‘Deers’ vs. ‘Horses’: Old and new Marxist groups wage ideological battle at Peking University - SupChina
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‘Deers’ vs. ‘Horses’: Old and new Marxist groups wage ideological battle at Peking University

One Marxist student group is backed by the Party. The other’s WeChat account is blocked.

 

This poster, written in traditional Chinese, reads: “A deer will not transform into a horse; a wrong will not transform into a right” (鹿不变成马,错不变成对 lù bù biànchéng mǎ, cuò bù biànchéng duì)

“Wherever Yue and Gu are, that’s where I will be,” Zhan Zhenzhen 展振振, a Marxist at Peking University, told SupChina in November. “Wherever they stand, that’s where my brightest prospects lie.”

It seems that Zhan has now indeed joined his classmates Yue Xin 岳昕, Gu Jiayue 顾佳悦, and a half-dozen other missing Marxist student activists. According to a VOA report (in Chinese), Zhan was detained in Changsha, Hunan on January 2 after participating in celebrations for the 125th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth a week before, held in Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, Hunan. On January 4, Peking University announced Zhan had “dropped out school,” a statement that clashes with rumors circulating on PKU forums that he was in fact expelled, under the pretext of missing two weeks of class. Either way, we have no way of knowing: sources close to Zhan report that he has been unreachable since December 26.

Beatings, interrogations, kidnappings, expulsions. One by one, Peking University’s Marxist student activists, starting with those who participated in the Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Group protests in Huizhou last summer, are getting picked off like flies. With every reprisal, the strength of this group wanes: During the first months of the academic year, they distributed fliers and organized joint runs around campus in response to the university’s inaction in inquiring about Yue and Gu’s whereabouts (both are PKU alumni). An ensuing wave of arrests and kidnappings brought a hiatus to their activities, which resumed on December 28 when they made a bold return by holding placards outside a science building on campus, protesting the university administration’s decision to completely reshuffle the Marxist society — kicking out its original members and replacing them with 32 Communist Youth League cadres — under the pretext that it had “severely deviated” from promises made when they registered and had repeatedly organized activities that violated regulations. The protesters were quickly subdued and taken into the science building, where after an 18-hour interrogation they emerged, smiling radiantly, linking arms to film a video that was uploaded onto the Facebook page of “Global Support for Disappeared Left Activists in China,” picking up a little over 700 views.

This feeble response is the least-pressing concern for the beleaguered group, which now finds itself locked in an ideological battle with its Youth League-backed namesake and sworn enemy. Since last week, the “old” and “new” Marxist societies have been publishing daily essays defending their understanding of Marxism, aiming direct rebuttals at the leaders of the opposing faction.

The Peking University Marxist civil war started on December 28: While the “old” Marxists were getting beaten up and dragged on the floor, the “new” Marxists were conducting their first-ever group reading session, ironically in the building directly opposite the scene of the protest.

New Marxist study session

The “new” student Marxists in their first-ever reading session. The title on the screen in the background reads “How to study Marxism” (WeChat)

The format of the new society’s inaugural event sets them apart from their predecessors: It’s the antithesis of an activist movement. While the “old” Marxist society’s members prided themselves on abandoning the company of books for that of the cooks, cleaners, and rubbish collectors living on campus, their successors already made clear its intention of keeping close ties to the establishment: The group reading session was led by Sun Xiguo 孙煕国, dean of the School of Marxism, and Yang Lihua 杨立华, a professor at the Department of Philosophy.

 

Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is defined as “Sinified Marxism’s most recent achievement, Marxism for modern China, Marxism for the 21st century.”

 

Even more telling is the topic of discussion, chosen by the two professors and society leaders: Confucianism. As described by the group’s first essay on WeChat, seen over 37,000 times, the reading session’s first order of business was Professor Wang guiding the students in reading “Reflection on Things at Hand: The Neo-Confucian Anthology” (近思录 jìn sī lù), a 12th-century compilation of all the new ideas and interpretations of the Confucian tradition then being developed, co-authored by Zhu Xi 朱熹 and Lu Zuqian 吕祖谦. Known mainly by students of East Asian intellectual history, this obscure book is named after a saying found in Confucius’ Analects: “Study widely and with purposefulness; ask sharp questions and approach the underlying principle” (博学而笃志切问而近思 bóxué ér dǔzhì qiè wèn ér jìn sī).

