests all over the world. Like the citizens of Urumqi, the mass movement remained vague about its aims, even though the citizens of Shanghai and Chengdu raised the slogans “Down with the Communist Party” and “Down with the dictatorship.” The Chinese people, who have been ruled by political indifference for more than 30 years (since 1989), are still naive enough to fiercely raise one slogan when a movement breaks out, only to move on to something much more moderate, or perhaps even to the exact opposite. Just think about shouting down the Communists while holding up a portrait of Mao Zedong.
While the citizens of these major cities acted and set off a groundswell of discussion on the internet (and for Chinese people, mainly on Twitter, which is officially banned), the impact of the events on the whole country should not be overestimated. With a land area of 9.6 million square kilometers and a population of 1.4 billion, the population and area occupied by these major cities is not that large. More importantly, because the events depended on local sentiment towards local prevention and control policies, the vast rural areas and other large cities where the epidemic was not serious (such as Chongqing, a city of at least 10 million people) did not feel the strong political shock. This is not only because mass discontent was greatly influenced by the intensity and contingency of the prevention and control policy, but because people in the rural areas had no idea what was happening in the cities: the Chinese government’s control of speech led to a blockage of information, and those young people and intellectuals with access to information and political enthusiasm, even if it is vague, tend to congregate in the big cities. In this sense, China’s vast frontier is fragmented: the noisy big cities dominate the political movements and are visible to outsiders, while the vast silent countryside is often overlooked. On the other hand, the spatial separation of the masses from each other prevents the lower classes from forming a common anti-capitalist front, and even workers find it difficult to form some kind of network of contacts across regions (let alone nationwide).
Chaos After “Living Together”
On December, 7 the Chinese government issued a new “Ten Articles of Prevention” which removed all mandatory nucleic acid requirements and mandatory quarantine restrictions. Naturally, this meant “Living Together” with COVID-19 in China.
The Chinese Ministry of Health claimed on December 24 that there were 4,103 new cases in the country on a single day, compared to 31 in Shandong province, but according to an official in Qingdao (a city in Shandong), there were some 500,000 new cases in Qingdao on a single day! The policy and ideological reversal have provoked violent reactions in all sectors of society: there is anger at the manipulation of medicine by capitalists, doubts about the policy shift, fear of the virus, etc.
The “Living Together” policy shift has made Chinese society a more fractured one and is substantial evidence of the fusion of bureaucratic decision-making groups with the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois character of its political decision-making. Here, scientific standards of prevention and control and a rational understanding of the virus can only serve the needs of bourgeois profit production and capital appreciation—that is, the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. The official media have invented a term: pyrotechnics. It symbolizes the “full recovery” of the tertiary sector, especially the catering and entertainment industry, after “Living Together.” At the same time, capitalists from the coastal provinces were the first to fly abroad in search of manufacturing orders.
But when the economy recovered in full, who bore the cost? Naturally, it was the Chinese proletariat. Employees and manufacturing workers and millions of healthcare workers were told to work with maximum efficiency in production for the sake of the bourgeoisie. Many have paid with their lives, for example, the sudden death of Chen Moumou, a 23-year-old clinical postgraduate student at West China Hospital, who was positive with a disease on December 14.
This is the blood debt of the Chinese bourgeoisie.
On January 7, more than a thousand workers in Chongqing were laid off from their jobs at a factory producing antigen testing kits. The angry workers smashed machinery, burned the goods they produced, mobbed the factory’s senior management and its agents (the absolute majority of the workers had been recruited by labor companies, which were also responsible for their wages) and clashed violently with the police who came to maintain order.
Less than an hour before these lines were written, the capitalists had compromised with the Chongqing workers and the police had largely withdrawn from the factory.
Until 2022, economic struggles waged by the Chinese proletariat usually ended in government mediation, but from the Foxconn factory movement until the Chongqing workers’ riots today (January 7), the proletariat’s economic struggle has increasingly taken the form of large-scale violent clashes, a new form that indicates a new phase in the workers’ struggle and poses a serious task for Chinese Marxists.
The Conditions of the Chinese Left
The Chinese leftists we are talking about here are not the university professors (some of whom are called “New Leftists”), nor are they reformists who want the government to return automatically to the path of “real socialism.” For half of the world that enjoys bourgeois democracy, the form of existence of the Chinese left is necessarily very strange.
