Just as 2022 began, the world received news that delivery worker and organizer Chen Guojiang, known as Mengzhu (盟主), had been freed after nearly a year in detention. But Mengzhu’s release by no means signified the loosening of control over labor activists, leftists or other dissidents in China. Just as Chen was released, news of the fate of six more political prisoners has come to light.
Below is our translation of a letter released on January 4th, 2022, by Maoist writer Yu Yixun (余宜勋), announcing the news of his formal arrest and the sentencing of five other young leftists based in Fujian who were arrested last spring. The sudden loss of a group of obscure Maoists is itself a testament to the years of heavy repression against dissidents of all stripes, especially targeting leftist and labor-oriented organizations, networks and affinity groups. A decade ago, the fall of Bo Xilai shook the ground beneath the feet of leftists both sympathetic to and critical of Bo. As the space for political discussion shrank throughout the 2010s, the state cracked down on feminist networks, reformist labor NGOs, LGBT+ organizations, and, of course, Marxist youth. Many leftists had decided to keep a low profile, until a group of them made a bold and ultimately disastrous show of strength in the 2018 Jasic incident.
With the significant risks of public exposure preventing any attempts at open organizing, China’s underground left (which remains dominated by various types of Maoist groups1) has been thoroughly marginalized––so much so, in fact, that the arrest of the Fujian Six took us and many on the Chinese left by surprise. Who are they? What have they been up to? In this case and others, it sometimes seems that the police are tracing activists faster than substantial networks can even be formed. As a result, those networks that do exist have been forced so far underground that it’s almost impossible to know who is in them and what they do, other than a few traces some of them leave online.
Let it be perfectly clear to anyone who defends Xi’s administration: China’s nominally Communist Party has always sung the praises of Mao and Marx, while at the same time systemically hunting down and persecuting the most ardent Maoist and Marxist activists in the country. Take for example Qiu Zhanxuan, president of the Peking University Marxist Society, who was detained by police as a “warning” in 2018 while on his way to celebrate Mao’s birthday, then detained again in February 2019, after which he recorded a video saying he had been tortured while in custody. Finally in April 2019 he disappeared a third time while visiting a factory district “to experience workers’ life,” and has not been heard from since.
It is likely that we would have never heard of the six Maoist prisoners from Fujian were it not that one of them published the open letter translated below. Any other information we have today about the Fujian Six is fragmented at best. Some is available from posts in leftist forums and Telegram groups, while other clues come from screenshots saved before they could be deleted. Some of the basic details of the case are muddled or unexpected, based on what we can find from court documents (archived on RedChinaCn). These show that five young associates of Yu were all detained by police in Pingdingshan, Henan on May 3, 2021, on suspicion of the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”,2 formally arrested on June 1, and finally sentenced on December 30 to up to two years in prison.
The documents allege that the group, referred to there as “Red Culture Association” (红色文化会),3 had registered at least 4 companies and controlled more than 20 WeChat accounts and 10 WeChat chat groups, as well as operating a website. Prosecutors said the defendants had a total of more than 30,000 WeChat friends and “published articles that smeared party history,” producing over 1,100 texts generating revenue of around 170,000 yuan (US $26,655), primarily through small donations by readers via WeChat (打赏). Some of the articles that were alleged to have slandered CCP history included titles like: “Historically, XXX is a Traitor” and “Who is Framing XXX: The Truth about the 50th Anniversary of the Great Leap Forward” (with names of the historical figures omitted from the titles). While other online commentators have noted that the sentences and cross-province arrests seem unusually strict for a case that does not go beyond online publications, it also seems unusual that Yu remained free and was able to write and circulate his open letter from home while awaiting trial.
