The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘If I disappear’: Chinese students make farewell messages amid crackdowns over labor activism  

Qiu was the leader of the Marxist Student Association at Peking University, but authorities detained him for four days in February. In April, Qiu disappeared. (Video: The Washington Post)
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BEIJING — The video opens with the 21-year-old sociology student facing the camera. His voice quivers as he recounts his interrogation — his humiliation — for days at the hands of Beijing police.

The officials pressured him to quit labor activism and drop out of Peking University, he says. They slapped him until blood streamed from his nose. They jammed headphones into his ears and played hours of propaganda at full volume. 

On the last day, he alleges, they had him bend over a table naked and spread his buttocks, joking darkly that they would teach him how to insert a listening device.

“This all happened on campus,” Qiu Zhanxuan seethes in the video he recorded in February after he said the police released him, temporarily, after a four-day ordeal. 

“If I disappear,” he adds, “it’ll be because of them.”

Qiu disappeared April 29.

State security agents seized him that day from Beijing’s outskirts, his classmates say. Qiu’s offense? He was the leader of the Marxist student association at the elite Peking University, a communist of conscience who defied the Communist Party of China.

Over the past eight months, China’s ruling party has gone to extraordinary lengths to shut down the small club of students at the country’s top university. Peking University’s young Marxists drew the government’s ire after they campaigned for workers’ rights and openly criticized social inequality and corruption in China.

That alone was provocative. In recent years, China’s leaders have been highly sensitive to rumblings of labor unrest as the sputtering economy lays bare the divides between rich and poor — fissures that were formed, and mostly overlooked, during decades of white-hot growth.

But the source of the dissent carried an extra sting for the government. Peking University, after all, educates China’s best and brightest, the top 0.1 percent of the country’s high school graduates. And its rebellious young Marxists were doing something particularly embarrassing: They were standing up for disenfranchised workers against the state.

They were, in other words, emulating the early Communist Party itself.

Today, at least 21 members of Peking University’s Marxist society — including its slight but steely leader Qiu — have been placed under house arrest or have vanished altogether. Scores more are regularly hauled in for interrogation and live under constant surveillance. Months of clashes, five waves of arrests and an influx of plainclothes police have, at moments, turned a world-leading university into a surreal battleground.

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The story of Peking University’s Marxist club — as told by four members who remain secretly active and spoke on the condition of anonymity for their safety, their supporters, and a trove of writings and videos left by activists anticipating arrest — illustrates the anxious political atmosphere in China, where idealistic students who embrace the party’s own ideology can be suppressed just like any other political threat.

It poses wider questions that go to the heart of modern China: What exactly does the Communist Party stand for? What gives it the right to rule?

Since rising to power in 2012, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly warned his Communist Party that it needs to win back the public’s faith by alleviating poverty, rooting out corrupt officials and ramping up nationalist education and propaganda work. But often, the public just doesn’t buy it.

“The government stopped caring for workers long ago. It only cares about holding onto power and wealth,” a 20-something Peking University Marxist who asked to be identified as Michael said by encrypted messaging app. (Many young Chinese people use Western nicknames.)

All over China, social friction has been rising, inflamed by decades of breakneck growth.

In the south, labor disputes are ticking up again after falling for a decade. In the north, Beijing officials provoked a national outcry last winter after they forcibly expelled communities of migrant workers from the capital. In China’s heartland, a city last year was occupied by thousands of decommissioned, jobless soldiers petitioning for compensation. 

Each challenge to authority was supported, in part, by students.

“The government is scared because the domestic contradictions are growing,” Michael said. “Once you study Marxism, you know real socialism and China’s so-called socialism with Chinese characteristics are two different things. They sell fascism as socialism, like a street vendor passes off dog meat as lamb.”

Singing 'The Internationale'

Sprawling behind large gates made of vermilion-painted wood and curved tiles, Peking University’s campus in northwest Beijing has been, for a century, home to China’s intellectual vanguard and future leaders, its troublemakers and its revolutionaries.

