SHANGHAI — On the campus of Beijing Normal University, professors say they’ve noticed a trend that worries them: students embracing radical leftism. They advocate a return to the socialist state that Communist Party founder Mao Zedong favored and that Chinese leaders for the last generation have tried to put behind them.
The students wear pins with pictures of Mao and carry bags with the former Communist leader’s famous quotations, such as “serve the people.”
How big a movement the new left represents is unknown, but in a country where political thought is strictly controlled, social inequality and government corruption are epidemic and the job market for recent college graduates is considered poor, academics who are closest to the phenomenon admit to fears that it represents a dangerous split in society.
“They are either extreme leftists or extreme rightists,” one professor at the university said of her students, requesting anonymity out of concern that speaking about politics might result in retribution from the government. “When they have differences, there is no dialogue between them. This is a worrisome phenomenon and also some reflection of the split in society.”
“In general, there are more rightists than leftists,” she said, “but the leftists are very left.”
“There is widespread discontent among students with inequality and corruption, plus frustrations in their own lives,” said Yang Dali, the faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Beijing center. “It is highly understandable that there would be a leftist sentiment.”
The rise of a new left comes against a backdrop of decades of China’s ruling class allowing more economic freedom. But advocates of the new left say that 30 years of an export-oriented economy that’s brought hundreds of millions of people from rural areas to cities to fill low-wage jobs in assembly plants has led to extreme inequality and corruption.
“We emphasize that reform and opening to the outside world does not benefit the common people,” said Cui Zhiyuan, a professor at Tsinghua University’s school of public policy and management who’s known as one of the founders of China’s new left movement.
The movement has had a tenuous relationship with the government. The ouster last year of Bo Xilai, the party boss in Chongqing, whose government had instituted policies to support the city’s poor, an audacious anti-corruption campaign and the resurrection of the singing of Mao-era “red songs” in public squares, was seen as a blow to leftists, who considered Bo a champion for their cause. Today, leftist websites – such as Utopia, which strongly supports Bo – remain shuttered.
“The new leftists and the neo-liberals, they hate each other,” said Lu Xinyu, a left-leaning professor in Fudan University’s journalism school. “There are a lot of lies told by neo-liberals. A very significant characteristic of them is to always see America as a kind of utopia and that China should meet that standard, but America is facing a serious crisis.”
“We get together and discuss issues in China, like government ethics, and lack of fairness and justice,” the student said. “I don’t think America’s culture or thoughts have any advanced parts. We still need to rely on the Communist Party of China and the system to come back to the core of serving the people.”
The group has faced opposition. In June, other students drafted a petition asking the university to ban the group. Centimeter Sunshine tells members that “China has been hijacked by pro-capitalist rightists,” the letter said. “They have openly showed support for Bo Xilai, and they hugely poison the minds of modern college students.”
“What worries me,” he added, “is that I have heard many similar groups are at other universities.”