Yu’s letter suggests that the case of the Fujian Six is only the tip of an enormous iceberg of anti-left repression that has continued quietly, even as international media lost interest in the fallout from the 2018 Jasic Incident and subsequent arrests of other leftists, labor activists and feminists in 2019. In the context of pleading for shorter prison sentences, Yu writes, “This year, throughout China, many people like us have been arrested, but their sentences have all been under one year,” citing an example from the nearby third-tier city of Xuchang. We wonder how many other cases have slipped by over the past two years, living little or no traces online. Yet this also shows that the system is still far from airtight, and that people haven’t completely given up hope. They still find ways to get together and, presumably, put their ideas into some kind of practice offline. If this group managed to publish 1,100 subversive articles read by 30,000 friends on WeChat, we wonder how many anti-capitalists, feminists and other kinds of dissidents who take more security precautions are still managing to survive without attracting unwanted attention.
For now, we offer the following translation with a degree of good faith in Yu’s story, tempered with a degree of skepticism about details of the case and some of the official-sounding language such as “national rejuvenation” and the promise to publish articles with more “positive energy.” in the future. The author explicitly pleas for mercy from people with power over sentencing, so such phrases may have been adopted for that purpose rather than reflecting his own ideology. We can only guess at this point, since Yu’s other writings have been scrubbed from the internet, and among the broad spectrum of contemporary Chinese Maoists there are many who do adopt nationalist positions.4 Against the background of the state’s ever tighter restrictions on critical thought, however, we believe this letter resonates with the situation facing all kinds of dissidents, and really anyone expressing discontent with capitalist life in China today. It illustrates both the bleak outlook of those who publicly cross official lines, and the fact that, no matter how thorough the repression, there are always those who continue to think, work and organize under the radar.
Six Comrades from Fujian Arrested: An Open Goodbye Letter from a Young Maoist5
Good evening, everyone, my name is Yu Yixun. I’m from Minqing County, Fujian. My ID number is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. My phone number is XXXXXXXXXX.6 I’m the primary culprit among the six red friends7 based in Fujian who were arrested across provincial borders. On April 30, 2021,8 we were detained by the Internet Police of Xinhua District in Pingdingshan, Henan on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” due to publishing large amounts of “false information” online.
Due to illness, I have not yet been taken into the detention center and am temporarily at home.
Today is December 31st, 2021 (8:35 PM). It is with deep regret that I write this letter, saying goodbye to my comrades throughout China for the time being.
This morning, five of my six employees were sentenced, the heaviest sentence being two years in prison, and the others being under one year.
Ever since I stepped onto the path of propagating Mao Zedong Thought in 2019, I knew that this day would come. There’s nothing wrong with propagating red culture, so maybe the problem was that we were “politically incorrect.” Why do I say this? Friends who often read my writings may have guessed a few reasons, since while propagating Mao Zedong Thought, I also contrasted Chairman Mao with the second generation of leaders. I can’t deny that over the course of three years, under pennames such as Mr. Bai Yun (White Cloud) and Mr. Wu Yun (Black Cloud), I published over a thousand articles discrediting a certain leader surnamed Deng, causing some degree of “influence.”
According to the state, I am guilty of a series of crimes including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” “distorting history,” and “white-washing negative personages.”
Looking back, at first it was because I read many old articles by Deng Liqun9 that I became attracted to Mao Zedong Thought and developed a great yearning for Mao-era socialism. I began attempting to understand Mao and to learn from him. During these three years of study, I got together with several other young people who were also interested in red culture.
But it was because they listened to me that, ultimately, we all came to this end. I harmed them! For me, two years in prison may not be so scary, since I can read books in the detention center, and in prison I can write. But the others are still children, so it will be much harder for them to handle it psychologically.
Ever since we were arrested on April 30, 2021, these words have been concealed in my heart. Today I finally feel some relief in expressing them.
All of them are from poor families. Two of the girls are from a family officially designated as “impoverished,” their home in the mountains. Because of my ideals about propagating red culture, now they’re in prison. Their [the six employees, of which five were arrested] names are: Zhang Zhijing, Qiu Pingqin, Yu Chaoquan, Qiu Pinghui, Huang Yao, and Huang Xiaochun. Four of them are girls, the youngest, Huan Xiaochun being only 18. Qiu Pingqin and Qiu Pinghui are sisters from rural Zunyi in Guizhou—the household officially designated as “impoverished.” Qiu Pinghui and Yu Chaoquan are married with two children at home. Both of their children are still minors, so now they have to be raised by their elderly grandparents, who are not in good health. Most importantly, other than Zhang Zhijing, none of the others had worked for me for over three months. Huang Xiaochun, Qiu Pinghui and Yu Chaoquan had only worked there for less than a month.10
Over these past few months, I’ve consulted with our lawyer about all kinds of ways to defend them.11 I had just hoped we could get a fair trial, but that’s not what we got in the end.
