This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.
Last week, self-proclaimed Marxist labour activists across China were rounded up by the authorities. Many were students or graduates of some of the country’s most prestigious universities.
Peking University – my own alma mater – has reportedly taken extreme measures to prevent further dissent. In late October, Cornell University cancelled exchange agreements with Renmin University following its blacklisting and surveillance of known student labour activists.
These are the latest developments in an ongoing crackdown on labour activism that began in July when attempts by employees of a Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen to form a union were met with physical abuse and arrest. Student activists formed the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group, writing open letters, and demonstrating and petitioning on their behalf. These protests gained the support of older Maoists, who brandished portraits of Mao and placards declaring the workers’ innocence.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s position is clear. Party-run People’s Daily argued the Jasic workers had acted illegally, with some allegedly using force to barge onto company premises, and in their effort to form an independent trade union (current regulations stipulate that all unions must be registered with the state-affiliated All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has been criticised for inadequately representing workers’ interests). People’s Daily also claimed the workers’ cause had been hijacked by “external forces” and “ulterior motives”, including funding from an unregistered Western NGO.
These developments highlight a fundamental contradiction between the image of itself the Party has promulgated and the underlying substance of its governance model.