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In China, The Communist Party's Latest, Unlikely Target: Young Marxists

Nov 21, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 11:42 pm

When he started at Beijing's Renmin University, one of China's best schools, a freshman scanned a list of student clubs and landed on the one that made him the most excited: Young Marxists.

"I'm from a working-class family in the countryside," he says. "Very few students with my background could have made it to my school. I liked that this group pays attention to the issues of workers and farmers, so I joined."

He was also interested in studying the works of 19th-century philosopher and economist Karl Marx; works that inspired the founders of China's Communist Party. Young Marxists aim to put the thinker's ideas into practice on Renmin University's campus.

The student, now in his senior year, is not being named to protect his identity from authorities. Young people who belong to Marxist groups have recently become the unlikely targets of a state crackdown due to their zeal to help educate and mobilize China's working class to fight for their rights. The conflict has exposed a paradox between a party founded on Marxist principles and the very young people it has tasked with carrying those principles out.

"We organized a tai chi group for the men who worked on campus and a square dancing group for female staff," the student says. "We taught illiterate senior workers how to read and write, and we offered night classes in labor law to migrant workers. We set up a free clinic for them, too."

By doing so, he and his young comrades believed they were "serving the people," he says, making good on the promise of Chinese Communist leaders echoing all the way back to founding father Mao Zedong; a promise that's been resuscitated by China's current leader.

"As Communists, we should incorporate Marxist classics and principles into our lifestyle and treat Marxism as a spiritual pursuit," President Xi Jinping said at an event celebrating the bicentennial of Marx's birth in May.

But this August, police arrested more than 50 student activists, many of them members of college Marxist groups, for helping organize workers at Jasic Technology, a welding equipment factory in the southeastern Chinese city of Shenzhen. At least two Peking University graduates remain missing. Footage of the police operation was posted to YouTube by Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded news service.

"After the raid, police from my hometown, my parents, grandparents, relatives, and my old high school and middle school teachers came to take me home," says a student, who was arrested for defending Jasic's workers in August. Her name is also being withheld to protect her identity.

She is also a senior at Renmin University and serves in the Young Marxists group. She says nearly two dozen of her relatives and teachers from her hometown schools traveled hundreds of miles, at the behest of police, to persuade her to stop protesting for workers' rights. When they arrived back in their town, they continued to try to convince her she was in the wrong and asked her to write a confession.

She responded by running away.

Weeks later, police found her hundreds of miles away from home. "I refused to come back to my hometown with them," she says. "But they overpowered me, threw me into a car, and kept me hostage in a motel. I went on a hunger strike. My parents finally drove me to a hospital where they injected nutrients into my body for two days."

She says Renmin University also sent officials to stay with her while she was under house arrest, and they made her sign a pledge to stop her activism before allowing her to return to school. Now that she's back, the school has placed her on a blacklist and assigned school officials to monitor her.

Renmin University didn't respond to interview requests from NPR.

But the student says university officials have a lot to answer for. "These bureaucrats only think of their political résumés as they destroy socialism," she says. "They want students to focus on studying Marxism, not to practice it or fight for its cause. When we do that, it causes too many problems for them."

Marxist youths are being targeted and blacklisted by local authorities at other schools, too. Earlier this month, plainclothes police assaulted and hauled away Marxist students at Nanjing University, in eastern China, after their school refused to recognize their on-campus Marxist student society. Two weeks ago, a graduate of Peking University, in Beijing, was attacked and dragged into a car on campus by several people in black jackets.

"I think this shows China's Communist Party can no longer justify itself," says Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan. "While the party talks about serving the people, China's actually been practicing capitalism."

Zhang says young Chinese being arrested for practicing Marxism — the official ideology of the Communist Party — poses the latest conundrum for the country's leadership, whom he blames for feigning interest in Marxism in order to maintain a guiding principle.

"Since the current leader came to power, many colleges have established Marxist study centers, and that leads to a conflict for the ruling party," says Zhang. "You're brainwashing the youth with Marxist theory, but by doing so, you're giving them a tool to fight against the government."

It's also a tool young people can use to defend themselves when authorities arrest them, says Zhang. "It's like a child using his ancestor's tombstone to protect himself from an abusive parent."

The Renmin University student from the countryside says he learned this lesson over the summer, when he chose to work at a toy factory hundreds of miles from Beijing to beef up his Marxist credentials. Instead, it was a lesson on the realities of working at a Chinese factory.

"I had to sign a contract giving up my social benefits or else they wouldn't hire me," he remembers. "We worked 16 hours a day with hardly any breaks. When workers were injured, nobody helped them."

When he tried to stand up for his coworkers in a workplace dispute, a manager punched him and then refused to pay his salary, he says. When the young man would not leave until he was paid, the factory owner called Renmin University officials and complained about their student, prompting the university to send a teacher to come and retrieve him.

