China: tragic death of a young leftist worker leads to outpouring of grief and anger

Around 21 January 2021, a young worker who operated a small channel on the popular Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili died in destitution amidst family discord, disease, and conflict with his employer. He starved to death in his rental apartment, and his body was only discovered days later by the landlord.

As the news spread, discussions about his death exploded on popular platforms such as Bilibili, Zhihu (a popular discussion forum), and Weibo (a ubiquitous messenger app). Within a day, his Bilibili channel’s followers soared from 200 to 500,000, and two days later to 1.31 million. His name became the second-most-searched topic on Zhihu, with users expressing their grief and regret at the passing of this young man. One of them compared his tragic life and death to that of troubled Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who also lived in poverty and obscurity before finding fame posthumously: “the anger of Van Gogh was worthless until he was six-feet under.”

What happened?

In short: capitalism squeezed this young man to death, with the ruling class simply watching on, as usual. This exploitative system soured Muocha’s family, work and private life, and forced him into a desperate struggle for survival, like so many others. The so-called “vigorous poverty alleviation campaign”, and the basic social security that the Chinese government has long been promoting, seemed to be completely absent for this unfortunate individual.

On 5 April 1998, Muocha, whose real name was Chen Songyang (陈淞阳), was born in one of the poorest regions of China: Liangshan, Sichuan. His parents divorced when he was three. Though custody was awarded to his mother, he lived with his grandparents for most of his childhood. His family was originally neither impoverished nor wealthy, until his grandmother fell ill. According to his friends on the internet, his parents owed huge debts from paying for his grandmother’s medical expenses. Since then, Muocha and his parents started to grow apart and he ended up living alone. Some have speculated that this happened because his parents went into hiding to avoid the debtors.

Muocha grab 1This young man, known as Muocha (墨茶, meaning Ink Tea), had long lived in extreme poverty, resulting in his long-term malnutrition. He eventually died of diabetic ketoacidosis, a lethal condition triggered, in this case, by starvation / Image: public domain

He had to drop out of trade school. After asking his mother for living expenses, which resulted in nothing, he started supporting himself after turning 18 in 2016. During this period, he lived in an internet cafe for a long time and kept looking for jobs. His QQ Messenger username at the time was Qingyu (清宇), and he borrowed money from friends he made on the internet, which he never repaid, presumably due to financial difficulties. After being down and out for a whole year, he went to Chengdu to work in 2017.

The work in Chengdu only mired him into deeper poverty. Inexperienced, and without a high school diploma, Muocha faced severe exploitation. He got a docker job with a monthly wage of ¥800 (about 120 USD), which was only half of the legal minimum wage in Chengdu that year. Yet the rent for an affordable apartment was500 (about 80 USD) per month, leaving him with ¥300 (about 45 USD) to spend on everything else. Chengdu is a big city, where the cost of living is higher compared to the countryside. 300 Yuan wasn’t enough for three meals a day. Getting enough food to eat was a daily challenge for Muocha. Ravaged by starvation and hard labour, he contracted gastric illnesses.

During April and May of 2018, Muocha struggled with his boss over long-unpaid wages. He was fired, and his boss stomped his ID card into pieces. Muocha was further swindled by criminals after just having lost his job. A stranger tricked him out of ¥300 using Huabei (花呗, an application from Alibaba, with functionality similar to a credit card). He barely understood what Huabei was. Muocha’s class consciousness rapidly grew in response to his hardship. He started publishing content online expressing left-wing ideas. His many videos, articles, and comments can still be seen today.

As Muocha fell further and further behind on his rent and his body became incapable of physical labour, he decided to go back home to seek help. However, he could not afford to travel and had to ask his friends on the internet for help. Eventually, he managed to scrape together some money to go back home. He considered this money to be a loan in the hopes of reserving the last bits of his dignity and promised that he would repay it once he started to make some money. Of course, the debt was never repaid. Many of his friends already knew that there was no way he could pay them back, and simply treated it as financial support. Still, there were others who broke off their friendship with Muocha over his inability to pay them back.

