The spectre haunting China’s internet: socialism’s comeback among the youth

We have received the following report of events taking place on Chinese internet fora and social media. It shows that, despite the CCP’s totalitarian regime, the crisis of capitalism is still radicalising Chinese youth, who express their discontent online in creative ways. We believe it is valuable to publish this for our international readers, showing a process which is not readily visible through official statistics and reporting.


Since late 2019, a series of internet phenomena have demonstrated that many young Chinese people are fed up with Chinese capitalism. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences further fuelled the growth of this ferment. A new generation of Chinese youth are looking to Marxism to learn how to throw off their shackles.

Between January and May this year, an anti-capitalist mood began to express itself on the Chinese internet, particularly on social media platforms such as Bilibili and Zhihu, which are popular with educated young people.

In the article below, I will examine notable internet controversies and developments that showcase the depth and breadth of these sentiments. Due to state censorship, some of the data and information cited here are now unavailable or lost. Therefore, I could only estimate some figures according to my memory when I witnessed them online.

“996”, “251” and mass anger against poor working conditions

A notable incident last year saw internet users striking out against the extremely long work hours that are prevalent in China, especially within the tech conglomerates. The working regime is colloquially known as “996,” referring to work hours that run from 9am to 9pm (12 hours), for 6 days a week, and often with unfair wages. This has been implemented in many Chinese internet companies like JD.com, Alibaba, Huawei, Xiaomi, NetEase Game, Suning, etc. Although these working hours have been in place since 2016, the public’s accumulated anger against them found its first mass expression in 2019’s “Jack Ma 996 Incident”.

On 20 March 2019, a website called 996.icu appeared on the internet with the slogan: “996 working, ICU (intensive care unit) awaiting”, suggesting that nightmarish work hours were going to put people in hospital. Six days later, a computer programme called 996.icu (named after the slogan) appeared on the popular software developer page Github. This was a coded sign of protest, with people trying to find creative ways of circumventing China’s censorship laws. The appearance of these online phonomena became a hot topic in a matter of days, in and outside of China. Then on 12 April 2019, at the precise moment this controversy was at its height, it transpired that Jack Ma (tech billionaire, founder of the Alibaba Group and a well-known public figure in China) was an enthusiastic supporter of the 996 working hour system. This was revealed in a leaked recording of an internal company meeting, where he said:

“It (would be) a huge blessing to have 996; a lot of companies and people wanted to work 996 hours (in order to make more money), but they had no chance (to do so)... big corporations like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba strived for 996, and it was fortunate that we did so… not only 996, I would work on a ‘12 times 12 schedule’ (12 hours a day, 12 months a year).”

These snide comments not only added insult to injury for the workers, but betrayed disgusting pretensions on the part of Jack Ma. Unlike other Chinese capitalists like Richard Liu or Wang Jianlin, who know their place and keep their heads down, Ma considers himself a promethean figure who is bringing the gospel of hard work to the lazy, unenlightened masses. For a time, his megalomaniacal adventures attracted a cult of zealous sycophants who even revered Ma as the “Dad of the Nation.” With the leaking of this audio tape, however, Ma has rapidly lost his lustre. Many people no longer refer to Ma and his fellow tycoons as venerable “entrepreneurs,” but simply as what they are: capitalists.

China youth online screen 1 Image public domainA picture from the 2017 short film Gong Shou Dao, where Jack Ma played the starring role alongside many celebrity actors, demonstrating his inflated ego / Image: public domain

The anger against long working hours later converged on a highly publicised instance of the state siding with the bosses to repress workers. Former Huawei employee Li Hongyuan, who had worked for the corporation for 12 years, was jailed for 251 days after the police accused him of attempting to extort Huawei. This was because he decided to leave the company, and attempted to negotiate a leaving bonus, which is standard practice in large Chinese corporations. He was jailed in 2018 and finally released in August 2019. Notably, this jail time was not for the crime of extortion, but because of the lengthy legal procedure for appeal, during which the Shenzhen police still detained him, along with six other former Huawei employees.