Mao Zedong once told Edgar Snow in a 1965 interview that man’s condition on earth was changing rapidly, and that — as Snow paraphrased — “a thousand years from now all of them…even Marx, Engels and Lenin, would possibly appear rather ridiculous.” One could argue, therefore, that it seems slightly surprising that self-identifying Chinese Marxists would take to this 1,000 year-old book. Professor Yang’s lecture on the legacy of “benevolence,” or 仁 (rén) is anti-Maoist, if not exactly anti-Marxist.

However, the selected reading was more than just abstract claptrap. As Sinologists William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom note in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Zhu Xi is largely credited with solidifying what became classified as “Neo-Confucianism,” or the amalgamation of Buddhist and Daoist principles into refined Confucian metaphysics. The Ming and later Qing governments eventually codified Neo-Confucianism as a guiding convention within their respective administrations. Essentially, Zhu’s modification of Confucian thought into something compatible with other contemporary trends of thought is meant to provide an ancient Chinese precedent to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想 Xí Jìnpíng xīn shídài zhōngguó tèsè shèhuì zhǔyì sīxiǎng), which the “new” PKU student Marxists define as “Sinified Marxism’s most recent achievement, Marxism for modern China, Marxism for the 21st century.”

This is an attempt at de-legitimizing the old student Marxists’ black-and-white understanding of Chinese society: oppressed working-class against greedy capitalist and their bureaucratic allies.

This purpose became crystal clear when the university-sanctioned Marxist society published its first essay directed at the “old” Marxists: a criticism hurled at their predecessor many times throughout this piece was that their ideological fervor was too reminiscent of the “Cultural Revolution,” which is to say the Youth League offshoot disapproved of the old Marxists’ emphasis on class struggle. Indeed, in Marxist professor Sun’s speech to the new Marxist society, he emphasized serving the interest of the “man on the street” (老百姓 lǎobǎixìng). Yue Xin and Zhan Zhenzhen never used terms like lǎobǎixìng in their speeches and essays, which are too abstract to make clear a distinction between oppressor and oppressed; it was always either standing up for the “working class allies” (工友 gōngyǒu) or for “the lower rung of society” (社会底层 shèhuì dǐcéng).

Old Marxists at Peking University

The “old” Marxist society gathering information from on-campus workers about living conditions (photo provided by an anonymous “old” PKU student Marxist)

Clearly, the new Marxists are only expected to remember Sun’s very first point: “In order to study Marxism, the Chinese Communist Party must be embraced; opposing the Party means opposing Marxism.” To drive the point home, Sun concluded the first session by taking the new young Marxists to the department’s permanent exhibition, essentially a shrine to Chairman Xi’s PKU visit on May 2, 2018, and giving each student a copy of Xi Jinping’s Seven Years as an Educated Youth, the hagiography of Xi’s time in Liangjiahe village, Shaanxi Province, from 1969 to 1975, and his selflessness in the service of uneducated villagers — ironic reading for a taskforce meant to do anything but mingle with the lower rungs of society (in an August 19 letter to Xi Jinping, Marxist student activist Yue Xin praised Xi for having “faced the hardships of rural poverty”). Nevertheless, everyone seemed to have gotten the message, as the new Marxists wrote a second WeChat post that was a breathless account of their field trip to the Reform and Opening exhibition, complete with praise showered over Xi, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, and Peking University’s role in propagating Marxism — once again, without mention of class struggle.

