Leftwing Opposition, Feminism, and Repression in China

[English] – This interview with Ralf Ruckus was conducted by Johannes Tesfai and originally published in the German magazine analyse & kritik (#691, March 21, 2023):

When did you first hear about a leftwing opposition in China?

In the late 1990s, I heard that workers protested against the restructuring of state-owned enterprises and that, in that context, Chinese leftists criticized the reform course of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Starting in the mid-2000s, I established contacts with leftwing activists in China who supported the protests of migrant workers.

Both cases involved a leftwing critique of the capitalist regime and the support for struggles against state and private capital. Leftwing opposition to the CCP, however, began much earlier, right after the CCP came to power in 1949.

What makes the opposition in China leftwing?

It fights for leftwing goals. Under socialism until the late 1970s, social struggles and leftwing groups were directed against the CCP regime’s failure to fulfill its revolutionary promises. Exploitation and oppression had not disappeared, and while privileged urban workers remained a minority, the majority was made up of precarious workers, migrants, and rural workers.

In the period of transition to capitalism that lasted from the late 1970s into the 1990s, struggles and leftwing groups turned against the party dictatorship and demanded democratic control in workplaces and institutions.

And during the past thirty years, leftwing actors and groups have attacked social inequality, harsh conditions of exploitation, the arbitrariness of capitalists, and the exclusion of migrant workers. They debate the development of Chinese capitalism in the PRC and in the world.

Today, many leftwing actors in the PRC still refer to a class-struggle version of Maoism. Other leftwing currents play a minor role. Meanwhile, debates about decolonization, the capitalist world-system, or feminism that have been going on elsewhere in recent years are also taking place in the Chinese left.

What kind of leftwing oppositional actions have gained attention, and how is the leftwing opposition organized?

Formally organizing oppositional forces has rarely been possible in the PRC. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, students and workers formed mass organizations that took part in conflicts in universities, neighborhoods and factories. Some rebellious groups criticized the Chinese “actually existing socialism” under what they called the “red bourgeoisie.”

In the late 1970s, leftwing oppositional groups published underground journals that attacked the authoritarian party regime. In the 1990s, Maoist circles emerged who supported the struggles of workers from state-owned enterprises.

And in the two decades that followed, leftwing NGOs and later groups of leftwing students and workers publicly backed the demands and struggles of women* and workers.

What is the role of feminism?

Even in the revolutionary process before the founding of the PRC in 1949, women* and feminist demands played an important role in the movement. After 1949, the CCP initially made concessions and established the Women’s Federation, a mass organization of the party.

However, the latter remained subordinate to the party and had to accept that the party created a Maoist patriarchy that combined feudal and socialist practices. Movements beyond state feminism began to emerge in the 1980s. Feminist NGOs opposed gender discrimination and sexual violence against women*.

Later, other feminists criticized the separation of class struggle and feminist struggle, as well as Chinese feminists’ adherence to a “Western” feminism that they considered bourgeois and individualistic.

In the past decade, an activist feminist scene emerged, which also used social media to denounce violence against women* and later supported #metoo-actions in China. Women*’s everyday struggles are also connected with this political feminism, for example struggles against the pressure to marry early, bear a child, and shoulder the unpaid reproductive labor in the family.

From 2010 onwards, China was seen as the center of global labor unrest. What do the struggles look like today?

The wave of strikes in 2010 was the culmination of migrant workers’ struggles for the improvement of their conditions. Strikes and similar actions continued at a high level until the mid-2010s, but locations and causes shifted.

As wages rose in the east, factories moved to central and western China, and the struggles followed. Service capital expanded, including the new gig economy, and struggles occurred there as well. However, the struggles were barely able to push through improvements, in part because of the relocations, layoffs, and the slowdown of economic growth.

Since the mid-2010s, the number of struggles has declined. Strikes and other actions continued to take place, however, even during the pandemic and against the regime’s zero-covid strategy, for instance, in the fall of 2022 at Foxconn in Zhengzhou and in proletarian neighborhoods in Guangzhou.

In mid-February this year, demonstrations of pensioners against cuts in health insurance benefits took place in Wuhan and Dalian, with one slogan saying: “Down with the reactionary government!”

How has the suppression of opposition changed over the years? Did the pandemic have an impact on this?

The repression of leftwing opposition and social struggles has always been a part of PRC history since 1949. In recent years, it has intensified, though, for example against leftwing feminists and labor activists. Therefore, leftwing groups have become very cautious, especially as surveillance on the Internet and in public spaces has intensified.

Activists are usually accused of causing trouble or disturbing public order. The authorities threaten them, make them disappear for months in unofficial detainment centers, and impose prison sentences. Some activists are also tortured or forced to make public “confessions.”

These forms of repression hit leftwing circles, but also liberal groups or, as most recently, the protests of the “White Paper Movement” against the so-called Zero-Covid Policy at the end of November 2022. The extent of the repression against Uyghurs in Xinjiang goes even far beyond this.

How is solidarity from outside possible?

Direct support for the leftwing opposition from outside is difficult at the moment. Many activists are being monitored, intimidated, or have been detained. Nevertheless, I think it is important to develop contacts with leftwing groups in China and to involve them in debates in the left elsewhere.

We also need to ensure that their critique of the capitalist regime in China remains visible. In the debate about the character of PRC and CCP, we should focus on the social struggles in China and the positions of the leftwing opposition there. When a part of the left ingratiates itself with the CCP regime, for example, a part of the German leftist party Die Linke, that means nothing less than the support of a right-wing regime in a capitalist China.