This bizarre and infuriating episode led to the emergence of a new popular internet meme, represented by the numbers 985, 996, 035, 251 and 404, meaning: “You attend one of the 985 elite universities, you work on the basis of the 996 working hours system, you work hard until the age of 35, for this you are awarded 251 days in prison, and when you try to protect your rights, you lose everything - 404 (like the error code for a lost webpage).” The treatment of Hongyuan and his colleagues was symbolic of the fact that, despite studying hard and working very long hours, Chinese workers are nevertheless treated like criminals by their bosses if they ask for fair treatment at the end of their employment.

Although most of the public’s attention was focused on the specific events surrounding Huawei’s handling of this case, the online outcry nevertheless reveals the contradictions and discontent that are building up below the surface in Chinese society.

The “People’s Billionaire”

A few months later, in April 2020, a series of events took place, seemingly motivated by the bourgeoisie’s desire to accelerate and emphasise the recovery of China’s economy, which had the unintended effect of ratcheting up the masses’ anger against the condescension of the ruling class.

The first of these events was the “People’s Billionaire (人民富豪) Incident”. In late March/early April, Zisi, a journalist for Guancha.cn (a liberal, pro-government publication) published a series of articles that praised Jack Ma as a “People’s Billionaire,” “Socialist Billionaire,” and “Party Member Billionaire.” This sycophantic pronouncement rapidly provoked a backlash from the public.

China youth online screen 2 Image public domainScreenshot taken from a video recording of a Jack Ma’s speech at the 2020 Alibaba Foundation meeting, reposted by Guancha.cn on Bilibili (a popular social media platform) / Image: public domain

Zisi claims that “Chinese entrepreneurs are different from the Western bourgeois”, because “these entrepreneurs are from the PRC (People’s Republic of China), where they cannot control the government (in fact, Jack Ma is a member of CCP); therefore, they are economically rich, but politically they represent the people - and participate in politics as (a part of) the people”.

This absurd assessment is an attempt to throw a thin veil over the brutal exploitation that Jack Ma and his ilk impose upon Chinese workers, and the youth are no longer afraid of calling this out online:

China youth online screen 3 Image public domainThe video in which Jack Ma proclaims that “commerce in itself is the biggest public interest”, reposted by Guancha.cn, was quickly parodied on the internet. The screenshot depicts the video being superimposed with “piss off,” “shameless!”, “class struggle”, and “workers of the world, unite!” / Image: public domain

China youth online screen 4 Image public domainAn older video made by Jack Ma, entitled “Jack’s Home Video With His Wise Words” was also parodied, again superimposed with leftist slogans / Image: fair use

The two screenshots shown above provide a clear visualisation of how young people view Jack Ma. Further evidence can be seen on a Zhihu thread discussing the question “What is your opinion of Guancha.cn calling Jack Ma People’s Billionaire?”, which has nearly 10 million views, with the most-popular comments being fervently opposed to Jack Ma and Guancha.cn. It is clear that the youth are radicalising in a leftward direction. It wasn’t very long ago that Jack Ma was an adored public figure in China. Now, when ordinary Chinese people see him, they usually spontaneously chant: “hang the capitalist.”

China youth online screen 5 Image public domainA parody made about Jack Ma after the People’s Billionaire Incident called “The Moneyfather”, in reference to the famous gangster movie, The Godfather / Image: own screenshot

The ruling class out of touch

Another inciting incident occurred on this year’s anniversary of the renowned May Fourth movement: a historic militant struggle led by Chinese youth in 1919 against imperialism. A video was posted on Bilibili’s corporate account entitled A Bilibili Speech for the New Generation, which instantly drew controversy. In the video, a besuited man lectures the viewer about how the “new generation” must aspire to be wealthy and successful. Alongside its profoundly petty-bourgeois narrative about “reaching success”, the video showcases footage of the glamorous lives of youth from rich families. The young people that appear in the video travel freely across the world, learn new languages, play extreme sports, go scuba diving… things that most common Chinese people will never experience.

The lifestyle depicted in the video is a world away from the reality facing the overwhelming majority of young people in China. 1.1 billion Chinese people have never travelled by plane, and only 120 million people have a Chinese passport (out of a population of 1.4bn). The average weekly working time in May 2019 was 46 hours, despite labour laws stating there should be “no more than 44 hours of work in a week”. A typical household in China would have to save all of its disposable income for 17 years in order to pay for an average-sized house in 2020. In 2017, English Proficiency in China was ranked ‘low’, at 36th worldwide. And the real Gini-coefficient reached 0.67 that same year, indicating very high levels of income inequality. Unsurprisingly, not a single factory worker, delivery worker, driver, janitor, soldier or computer engineer appears in the video. Even with the pandemic spreading, medical personnel only show up for two seconds.