This year, throughout China, many people like us have been arrested, but their sentences have all been under one year, whereas ours extend as long as two years.
I wonder if their prison sentences are a bit too long?
In a similar case this year in the nearby city of Xuchang, four comrades were each sentenced to either ten months or six months, so why are our sentences so long? All we did was publish our views online. Even if that was wrong, was it worth two years?
Isn’t it a good thing for young people to care about national affairs? Even if their words are radical, I think the main [punishment] should be educational, rather than rushing to smash them with an iron fist right out of the gate.
Could it be that [you/they] want all young people just to “lie flat” (躺平), without saying or caring about anything? If the only voices left in this society are just those that sing praises, wouldn’t that be a horrendous thing for the nation as a whole?
General Secretary Xi has requested on multiple occasions that we study the lofty ideals of the older generation of revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong, sometimes even quoting Mao’s sayings, poems and anecdotes. I believe that the best time has finally come for our generation to bear witness to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. My actions in propagating Mao Thought were just. Although my opinions led to our current predicament, since I criticized a certain core leader of the second generation [i.e. Deng Xiaoping], after all this can only be considered an internal contradiction among the people. If they could give me an opportunity to make amends and start over, I would seriously review my past mistakes and insufficiencies, actively improve myself, and publish more articles with positive energy.
I believe that criminal law is the most stringent type of law, so when applying it we must consider the concept of “modesty and restraint.” That is, criminal law should be avoided unless necessary, in which case it must be applied as lightly as possible.
As expressed within criminal law, this is called “the principle that punishment must be commensurate with the crime and with the offender’s responsibility for that crime.”
When law gives way to tyranny (恶法), it naturally loses its authority, and judicial actions based thereon are compromised. This contradicts the basic aims of criminal law.
The deterrent force of criminal law lies not in the severity of punishment, but in the certainty (必然性) of punishment. It would be a major mistake to replace certainty with severity.
Returning to the topic of [my employees’] prison sentences, in this case, has criminal law lost its original intention?
A court of law should be a place where suspects can feel at ease. If the court’s decision were convincing, using the most appropriate laws to carry out a fair trial, wouldn’t that be helpful in the suspects’ rehabilitation? Isn’t the basic aim of criminal law to prevent crimes, rather than to punish?
Chairman Mao once said, “Let the people speak, the sky won’t collapse.” I think that the relevant ministries have overestimated my significance. I’m just an ordinary young person born in the 1990s posting a few articles online. The sky really isn’t going to fall. You’ve truly taken me too seriously.
Today I have to write out all these things so everyone can know our situation. At least a few years from now, someone will know that there were a few young people in Fujian who loved Mao Zedong, that they were full of vitality, that they dared to speak the truth, and that they went to prison with dignity.
I also hope that the broad masses of red friends assess what is meant by “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—is that what we did? What is written in the third article of the Constitution?12 If you can’t take care of a problem, should you take care of the people who caused it?
By the time this letter is published, I will probably be cut off from communication. Next stop is the detention center, then after that, the prison. But I’m not afraid! If this call (呐喊) can help my employees to leave prison just one day earlier, it would worthwhile.
I’m begging for a fair trial for my employees. If the relevant ministries can read this, I hope [you/they] can make a decision in accordance with similar cases throughout China that could quell our doubts.
Take care, broad masses of red friends! It’s hard to avoid setbacks on the road of propagating red culture. Everyone, relax. Even if it’s in the detention center, I’ll continue studying and researching Mao Zedong Thought, contributing the last bit of my strength to the great project of national rejuvenation!