The thorough rebranding of PKU student Marxism has prompted the “old” Marxist society to name its well-behaving successor a “deer society” (鹿会 lù huì), a reference to the well-known idiom “make a deer out to a horse” (指鹿为马 zhǐlùwéimǎ) and the shorthand for “Marxist Society” in Chinese (马会 mǎhuì), which can be translated literally as “horse society.”

 

“Marxism bereft of class and critical thinking, how can this be true Marxism?”
—From an essay by the “old” Marxist student group at Peking University

 

But the “deers” are outrunning the “horses” by miles. The WeChat public account of the old Marxist society is blocked from publishing any content, while the new Marxist society, making full use of its unrestricted access to social media, published essays on January 2 and 3 aimed directly at the “old” Marxist society, in total racking up over 140,000 views and thousands of likes. Unable to reply, the vanguard can only publish responses on VPN-dependent WordPress websites, most of which are only followed by a few hundred sympathetic to their cause — or those simply curious about campus gossip.

I’ve taken the liberty of translating one of these responses, posted on January 8, which attacks the arguments put forward by the “deers” point by point:

Old Marxists at PKU post

Since the PKU Marxist society was reorganized on December 26, the debate between the Old Marxist society and the New Marxist society has never stopped, both sides shouting at the top of their lungs “who is the real Marxist society.” It can be said that the dispute between the two Marxist societies is the dispute between true and false Marxism — what is true Marxism?

The “deers” claim that Marxism is a “continuously developing open theory” and should be based on “the concrete reality of Chinese society” and ridicule the “horses” for sticking to dogma. But do the deers really understand what is the core and essence of Marxism? Marxism studies the theory of surplus value to expose the cruel exploitation of capital by the working class, and guides laborers to bravely fight for their own liberation.

Marxism uses dialectics and historical materialism as the cornerstone, emphasizing that human society constantly overcomes its own contradictions and new things can only survive and develop when they overcome old things. No matter how the “content and form” of Marxism develops with the changes of the times, these core worldviews and historical views should never be abandoned. In the Marxist theoretical system that the deer defends, these most fundamental and most critical parts have disappeared: they can’t find a trace of the working class in their theory and practice, and they can’t see the position of workers and peasants.

They talk about “socialist construction” and “economic development” in an abstract way, but they do not mention the dilemma of the laborers. It seems that the development of society is based on figures such as GDP, not on the dignity and happiness of human beings; they avoid many contradictions such as illegal employment and bureaucracy on campus, and have not thought about how these irrational phenomena can be changed. Instead, they use high-brow language to cover up these issues. The “deers” will, in the guise of Marxism, be indifferent to the workers, attempting to make Marxism harmless and vulgar, turning it from a critical weapon into soft speech, seizing the words of Engels and other ancestors for their own purposes. What poor argumentation. Marxism bereft of class and critical thinking, how can this be true Marxism?

The “deers” often like to mention “China’s national conditions” and “concrete reality,” but how much practical understanding do they have of the three thousand workers in Yanyuan [the workers’ dormitory on campus] and the living conditions of hundreds of millions of workers across the country? On the campus where we live, some workers will get up at 4:30 in the morning, and some workers will work for more than 10 hours a day. Some workers will wash their hands all day long without any protective measures. Some people may say that this is their job, and the salary is the reward they get. However, 75% of Peking University’s workers have no social security, and can get less than 10% of the overtime pay prescribed by law. Some workers’ wages are even lower than the minimum wage in Beijing. (The data comes from the 2018 research report made by Zhan Zhenzhen.) How can we turn a blind eye to this? The “horses” once sent hot water bags to the workers in the winter, have helped the workers install routers in the dorms, as well as sending gloves and hand creams to the cracked hands of the workers, even buying medicine for the sick workers.

I especially remember talking to a Shanxi-born worker one day, and I learned that older brother had accidentally deleted the WeChat on the phone, and the process of re-downloading WeChat and logging in was very troublesome. He didn’t know how to operate it, and he was very anxious. I saw that his mobile phone was a very old Xiaomi phone, I couldn’t recognize the model. Finally, after helping big brother reopen WeChat, big brother cracked a smile. This is just a trivial matter, but it is enough to reflect how weak the workers are and how much they need our help. The “horses” pay attention to these details, caring for the workers and service workers, and they have built a deep relationship with them. Deers who call themselves “real Marxists,” have they ever leaned over and listened to the voices of the workers, sincerely contacted and helped them?