Previously, this tonedeaf demonstration of how out of touch the Chinese ruling class really is would result in a vague exclamation of disdain or envy, and would not typically result in a huge wave of revulsion. But this time was different: people find such haughtiness intolerable.

On Zhihu, a thread asked the question: “How do we understand some young people’s negative reaction to the New Generation video?” A Zhihu user responded to the question with Russian lyrics of Whirlwinds of Danger: an old socialist revolutionary song, popular in Poland, Russia and Spain. This response gathered 4,600 “agrees” (similar to an “upvote” or a “like” on western social media platforms like Reddit and Facebook):

China youth online screen 6 Image public domain

Another response (with 22,000 “agree” votes) simply superimposes the original “Speech for the New Generation” video’s title over photos depicting toiling workers or poor children, as a satirical dig against the original video’s themes of attaining luxury and success:

China youth online screen 7 Image public domain

China youth online screen 8 Image public domain

The notoriety of this video among the youth demonstrates their rising political consciousness. They realise that the “Chinese Dream” championed by President Xi Jinping is in fact just a pipedream. They are tired and dissatisfied with the cruel exploitation they face at their jobs. These kinds of gaffes by the rich have provoked mass fury as a result. This was expressed in thousands of mocking and scornful comments online, and even radical calls to action. The youth are witnessing, and some are actively participating in the rebirth of mass protest movements, as they start to recognise a common mood of dissatisfaction amongst one another.

There were many more events that revealed the sharp class tensions during 2020, with many enthusiastic online discussions breaking out about various struggles launched by restaurant, delivery and service workers against rapacious capitalists. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore each of these, but the two cited above are the most indicative of the mood of the youth in China at this time.

Resurgence of interest in leftism: Let Bullets Fly and Mao

Given the aforementioned events, the 2010 movie Let Bullets Fly by Maoist film director Jiang Wen has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity for its nostalgic allusions to Mao and the Cultural Revolution. On a surface level, it is about a fictional group of virtuous Robin Hood-esque bandits called “Pocky Bandits” (named for their leader Pocky Zhang), who overthrow oppressive landlords on behalf of the poor in the 1920s.

This film was intended to be the first episode of a trilogy by Jiang about the Republic of China era in the 1920s-30s. However, it can also be interpreted as a critique of how the People’s Republic of China developed after the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Pocky Zhang is clearly a stand in for Mao, while his gang of bandits, who ultimately betray him, represent the ruling class who inherited China after Mao’s death. This struck a chord with many people, who see the present capitalist regime as directly opposed to Mao’s workers’ state. Given the unbearable conditions created by China's capitalist society today, many are understandably looking back to the “good old days” of the planned economy.

During the chaotic period between January and March this year, after the initial outbreak of the pandemic, when millions of Chinese people were trapped at home and furloughed from work under conditions of lockdown, this 10-year-old film enjoyed renewed attention. Starting from February, many comments about Let Bullets Fly began to emerge online, often containing strong left-wing sentiments:

China youth online screen 9 Image public domainTranslation: “When I was little, I thought that this movie was ridiculous and delightful, but I only understood the deeper meaning of it when I grew up... He (Mao) is gone. The future generation will have to piece together who he actually was, and even more so, his ideas” / Image: own screen shot

Here is another comment from 16 February:

China youth online screen 10 Image public domainTranslation: “I used to think (Zhang/Mao) was ignorantly dictatorial, while the (bandits who betrayed him) were more open minded. And now I think the former was selflessly committed to his ideals, while the latter selfishly pursued profits” / Image: own screen shot

With the increasing attention on the film, the online discussion around it became more and more radical, as observed in these comments from 2-3 March:

China youth online screen 11 Image public domainTranslation: “Don’t miss me every day. Don’t hope for my return. When I am gone, I will be all of you. Long Live the People.” (This quote is commonly attributed to Mao, but it actually comes from a internet user celebrating Mao’s birthday on 26 December 2019) / Image: own screen shot

China youth online screen 12 Image public domainTranslation: “Whose son fought and died on the battlefield, and whose son is as wealthy as an entire nation?!” (Mao’s son died on the battlefield in Korea, while many other CCP leaders have wealthy offspring) / Image: own screen shot

Affectionate parody videos of Let Bullets Fly also began to emerge online, with some garnering tens of millions of views.