See you in a few years, comrades. Now I’m off to prison.
December 31st, 2021
January 04, 2022
- China’s underground left remains dominated by various types of Maoist groups and other Leninist formations, despite the quiet proliferation of several anti-authoritarian left currents over the past decade. We plan to outline the different currents and debates characterizing China’s unofficial political landscape more systematically in future work. Meanwhile please consult “A State Adequate to the Task: Conversations with Lao Xie” in the second issue of our journal, Chuang 2: Frontiers, and various posts on our blog, such as “Seeing through Muddied Waters, Part 2: An Interview on Jasic & Maoist Labor Activism” and the preface to “Smart, Disaffected & Unseen.”
- This is probably the most common charge applied to dissidents in China, explored in our article “Picking Quarrels.”
- We don’t know whether the group itself used this name or if it was just assigned to them by the police, but the phrasing suggests that it was the actual name of a company or media platform.
- One of the key divisions among Chinese Maoists since the 1990s that we will explore in future work is the divide between nationalists and internationalists—a divide that generally but not always corresponds with “reformist” vs. “pro-revolutionary” positions calling on “real socialists” within the CCP (or in some cases “peasants”) vs. “workers” (and students from poor backgrounds) as the potential political subject fighting for the change the Maoists want to see. Although debates about this hardened into a clear division around 2012, with the nationalists generally giving critical support for the Xi administration and the internationalists becoming its sworn enemies, there are still some who straddle the fence, and Yu’s ambiguous language may reflect such an ideological ambiguity—if it is not mere rhetoric intended to elicit mercy from the state.
- This is a translation of the title under which the letter was published online by an unknown poster on January 4. We assume this was a repost from wherever Yu published it originally, since the letter is dated December 31st, and the last two lines were repeated at the top (omitted here). Scroll down for original Chinese letter.
- We have removed the author’s ID number, and telephone number, though both are available in the original letter. These are very likely offered to show the author’s sincerity, and to prove their identity. However, this private information is of no real import for our translation.
- “Red friends” (红友) is a new and still uncommon term that we also translate interchangeably as “comrades” throughout this letter. We can only assume it was coined to distinguish from the now almost universal use of the old term for “comrade” (同志) to mean LGBTQ+, and to be more politically specific than other replacements that have been popular in recent years, such as “people sharing aspirations on a common path” (志同道合的人).
- This date differs from the court documents we have found, which say they were detained on May 3, formally arrested on June 1, and sentenced on December 30. We’re not sure how to explain this discrepancy.
- Deng Liqun (邓力群, 1915 -2015) was a theorist and also one of the leading figures of the CCP’s “old left” wing in the 1980s. “Purged during the Cultural Revolution, Deng emerged in the 1980s as one of the most vocal members of the leftist wing of the party in the lead-up of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He advocated for the orthodox Communist-style planned economy and spoke out against market economic reforms and political liberalization. He retreated from active politics in 1987, after failing to secure enough internal support to gain a seat on the Politburo, which was partly attributed to his hardline ideological stance, but continued to agitate for the leftist line.”
- The copy of the text of the court document available to us at this time has some further information about the five arrested. Here is a brief summary of some of their personal information in the document: Zhang Zhijing (male, 31) from Sanming, Fujian, junior high grad; Yu Chaoquan (male, 31) from Minqing county, Fujian, junior high grad; Qiu Pingqin (female, 27) from Zunyi, Guizhou, junior high school grad; Qiu Pinghui (female, 28) from Zunyi, Guizhou, education level unknown; Huang Xiaochun (female, 19), from Fuzhou, Fujian secondary school. It would appear, then, that the individual named Huang Yao may not have been arrested.
- This sentence literally reads “I’ve thought about all kinds of ways, consulting with a lawyer, defending them, and so on.” It’s not clear yet whether they actually did consult with a lawyer.
- This may be a typographical error on the author’s part, as the third article of the Constitution deals with democratic centralism, while the thirty-fifth article refers to freedom of speech.