Instead of following her friends into a white-collar office job in a glistening new Chinese skyscraper after she graduated with a masters degree in mathematics and computer science from the elite Sun Yat-sen University in 2015, Shen Mengyu became an assembly-line worker in a car parts factory.
“My career choice is not whimsical,” she wrote about her factory job. “It’s deeply planted in my understanding of the current conditions of the workers and in my belief that they must be changed.”
“Should I be entitled to a brighter future simply because I was born into a well-off family?” she wrote. “I am thinking of the 40,000 fingers cut off every year in the Pearl River delta, and the 280 million peasant workers who have devoted their youth to the cities but are not allowed to stay there.”
Ms Shen became a worker’s representative at the plant but was fired in May weeks after negotiating hard for better pay for her fellow workers.
This summer she helped inspire dozens of similarly-minded and highly-educated Chinese students and graduates to travel across the country to the southern city of Shenzhen to support workers at a welding company demanding the right to form an independent union.
Ms Shen, who is in her late 20s, has become a star of China’s burgeoning labour movement, a cause attracting some of the country’s best-educated young people.
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Nearly three decades after Chinese students erected a statue of liberty in Tiananmen Square and demanded a better government, the country’s post-Tiananmen generation has come of age, threatening to break the hiatus of youth activism that followed the bloody crackdown on the 1989 student protests.
Having grown up in a far more affluent country than the young activists of 1989, the Chinese youth of today don’t necessarily look up to the West for answers, especially when many believe western democracy is itself in crisis. The country’s internet firewall and propaganda have spawned an entire generation with little appetite for ideas from the outside.
Instead, Beijing’s promotion of Marxism and Maoism, the sacred scripts of the ruling party, has helped create a generation of young left-wingers, committed Marxists and anti-capitalists, who have found the plight of Chinese workers contrary to the socialist principles they’ve been taught. This new left wing has found a receptive audience in a broader swathe of the population, many disgusted by a jarring wealth gap and corruption, and nostalgic for the era of Mao Zedong, the founding revolutionary ruler of modern China.
For the young people who grew up in the post-1989 era, the failings of Mao’s collectivism and purges are in distant past, but the pains of capitalism are acutely felt now as workers battle low wages, long working hours and high living costs — all of which have made textbook Marxism appealing.
“We must adhere to socialist ideas and strive continuously to make the working class the true master by establishing a public economy,” said a literature student at one of the most prestigious universities in Beijing, who asked to be identified only by his family name Cao, to avoid scrutiny from the authorities.
“As Marx said, capitalism will never truly address the needs of the workers,” Mr Cao said, expressing admiration for the country’s once cradle-to-grave socialism that has been dismantled by economic reforms.
“Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers, our fates are closely linked,” said Yue Xin, who graduated from Peking University this year. “Our youth should be blended into the working class and be blended into the currents of social progress.”
Ms Yue, Ms Shen and Mr Cao were among dozens of Chinese college students and recent graduates who supported a call by workers of Jasic Technology, a Shenzhen-based welding equipment maker, for a union, in what many observers believe was the public political debut of China’s new left-wing youth movement.
“Whether you like it or not, the left-wing youth has taken the stage,” said Li Xuewen, an independent Chinese writer.
Upset with excessive overtime, draconian workplace rules that resulted in fines, and the company’s failure to adequately pay into a public social security fund, the 1,000 workers at Jasic began demanding in May the company recognise a worker’s union, as is technically permitted under Chinese law.
Instead the company responded by firing the leading workers for missed work and unruly behaviour. When their colleagues then rallied in front of the factory in late July, local police arrested 29 protesters on the charge of provoking troubles.
As images of the demonstrations spread online the country’s left-wing youth leaders mobilised and descended on Shenzhen to demand the release of the detained workers. Other supportes attending China’s elite universities have signed open letters calling for the workers to be freed.
Instead of unfurling banners of democracy and freedom, the young people held up Mao portraits, sang The Internationale, and wore T-shirts sporting one of Mao’s maxims: unity is power. They delivered impassioned speeches about workers’ rights.
“Why should the working class be labouring as slaves? Is it a fate? I say, No!” a young woman said. “We students and workers will fight until the end,” a male protester declared.
Ms Shen was hauled away on August 11 and placed under house arrest but that only caused a backlash.
In Beijing supporters petitioned both the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the All-China Women’s Federation on her behalf. Sympathetic to their cause, several retired party officials offered their support.
Despite ideological disagreement, China’s liberal intellectuals have by and large embraced the left-wing youth. “It’s laudable that young people should care about politics,” said Zhao Chu, a liberal scholar. “There’s no point to dwell on whether they are left-wing or right-wing. We should transcend ideological differences when it comes to fighting for people’s rights.”
Until 1978 the party-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions represented state workers in the planned economy but in the modern era it has largely failed to stand up for the industrial workforce, notably the 286 million so called “peasant workers” who have left their rural villages for factory jobs. Once grateful for better-paying manufacturing jobs, China’s migrant workers are increasingly demanding an end to sweatshop working conditions.
China’s labour law, in effect since 1995, granted many rights to workers but authorities prefer labour disputes to be resolved through government-led arbitration, a process that workers have found to be deeply flawed and believe often favours management. Instead workers have become increasingly organised and engaged in collective bargaining, and labour disputes have increased significantly in recent years.
China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour rights group, recorded more than 1,300 strikes in 2014. The number doubled to 2,664 in 2016, prompting Beijing to crack down on labour charities accused of inciting the protests. The number of strikes fell last year but appears to be rising again with 1,148 protests recorded in the first eight months of this year.
The new left poses a different challenge to Beijing, and it has yet to openly denounce a group that shares the ruling party’s purported ideology. Yet police raided the student protesters’ dormitories in Shenzhen last week, while state propaganda criticised the Jasic workers demands as disruptive to the public order and unlawful.
Despite the clampdown, and the fact that government-led negotiations with Jasic workers are under way, the young activists are not backing down. “It’s only justice for workers to form their own union, a right granted by the law,” wrote Ms Shen, in a leaked message from her house arrest.
“A few clowns cannot stop the turning wheels of history,” she wrote.