Discussions on Zhihu with subject titles like “What are some subtexts behind Let Bullets Fly?”, “Who betrayed Pocky Zhang among the bandits?”, “Why did Let Bullets Fly become so popular once again?”, have gained millions of views. Another, related question, “Who is the greatest figure of modern Chinese history?” received 47 million views, and most of the 12,000 responses answered: Mao. All of this reflects a shift to the left and a resurgence of the ideas of revolution, socialism and communism.

The leftward shift in the general ethos of Chinese young people is also demonstrated by the extent and success of their spontaneous online propaganda work, with many of their videos garnering millions of views. The most-viewed leftist video concerns the conflict between the USSR and Germany in WWII: Hey Comrade, Do You Know Where Stalingrad is? I Can’t Find It on the Map (14.81 million views). Videos about revolutionaries in history are also popular, with examples including: “Why did they study Marxism at such a Young Age?” (1.95 million views) and Stand Up, No Kneeling (1.21 million views).Critiques of capitalist society have also performed well, such as: How to Refute the Jingzis? (精资, jing zi: shorthand for exploited workers who believe they are capitalists themselves; 1.45 million views), Explain to Me, How Does Hardwork Make Me Rich?(447,000 views). Significantly, Marxist educational videos attracted much attention, including: Soviet Union: Socialism or State Capitalism? (155,000 views), What is Fascism? (131,000 views), The Haunting Spectre of the Indian Government: Indian Maoist Partisans (112,000 views). The speed with which these posts and videos spread at times overwhelmed the censors, who could not suppress them all at once.

But what is the source of all this radicalisation? The pandemic, which worsened many social-economical issues in the country, is partly responsible. Also, due to the lockdown, people have had more time to spend on the internet. Research in March 2020 shows that the annual number of videos uploaded to Bilibili has increased about 70 percent within three months, and during the very first few months of the pandemic, video uploads were at least double compared to the same period in 2019. However, given that China controlled the pandemic relatively quickly, and the lockdown is now over, the true source of the radicalisation and leftward shift in consciousness runs deeper. The resurgence of Let Bullets Fly and enthusiasm for left-wing videos is connected to the aforementioned incidents in April and May. All these developments demonstrate a rising disaffection with the state of Chinese society amongst the youth.

Where do we go from here?

The events from January to September this year indicate a clear fact: young Chinese people are increasingly repulsed by the capitalist system, and the free time they were given during the pandemic created fertile ground for their radicalisation to grow. More importantly, more and more people are starting to understand the oppressive nature of the ruling class. From this point forward, young Chinese people will always doubt the CCP’s socialist credentials; after all, what socialist state tolerates a 12-hour working day? Some of these youth will go on to study left-wing ideas in more detail, and some will become revolutionaries, seeking an alternative future for human society.

Although the overall level of radicalisation among Chinese youths is reaching new heights, these sentiments inevitably go through periods of ebb, especially under a powerful authoritarian regime. After about six months of upsurge from March to September, as students started returning to school we saw a decline in the number of radical videos uploaded, and a drop in their views. This was partially because of school and partially because of increased levels of suppression, starting in August. The Chinese ruling class understands that any protest movement must be put down when it is at its weakest. At the time of writing, many videos and their uploaders’ accounts are disappearing.

As we learn from history, the strength of students and young workers alone is not enough to transform society. The ferment within China is radicalising a new generation of young people, and pushing them to search for the ideas of genuine Marxism. In recent times, there have been attempts to organise around the ideas of Mao, which is understandable given the specific traditions in China. Marxists will stand in solidarity with genuine class fighters, while offering ideas that clarify the shortcomings of Stalinism and Maoism, to offer a new generation of Chinese class militants the ideas they need to overthrow capitalism.