Chinese 'Maoists' arrested for supporting workers
Days before a number of intellectuals in India were arrested on charges of being Maoist supporters, in a case of supreme irony, 40 'Maoist' Chinese students were picked up in a pre-dawn swoop in the industrial hub of Shenzhen. The students, members of university study groups which explore - believe it or not - Mao Zedong Thought, had gathered there for a cause. Stung by the brutal break-up of a workers' protest by the police, students from Tsinghua University, Nanjing University, Peking University, Renmin University - institutions where admission is highly competitive - travelled all the way to Shenzhen to show solidarity with the workers. They demonstrated on the streets, wearing T-shirts printed with pictures of workers and students, and the slogan "Unity is Strength"; they petitioned the authorities, and one of them wrote an open letter to President Xi Jinping. A few of these students are recent graduates who have chosen to work in factories rather than take up cushy jobs.
Are they "Urban Naxals"? The authorities, given their reaction, seem to think so. Landlords were pressurized not to rent flats to the students; professors and parents were roped in to warn them. Leading student activists were picked up in early August.
In their show of solidarity with the workers, the students were joined by another group - retired workers and Communist Party members who stubbornly refuse to forget Mao the way the Chinese Communist Party would want them to. At the demonstrations, these elders held up posters of the first Chairman.
Both groups insisted they were only following the principles on which China and its Communist Party were built. The letter to the president invoked the May 4, 1919 movement, a milestone in China's anti-imperialist struggle, which started off with student protests in Beijing. The letter reminded the president that he himself had spoken about the importance of the May 4 movement on his visit to Peking University. Obviously, the Shenzhen police did not see things quite the same way.
Labour unrest is not new in China, but this incident invited attention because the fight was not for working conditions or wages, but the right to form a union. Significantly, the owner and the personnel manager of the company are big shots in the local Communist Party unit.
Fed up of terrible working conditions, the workers approached labour officials who advised them to form a union. But they found the management had already nominated workers' representatives on a union committee. Their persistence in forming an independent union led to them being beaten up, dismissed and finally arrested.
For the workers, the students' presence was awe-inspiring. "I would never have got the opportunity of meeting anyone from Tsinghua university," said one worker. While the official media have blacked out the protest, the ultra-nationalist Global Times has asked workers to beware of "foreign-funded advocacy groups".
Interestingly, the student's open letter to Xi Jinping is not addressed to the president, but to the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and to the party's Central Committee. Describing how "General Secretary Xi" himself has set an example to the youth by facing rural poverty and integrating himself with the villagers, the writer declares: "As a young person who grew up in socialist New China, a youth who lives in the New Era, I have no excuse to stand by and do nothing, to look on helplessly as the workers of Shenzhen struggle alone. Today's students are the workers of tomorrow; our fates are closely intertwined." The writer, too, was arrested.