Chinese New Youth taking on the Imperial Dragon

by Oct 27, 2023Amandla 89, Article

Passengers crowd Zhengzhou East Railway Station. In late October 2022, thousands of Zhengzhou Foxconn workers broke through all barriers and fled from the company town when it was gripped by the pandemic. Foxconn employs 300,000 workers in Zhengzhou.

FROM 1949 UNTIL RECENTLY, generation after generation of “new youth” demanded their rights. But they were all harshly suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Then, it seemed that most Chinese lost the courage to reassert their rights. Not long ago, the netizens began to describe themselves as “garlic chives” (jiucai, 人礦) in a kind of self-mockery. They were characterising their treatment by the party as nothing but resources which are exploitable but never depleted. In the same way, farmers can endlessly harvest garlic chives. This self-image reflects the terribly low self-esteem of the Chinese. This article traces how China today has further evolved “from reaping garlic chives to exploiting huminerals”:

As the year 2022 drew to an end, another old term for ‘The Peopleenjoyed renewed currency. 人礦 rén kuàng, literally ‘human mine’, first coined in the early 1980s, was widely used to describe the expendable nature of China’s working people: You study for the first twenty years of your life; you spend the next thirty working to pay off a mortgage; and you are in medical decline for the last decades of your time on earth’. 读20年书,还30年房贷,养20年 医院。

Then, in late October 2022, thousands of Zhengzhou Foxconn workers broke through all barriers and fled from the company town when it was gripped by the pandemic. In November there was a fire in the city of Urumqi in which 10 people died. Their escape was prevented by Covid lockdown. This triggered a big wave of protests across the country against lockdown. Some online netizens exclaimed, “look! Even garlic chives can rebel!”.

The protests ended when the party did a U-turn on its Covid policy. But thinking people in the protest have not stopped thinking. The seeds of future resistance have already been sown. The young people are the most visible section of this group of human beings who no longer tolerate being garlic chives. Those in China are less audible, but overseas Chinese students are making noises loudly protesting and intensively discussing online. The three decades of political apathy after the June Fourth Massacre were ended by the 2022 “Blank Paper movement”.

China deviants

At the height of the protests, Chinese overseas students launched broad solidarity actions in at least 16 countries. This also forced the students to at least talk to each other. In a short space of time, many public and private channels were started to talk about the protests and the situation in China. In the UK, a public Telegram group called China Deviant stands out for its role in organising events like the commemoration of the death of the Covid whistleblower Li Wenliang.

Similar events were also held in another ten cities from New York to Sydney and Tokyo. China Deviant has 1,250 subscribers. Other channels have more, such as the XuexiQiangguo (Learn from the Country of Firewall), which has 54.2k subscribers. These channels are highly political, from criticising Beijing to expressing solidarity with those arrested in China.

Another common thread is their eagerness to reach out to all oppressed ethnic minorities under Chinese rule Tibetan, Uighurs, HongKongers etc.

We already saw this during the height of the protests. There were videos and screenshots circulating in the social media about Han Chinese regretting their indifference to the sufferings of the minorities and their illusions that these had nothing to do with them. The COVID lock-up and their loss of basic human rights now compelled them to rethink and even aspire to a cross-ethnic, common struggle. This is continuing to develop among Chinese overseas students. A Lausan interview given by the spokesperson of the China Deviant has this to say:

In relation to Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, aren’t faraway lands but real places in which ordinary Chinese people frequently interact in their daily lives. Seeing the people of these regions as real flesh and blood people who equally deserve the right to live a fulfilling life —this kind of understanding, which defies the regime’s attempts to dehumanise them through propaganda, has led us to abandon the crude and fantastical notion of Chinese “unification” and “solidarity”.

The CCP’s success in setting Han Chinese against all other ethnic minorities is facing challenges from below for the first time. It is just the beginning of politicization among the young generation though. The China Deviant spokesperson again: We’re not willing to draw a line between ourselves and those who have differing views on how to resolve the problems in China and its peripheral regions. These disagreements should be openly and honestly negotiated by all when a democratic framework and process exists. The problem now is not that we have disagreements, but that we don’t have a framework and platform for discussion because of the decades of repression, depoliticisation and social atomisation engineered by the CCP to maintain their rule. We must create a space for free and democratic discussion and decision-making to exist. 

Student workers joining strike in US

Social injustices in the West compel increasing numbers of Chinese overseas students and student workers to be aware of class struggles there and draw their own conclusions. Last November, thousands of academic workers at the University of California went on a six-week strike to fight for better conditions. According to another Lausan report, This strike also saw the participation of many Chinese international student workers, a population that is stereotypically seen as apolitical and detached from US issues. Like their domestic and other international peers, many engaged in independent political organising for the first time, and expressed a diversity of attitudes toward the controversial contract and how the strike was organised.

….The precariousness of their situation in academia has generated a new wave of political consciousness among Chinese international students, leading to the formation of a plethora of scholar-activist groups such as the Chinese Students and Activists Network, Tying Knots (结绳志), The CaoCollective (离离草), and more. 

The road ahead is still very long. China is probably the only global power in the world which does not have any visible organised opposition, or any recognized opposition leader, or any autonomous labour organisation, independent media, or guaranteed civil liberties. So, an uninterrupted social movement has never existed only social actions, easily forgotten after they have been repressed.

There are barely any movement histories that are independently preserved in China. So past experiences are not properly passed down. New generations of activists are forced to begin their work anew. They stumble over many errors and are soon silenced.

Challenges and opportunities

Advances in technology in the field of social media enable people to have intensive discussions without even knowing each other’s names or phone numbers, but when it comes to physical meetings, security is always a real concern. This once again reminds us just how atomised Chinese people have become.

The three decades of political apathy after the June Fourth Massacre were ended by the 2022 “Blank Paper movement”.

But the starting point of this resistance is probably higher than the 1989 generation. The latter were suspicious of worker participation, and they rarely expressed sympathy with the minorities. By contrast, the new youth of 2022 exhibit a stronger urge to solidarise with all those oppressed. Chen Duxiu, before he founded the CCP in 1921, launched the journal New Youth in 1916. This would educate a new generation of Chinese in the new idea of the pursuit of personal freedom, democracy and socialism. Within three years, the new youth would revolt both against imperialist aggression and the cowardly Beijing government, in the great May Fourth Movement. Chen Duxiu would soon lead his party to make a revolution in 1925, but in two years he would be tragically defeated and demoted by Stalin.

A hundred years has passed since then. With Stalin’s half-hearted help, the CCP did overthrow the Kuomintang regime and established its rule in 1949. And the CCP did successfully, albeit with an unnecessarily high social and economic cost, achieve a new level of industrialisation. Yet it has always been patronising and oppressive towards the people. And it has always been suspicious of the youth, seeing them as a destabilising force that requires constant brainwashing.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 was the most brutal kind of repression against the youth who dared to demand democracy. For 30 years, there were no youth daring to talk about politics at all. The Blank Paper movement at the end of 2022 represents a change. The new youth of 2022 may reach political maturity and take on the Beijing Dragon. But it is not going to be easy.

Au Loong-Yu is a long-time activist based in Hong Kong, a member of the editorial board of the Borderless Movement and author of China Rise: Strength and Fragility, and Hong Kong in revolt: the protest movement and the future of China.

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