Hospital records Imae public domainA hospital record shared by Muocha. The text reads "1. Fibrosarcoma carina (nose) - hospitalised - recovered 2. Diabetes mellitus type 2 - clinically unconfirmed - unrecovered 3. liver functionality damage - clinically unconfirmed - unrecovered" / Image: public domain

Muocha had been suffering from stomach problems for a long time and decided to seek treatment in a local hospital on the advice of a group of friends. Yet, some of the debts he incurred made him ineligible for coverage from China’s National Healthcare Security. He thus had to use his only savings and some assistance from friends. At the local hospital, his gastric illness was diagnosed as gastric ulcer and gastritis. As he could not afford the cost of long-term hospitalisation, he hurried home after a few days of receiving an intravenous drip. Fortunately, the local villagers did not ask him to repay his debts.

His friends suggested that he should apply for state-run low-income assistance. To this suggestion, Muocha explained what he himself had discovered: as an able-bodied young person, legally considered to have an income, he would not be eligible. He would not get any help for falling into poverty due to illness. Moreover, low-income assistance requires a certificate issued by the village committee and police station (where household registrations take place), which requires an ID card, which his previous boss destroyed.

In 2019, Muocha learned that the house he once lived in was going to be demolished (according to laws of China, he should have inherited the property left behind by his grandparents), and the government would compensate him with ¥300,000 (about 46,000 USD). He thought that the hard days were coming to an end, but his family members returned home to kick him out of the house, the only shelter he owned. His family (including his father) found some people to beat him up on the day of their return.

Muocha ImageLeft: bills from the hospital, we can see the units for his medicine were sold in single tablets and his account balance being -¥2049 (about 300 USD). Right: Muocha’s posts on Bilibili (First one reads: “I streamed for less than an hour tonight. Midway through, I felt that the screen flashed a few times and then my head fell on the table. I fainted for a few minutes. Not a big problem. I will be more cautious next time.” The second one reads: “Cherish my last few days [of life]...”) / Image: public domain

Under these circumstances, Muocha had to rent an apartment in the downtown of the county. He worked for 10 hours during the day and live-streamed on his Bilibili channel for two to four hours in the evening (at this time, he mainly created videogame-related content). The only food he had was instant noodles. Before he was banned in 2020, his followers reached 10,000, and his situation seemed to be turning around. During this time, he started to repay his debts. He was later banned, however, for publishing a commemorative video for the Russian October Revolution and other left-wing videos, and had to start over. Muocha then moved to Xichang, Sichuan for work in January 2020.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, Muocha could not find any work. At the advice of his friends, he decided to become a Virtual Livestreamer (V-tuber) for a living. After receiving some computer components, and a virtual character model donated to him by his friends, Muocha started his V-tuber career on Bilibili. For the sake of survival, he stopped including leftist content in his videos but instead made derivative videos based on popular videogame artwork. The likes and followers he received were far fewer than he previously had. The only food he could afford was instant noodles, rice and fruits; at times he even picked up vegetables thrown out by the markets. Soon, his health deteriorated, and could not do heavy labour any more. It is quite ironic to see such a hardworking and tenacious individual became poorer and poorer the more he worked.

He was diagnosed with a tumour in his nose in June. In August, the tumour started pressuring his optic nerves and caused extreme discomfort. His friend Misaka Ilyich requested support for him on social media. From October to November, Muocha started passing out frequently and was constantly thirsty, requiring a large intake of water due to a serious case of diabetes. Yet he was still searching hard for jobs until eventually he could not keep up and had to receive financial support from his friends. He then received an operation on his nose tumour in Sichuan’s Panzhihua hospital, which depleted all his savings. Even his medicine was purchased in single tablets while he still owes the hospital ¥ 2000. Some state media claimed that his father paid for the operation fees, but if true, how was his account balance still negative? Also, it seems unlikely that the same father who hired thugs to beat Muocha and evict him would help him out of a bind.