A young Mao Zedong found Marxist-Leninism when he worked in the campus library. Peking University’s students marched in the May 4, 1919, protests against Western colonialism, a seminal moment in Chinese political activism. The same school led the occupation of Tiananmen Square, 30 years ago in 1989, before the government sent in soldiers and tanks, killing hundreds, perhaps far more.

As China promoted dizzying free-market reforms in the 1990s, some Peking University students cut the other direction. 

The Marxist association was formed in 2000 by students concerned about the economic dislocation and inequality already percolating around them. 

In the years that followed, the students would travel weekly to textile and electronics factories in Beijing’s outskirts. They joined assembly lines and slept and ate in dormitories to taste life at the foot of society. 

For many, it was an ideological crucible.

A Marxist student who asked to be identified as Lucy worked at a print factory moving books and applying labels in southeast Beijing. She spent 12-hour shifts doing repetitive motions thousands of times, until her back was sore and her legs numb. 

She was lucky she didn’t have to provide for a family on the $300- to $450-a-month salaries like the workers beside her, she said.

“But it was precisely the experiencing and understanding of workers’ lives that put you on the path of actually practicing Marxism,” she said. “That painful suffering is the daily existence for 300 million Chinese.”

In 2013, the group established a “workers home” on campus modeled after the social club formed in the 1920s by the Communist Party founding father and Peking University alumnus Deng Zhongxia.

The young Marxists would offer night classes on labor law, play chess and dance with the university’s cafeteria workers and janitors. On May Day and at year-end, students recalled, as many as 400 university workers would show up and sing “The Internationale” or early communist songs such as “The Ballad of the Anyuan Road Miners” that commemorated Mao organizing a 1922 strike.

Their membership swelled, too, to include humanities majors, medical students and budding scientists. 

There was Zhan Zhenzhen, who was raised in a brick hut in Henan province by a single mother and didn’t know what staggering wealth looked like until he arrived in Beijing. There was Yue Xin, the daughter of a well-off Beijing family who brought the #MeToo movement to national attention in China.

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And there was Qiu, their leader, who arrived on a rare full scholarship in 2016 after he won the gold medal in the national Chemistry Olympiad. 

In a written statement he would later release, Qiu described his political evolution.

Qiu’s father, laid off by the state during China’s 1990s reforms, had managed to start a new career with his technical skills. But Qiu’s uncles, who lost their jobs, were left behind as China veered toward capitalism.

“My father got on the last bus of ‘Reform and Opening Up,’ ” Qiu wrote, using one of the slogans from China’s turn toward a greater free market. Qiu recalled how his uncles couldn’t even afford to make $1.50 bets when the family played mah-jongg.

“I felt the sense of inferiority in my cousins’ eyes,” he wrote.

Pun Ngai, a sociologist at Hong Kong University who has known the student group for years, said Qiu idolized a charismatic older member of the society named He Pengchao, who had obtained a PhD in environmental science at Peking University but left his career to start a labor nonprofit in Shenzhen.

By his second year, Qiu joined the Marxist club and switched his major from chemistry to sociology. 

On the WeChat social network, Qiu started posting on social issues. He turned his avatar into a picture of him clenching his fist in a Communist salute in front of a bust of Li Dazhao, the party co-founder. 

That year, Qiu, a sophomore, became the group’s president.

A leftist blogger from eastern China who knows Qiu said it’s possible the government is holding some young Marxists until after the sensitive anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, and then will release them on the condition they give up activism. But the government tried that before, he said.

“They would grab them, rough them up a bit, scare them, then release them,” said the blogger, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fear of reprisals from officials. “But then the students would go right back to activism.”

He chuckled. “It’s like they’re not scared of dying,” he said.

Warning shot

Last July, the students got word that workers at a welding equipment plant near Shenzhen, called Jasic Technology, were struggling to form an independent union and clashing with factory bosses and police.