Now he's on a school blacklist, too. He says university officials assigned his roommate to spy on him.

The university has also cracked down on the Marxist youth group, barring its members from helping migrant workers on campus.

When asked what China's leader Xi would say about the situation at Renmin University, the male senior doesn't hesitate: "I think he'd definitely side with us. We've studied his theories, too, and if you look closely, you'll find that what the school is doing is against his ideas," he says.

After all, he says, Xi has instructed his generation of Chinese to study and implement Marxism, and the student says that is exactly what his group is doing.

NPR correspondent Rob Schmitz reported from Beijing; NPR Shanghai bureau assistant Yuhan Xu contributed research to this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In China, a growing number of young people are joining Marxist groups that are dedicated to helping the country's working class. You might think this would thrill the leaders of the People's Republic, a nation founded on the ideals of Marxism, yet they are not thrilled, as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Beijing.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: As a freshman at Renmin University, one of China's best schools, a student could have joined one of many clubs offered at the school. But it was the university's Young Marxists club that inspired this student the most.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Through interpreter) I'm from a working-class family. Very few students of my background could have made it to my school. I like that this group pays attention to the issues of workers and farmers, so I joined.

SCHMITZ: The student, who doesn't use his name for fear of retribution by authorities, joined his classmates to study the works of philosopher Karl Marx and to put his ideas into practice.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Through interpreter) We organized a tai chi group for campus workers, a square dancing group and night classes for them. We had a free clinic, too.

SCHMITZ: Helping the proletariat, serving the people - slogans as old as communism itself in China echoed by leaders all the way back to Mao and underscored by China's current leader, Xi Jinping, like in this speech celebrating the bicentennial of Marx's birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) As Communists, we should incorporate Marxist classics and principles into our lifestyle and treat Marxism as a spiritual pursuit.

SCHMITZ: Xi Jinping has taken to reminding his countrymen that Marxism is behind the economic and political strides China's made. State-run media has also taken his cue...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARX WAS CORRECT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: ...Like in this new talk show, "Marx Was Correct," where guests discuss current events through a Marxist lens, never failing to reach the conclusion that Marx was and indeed still is correct. But this August, it was hard to tell who was correct when Chinese police arrested 50 young Marxists for helping organize workers at a welding equipment factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen fighting for better working conditions.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHMITZ: Another student at Renmin University who also doesn't want her name used was among them.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Through interpreter) After the raid, police from my hometown, my parents, my grandparents, relatives and my old high school teachers came to take me home.

SCHMITZ: When they tried to force her to write a confession, she ran away. Weeks later, police found her again.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Through interpreter) They overpowered me, threw me into a car and kept me hostage. I went on a hunger strike. My parents finally drove me to a hospital where they injected nutrients into my body.

SCHMITZ: Now that she's back, Renmin University has placed her on a blacklist and assigned people to monitor her. University officials didn't respond to interview requests from NPR. The student says they have a lot to answer for.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Through interpreter) These bureaucrats only think of their political resumes as they destroy socialism. They want us to study Marxism, not to practice it or fight for its cause because that creates too many problems for them.

SCHMITZ: These students are not alone. Young people belonging to Marxist groups are being banned or blacklisted by local authorities throughout China.

ZHANG LIFAN: (Through interpreter) I think this shows China's Communist Party is not able to justify itself.

SCHMITZ: Historian Zhang Lifan says young people being arrested for practicing Marxism, the official ideology of China's Communist Party, poses the latest conundrum for China's leadership.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Since the current leader came to power, colleges have established Marxist study centers, and the party is brainwashing the youth with Marxist theory. But by doing so, you're giving them a tool to fight against the government.

SCHMITZ: A tool young people can use to defend themselves when authorities arrest them, says Zhang, like a child using an ancestor's tombstone to defend himself against an abusive parent.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: The first student we met in this story says he learned this lesson over the summer when he chose to work at a toy factory to beef up his Marxist credentials. Instead it was a lesson on the realities of working at a Chinese factory.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Through interpreter) I had to sign a contract giving up my social benefits or else they wouldn't hire me. We worked 16 hours a day with hardly any breaks. When workers were injured, nobody helped them.

SCHMITZ: When he stood up for his co-workers, a manager punched him and refused to pay him. The factory owner called Renmin University to complain, so the university sent a teacher to retrieve him. Now he's on the school blacklist, too, and so is his entire Marxist group. Renmin University has cracked down on them. Ask him what China's leader, Xi Jinping, would say about the situation at Renmin University.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Through interpreter) I think he'd definitely side with us. We've studied his theories, too. And if you look closely, you'll find that what school officials are doing is against his ideas.

SCHMITZ: He says Xi Jinping has told his generation to implement Marxism, and that's exactly what they're doing. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.