The last winter of Muocha’s life was particularly cold. He lacked warm clothes or sufficient food, and was reluctant to buy even a few meds priced ¥1.8 (about 0.28 USD) to treat his serious diseases.

Residence Image public domainMuocha’s residence / Image: public domain

In December, Muocha’s spirit began to finally break. He was surrounded by festivals and family gatherings and meals, all of which seemed out of reach. During the Winter Solstice, he wrote about how he neither knew of nor could afford to partake in the Northern Chinese custom of eating dumplings. A week before he passed away, he wrote about desperately wanting to eat strawberries, but not being able to afford them. Worse still, from 17 December, he had been vomiting up everything he ate and drank and became incapable of ingesting food. In the end, he died from the disease of poverty at 22: about half the average life expectancy of British workers in the 1800s. The official cause of death was diabetic ketoacidosis triggered by starvation. In other words, he starved to death.

Muocha kitten 2 ImageSome posts from Muocha before he passed away. Left: “I saw you all eating dumplings in your posts, but I have never eaten dumplings during the winter solstice. This is my first time knowing of this custom.” Right: “I really wanted to have some strawberries. I am suffering so much from this illness, that I am vomiting everything I eat. I really, really wanted to eat strawberries. A shame that they are too costly”. (Comment reads: “I mailed strawberries to him the day he sent this. A pity that the express was too slow. Alas!”) / Image: public domain

Resonance and repression after Muocha’s Passing

Muocha passed away in January 2021. At the time, his followers numbered no more than a few hundred. Yet by 25 February, his account had already acquired 1.5 million followers. And a Zhihu thread discussing his situation before his passing also had up to 20 million views.

1000 followersMuocha’s response to the achievement of 100 followers / Image: public domain

The massive echo that Muocha’s death sounded among Chinese internet users was probably seen by the state as an affront on its much-touted “poverty-elimination policies.” Of course, the Muocha incident in itself exposed the lie that, under the regime of the Chinese Communist Party, people are becoming better off every day. Before Muocha’s death, he suffered bans, deletion, and silencing by the regime. A few days after he was confirmed dead, and with the rise of public outcry, some pro-government private media attempted to twist and slander Muocha’s situation before his death.

Some state media also jumped in to whitewash this tragedy, claiming that the poverty elimination policy was still underway, and that the family of the deceased lived in happiness and good health. They claimed everything in China was heartwarming and positive in general; it was only because the deceased had a withdrawn and rebellious personality (and even committed “crimes”, perhaps demanding his wage) and ran away from home that this tragedy transpired. Some other sources simply redirected attention from the wider social implications of Muocha’s death towards his personal family issues.

Some reportage was so crude in its whitewashing (including that of the Sichuan Observer News, 川观网 ), that it completely misreported the locations where the events took place. Others, such as Edge News (界面新闻), had no inkling of the objectivity of their reporting on this story, and even presented information that completely contradicted that reported by other local and state media.

Screengrabs Image public domainHeadlineNews(头条新闻): "The other side of Muocha’s life: he committed crimes and was detained multiple times" / Image: public domain

These slanders of Muocha are baseless. According to his friends and the videos he created, Muocha was far from a withdrawn or rebellious person, he was only incapable of getting along with his family. As a 20-year-old young man without a high-school education, he faced many difficulties. Yet he still hung onto life without support from his family.

A quote from the French writer Romain Rolland goes: “There is only one true heroism in the world: to see the world as it is, and to love it.” Muocha’s attitude towards life precisely reflects this sort of heroism in the face of adversity. In addition, he was not only a victim of capitalism, but also a leftist with a revolutionary spirit. He had seven accounts on Bilibili in total, and six of them were banned. The channel of one of these was named: “Worker of the Red Star Republic Federation”. To this day, we can still see the emergence of his class consciousness, his absolute disdain of capitalist society, and his genuine hostility towards supporters of capitalism on his main account, Tea黑茶 (Tea-BlackTea).