In 2017-2018, two more serious Marxist groups formed in China, both followers of Stalin and Mao, hoping to bring down the current capitalist China through a new revolution. But since the defeat of the Shenzhen Jias workers’ movement in 2018, both of these Marxist groups have been wiped out by the government. In subsequent years, Marxists have existed only in the form of circles of friends (and often online friends). In other words, there are no real Marxist organizations in China at present, not even local groups. As a result, the Left in the recent movement has been unable to act as a political collective and at best has been able to guide the surrounding masses as individuals.
Ideologically, it is possible to divide Chinese Marxists into three basic categories. The [first is the] Stalinist-Maoists, who occupy the absolute majority as a historical legacy, who do not have a worldview beyond that of the Soviet Marxists of the Stalinist era and believe that capitalism can be defeated simply by copying the theories of Stalin and Mao. [Second], as a result of the downturn in the workers’ movement and leftwing organizations, some Marxists in 2020 proposed a rethinking of the entire theoretical tradition, introducing Western Marxism and postmodernist philosophy (especially the latter). By denying Lenin and the revolutionary significance of the Russian revolution, these “original Marxists” turned Marxism into a product of research in the academy and opposed the creation of any political organization. What is interesting is that this tendency tends to be particularly keen on studying Zizek as well as cultural criticism. [A third group with a] historical legacy is Trotskyism. The theoretical struggle between Trotskyists and Stalinist-Maoists made may people realize the problems with the latter; but in the last few years, Trotskyist theories have no longer been able to satisfy Chinese Marxists because many of them have read the works of Western Marxists that question Trotskyism. So, while there are still many Trotskyists, they have fulfilled their historical task, which was to confront Stalinism-Maoism when Chinese Marxists were theoretically deficient.
These three groups of Marxists corresponded broadly to the three views on the November mass movement. Most Stalinist-Maoists saw the White Paper movement as an outright “bourgeois color revolution” caused by forces outside the country and that only Marxists should lead the workers’ movement. The academics refused to comment publicly on the situation and had no wish to get involved. Trotskyists and a small group of Stalinist-Maoists (and indeed some marginal Marxists, but they were often very individualistic) wanted to lead the movement themselves, but did not have a clear mandate or sense of organization.
Being entangled in history and the philosophy of the academy, it was practically impossible for the Chinese Left to fulfill the tasks posed by the mass movement. But this does not mean that Chinese Marxism has everywhere fallen into despair: some Marxists on the fringes of leftist circles have put forward their own views. One person who considers himself a Leninist wrote the following.
What is our task? Aspiring academic theorists and impatient practitioners disdain to answer this basic question. The former wrap themselves in revolutionary jargon, the latter self-righteousness blindly launch so-called propaganda and coalition campaigns. The theoreticians despise the practitioners who do not know the fashionable terminology, and the practitioners laugh at the rotten theoreticians. The former set up academic salons for their own amusement, reproducing pathetic academic rubbish (although they often look askance at academia since few are integrated into it), the latter do not understand the meaning of any Marxist organization and stuff all sorts of people in big tents for no good reason, or are stuck in long-dead Stalinist sects, which are nothing more than a repetition of a revolutionary comic fantasy. The two sides that despise each other are merely an endless reproduction of existing structures within the revolutionary movement, unwilling and unable to create a real revolutionary organization (or even its embryonic form).
We must think carefully about this quotidian question. Should we not accept without reservation an unreflected premise? Should we not first ask, who are we? In speaking about the necessity of a vanguard party, Trotsky criticized those who used the experience of the Social Democratic Party to argue for the building a party of revolutionaries; he asked what is the resemblance between revolutionaries of the 20th century and Social Democratic Party bureaucrats. How can contemporary Marxists ignore the distinctions between themselves and conflate themselves with pseudo-revolutionaries? The question is first and foremost who “we” are.
We are revolutionary Marxists—at this stage—i.e., adhering to party-community relations in the sense of Lenin-Gramsci’s [concept of] leadership (not accepting narrow views of [party] indoctrination or proletarian spontaneity), revolutionary in general (not just transforming ownership of property, but creating new forms of human interaction), the dictatorship of the proletariat as created by the proletariat (whose form is unpredictable but always is based on the principle of self-management).
Determining whether this conclusion is correct still needs to be put to the test of historical practice, and the formation of a new generation of Chinese Marxist organizations is still on the horizon. But in any case, the presence of such voices does not entirely make Chinese Marxism the historical laughing stock that Marx spoke of in Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; instead, it kindles as a kind of spark.