Of course, when it comes to workers, we have to talk about how our teachers talk about them. “The workers are living so peacefully, stop bothering them,” “Are you really being true friends to the workers? You’re just using the workers, kidnapping the workers!” and so on; the indifference of the carnivores and the absurdity of conspiracy theories. Who is the real horse, who is the fake horse; who really cares for the workers, who are the pretenders, are the workers really unable to tell the difference? An elder sister, working as a cleaner, once said to me personally: “I know that you are a good group of students. You help us get our wages. We are very grateful to you. But when you leave Peking University, you are no longer students. Who will help us voice our grievances?”

Our workers, who are aware of their own hardships, can understand the efforts of the horses, but they also think they are unable to solve these societal issues, so they often passively accept their fate. But can’t it really be solved? Is this society not made up of every individual? The horses have always believed that the progress of society comes from a little bit of change. The liberation of the workers is born out of relentless, tenacious struggle. “The philosophers of the past are explaining the world, but the problem is to change the world.” Marxism is never a dogmatic book, but a philosophy of practice. When the deers criticize the horses for “not having read a few classic Marxist works,” they obviously cannot understand that the real world can teach Marxists far more than the content of a book. Moreover, isn’t the “classic work” that the ‘deers’ are referring to merely “Reflection of Things at Hand,” some sort of bogus “Confucian Marxism”?

~

Zhan Zhenzhen posing with his mother in front of their home after receiving Peking University’s acceptance letter in 2015. Zhan’s father, a construction worker, died in an accident when Zhan was a child (photo via anonymous “old” PKU Marxist student)

As this response makes clear, the crux of Marxist ideology for the “horses” has always been Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, engraved on the thinker’s tombstone in Highgate Cemetery, London: “The philosophers of the past are explaining the world, but the problem is to change the world.”

The “deers,” however, write texts where mentions of “contemplation” (思考 sīkǎo) outnumber “practice” (实践 shíjiàn) 10 to 1. The PKU Marxist society has been transformed into an anodyne group forever hovering in the conceptual realm on the grounds that practice must be preceded by meticulous scholarship.

Unfortunately, the “horses” are also increasingly getting stuck in argumentation rather than practice — not just against the “deers,” but among themselves. The Telegram chat groups that were once buzzing with activity have now become a sanctuary for students looking for controversial debates, or the youthful thrill of rule-breaking: sometimes by sharing pornographic cartoons of Xi fondling Carrie Lam while cat-calling Tsai Ing-Wen, sometimes by adding links to actual pornography; new members are added daily, but most are spammers, or VOA journalists looking for a scoop. Occasionally, a new member will write a message of encouragement such as, “We will fight to the end!” (我们会到底打下去 wǒmen huì dàodǐ dǎ xiàqù) but nobody replies anymore; the “Find Yue Group” stream that had organized rounds of on-campus flier distribution in November is now a graveyard.

And with the disappearance of the last “horse” involved in the Jasic incident, the old Marxist society is in its death throes, clinging to a legacy of action but unable to carry it forward. Lu Xun once said, “Peking University is always fighting against the forces of darkness.” This time, however, the darkness has all but swallowed those who still dare to shout these words out.

The Red Runners of Peking University

Eddie Park

Eddie Park is a South Korean writer with a weird language-learning obsession. He currently resides in Beijing.

One Comment

  1. H Reply

    A powerful and sad story. I wonder how these events will feature in any 30th anniversary ‘incidents’ that occur in June. Is the abduction of two fellow students worthy of a trip to the square?

    Wealthy and privileged students at elite universities like PKU should remember that they owe China’s new wealth to families such as Zhan Zhenzhen’s.

    Thank you for your translation.

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