The significance of the Muocha Incident

What does Muocha mean to Marxist revolutionaries? Quite obviously, the working class and popular masses sympathised with the suffering he endured. In these times, it is common for hard-working labourers to end up like him in China. In December, we witnessed a massive demand for wages in the Changshuo electronic device manufacturer factory in Shanghai. In January, a member of staff at Pinduoduo (the largest agriculture-focused technology company) suddenly died after working continuously for 60 hours. Also in January, a delivery worker in Suzhou (a city close to Shanghai) decided to immolate himself to demand his owed wages.

These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the crimes of Chinese capitalism. This is the basis for the youths in China to spontaneously evaluate and question the system: why are these things happening? How has a state that presents itself in the first article of the constitution as “socialist… [and] under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants”, become so reactionary? Are labour unions and labour laws just decorative? Why do profits flow into the pockets of the bureaucrats and capitalists while workers literally starve? If the workers are supposedly leading society and should be protected by the state, why do they lack any form of social support?

Screengrabs 2 Image public domainSome quotes from Muocha before his passing away. Tea黑茶 used to be his main account / Image: own screenshots. “What you mean is quite simple, and we can summarise it into one line: ‘exploitation is reasonable while resistance is sinful.’ Do you really think that you can forever be a slave? Did you forget that capitalism goes into periodic economic crises? How can you be sure that you will not become like a quarter of the American population that lived under the poverty line during the Great Depression? Japan and Germany used war as a way to alleviate their economic crises, how can you be sure that you won’t be one of those who died worthlessly on the battlefield? Do you really think that being a slave means stability?” / Image: public domain)

More interestingly, the topic of the eight-hour working day also reached second place in Zhihu’s search rank in the aftermath of this young man’s death. We can easily see how events like the Muocha Incident and others are touching the nerves of the working class. The working class can no longer bear the cage that the bourgeoisie forces upon them, and the whip that compels them to work. As the oppression that comes from the bourgeoisie grows stronger, the development of class consciousness will be the perspective for China in the long run. This is the reality that the bourgeoisie cannot escape.

In addition, we see the intention of China’s so-called poverty-alleviation policy: to reinvest some of China’s excess surplus-value in infrastructure in some impoverished areas in order to forestall a crisis of overproduction. But this reformist policy cannot protect China from the inevitable economic crisis that is inherent to the capitalist system, nor avert the trend of concentrating more and more wealth in fewer hands. Neither can it get rid of the source of poverty: capitalism itself. These policies will not fundamentally resolve the great inequality and impoverished conditions facing the majority, let alone change the proletariat’s social position, or allow them to genuinely run society in their interests.

If we were to take a broader view of China, we could say that all the economic, technological, infrastructural miracles it has ever achieved are the direct result of the efforts of workers from all professions, rather than the stewardship of a bureaucracy that benefits from capitalism. These fat cats do not have the right to claim credit for the economic miracles of their country, while holding US Green Cards and hoarding huge sums of wealth overseas. In this sense, they aren’t even the genuine nationalists that they claim to be.

In any case, the working people have no country, let alone any common interest with these bureaucrats, and cannot have any illusions in the pipedream of “national rejuvenation” that the ruling class creates. If we are to overthrow this society ruled by the bourgeoisie and totalitarian bureaucrats, the theories of Marxism are a necessary weapon for the revolutionary youth and workers. We must unite in solidarity and fight for revolutionary changes in our society! Only the programme of revolutionary socialism and workers’ democracy can bring us a world that justifies the ideas that Muocha defended in his lifetime.

This article is mainly based on primary sources from internet users such as Misaka Ilyich (御坂伊里奇), Muocha himself and others. Some references are drawn from the mainstream press. The internet user k2e4z7x9 also provided indispensable help in researching this topic.