About 50 students traveled south to help, not just from Peking University but also from Renmin and Tsinghua universities in Beijing and schools in southern and eastern China. Cramming into a large apartment, they churned out online essays that got hundreds of supportive responses. At night, they rallied Jasic workers in the streets with megaphones.

Their triumph was short-lived. 

On Aug. 24, police in riot gear raided their apartment, leading to a brief scuffle before dozens of students and workers were detained. Most were released, but four went missing, including Yue, the prominent feminist.

In the aftermath, state media sent a warning shot to the students.

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In a report, the official Xinhua News Agency avoided mentioning the involvement of students in the Jasic protests. But Xinhua reported that Jasic workers were receiving funding from an illegal, foreign source. Such allegations in Chinese state media can portend prosecutors bringing serious subversion charges.

When they returned to campus, the students were individually summoned to meet with police. One student, Lucy, recalled the police offering her a choice: confess that they broke the law and quit activism, and the police would drop the matter, maybe even help her secure a spot in graduate school. Don’t confess, they said, and she could be forced to drop out and arrested.

The conversations, Lucy said, were “totally unvarnished.”

In the weeks after that, the disappearances started to mount.

An officer at the Yanyuan police station near the university, where students said they were usually interrogated, declined to comment about the cases or about Qiu and his allegations of mistreatment. Peking University declined to answer faxed questions.

'Looking at a reflection'

As the Marxist students came under attack last year, they sought help from Hu Jia, a veteran dissident who sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum. 

Hu, who has been jailed in the past for advocating Western-style democracy, loathed how the students called for a reprise of the Cultural Revolution and wrote essays larded with propaganda language. But he helped introduce them to foreign diplomats and human rights organizations, he explained, because they seemed “righteous.”

They had the potential to be the most serious threat to the government since the Tiananmen protests, Hu said.

“The Communist Party knows there is no greater threat than a movement that links students with the lower class,” Hu said by telephone. “They’re looking at a reflection of their early revolutionary selves.”

Perhaps sensing the potential for unrest, the Communist Party in October appointed Qiu Shuiping, a former head of the Beijing branch of the Ministry of State Security — the feared foreign and domestic spy agency — to be Peking University’s new top official.

But the more authorities clamped down, the more the students defied them by airing what was happening on Twitter and the hosting service GitHub, services beyond the reach of Chinese censors.

They publicized how unidentified thugs beat up their Marxist schoolmate Zhang Shengye on campus in November before taking him away. They posted pictures of Qiu, their leader, being stuffed into a black car in broad daylight on Dec. 26 — one of several run-ins he had with state security. An uploaded video from Dec. 28 showed campus security clearing Marxists from a science building, ending with a student sprawled on the ground.

That day, the university issued a decree that effectively disbanded the club. 

To irritate the plainclothes agents who followed them, some members would continue to get together anyway — to do calisthenics. Qiu kept leading “work experience” trips for a few more months. The authorities had enough on April 29, when they seized Qiu and four other students from a Beijing factory at 8:17 a.m., the club reported in an online post. Those five haven’t been seen since.

“I don’t support students being naive, opposing the government,” Qiu Shike, a socialist writer and Xi supporter who is influential within some elite Communist Party circles, said carefully. “But to handle them with force seems a bit low. Why not take the high road? Have an open debate with them, or talk sense into them about why they’re wrong?”

As the number of missing students ticked up in recent months, those who still had freedom prepared “open letters” to be published in case they were seized. The remaining Marxists, coordinating in secret, recently started releasing the letters at a slow drip.

They saved Qiu’s video and letter to release on May 4, on the anniversary of the protest that inspired their Communist revolutionary heroes a century ago.

Qiu’s letter defiantly recounted his personal life and his experiences with the police. “The deeper the persecution, the greater the blows, the more hatred one remembers in his heart,” he wrote.

In the accompanying video, Qiu seems more vulnerable. He ponders what kind of abuse workers who challenge government authority must suffer in prison, and whether he might join them himself. But his voice hardens by the end of the three-minute recording.

“We’ll fight together, advance and retreat together,” Qiu says, and then raises a clenched fist.

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