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Listeners of the World, Unite! Why Stressed Out Students are Turning to Revolutionary Songs

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Henry takes a deep breath. Pause. He starts singing the first verse of “White Army, Black Baron” into his microphone. The Red Army combat anthem once sung at a Leningrad rally in 1923 reverberates through a university dormitory in Sichuan province, China. 

A few hours later, after audio-editing, his cover of the anthem is finished. 

Henry moves on to complete the digital paperwork for uploading to Chinese music streaming site NetEase; he will have to wait another one or two days for his music to be approved by moderators. Soon after that, the comments will roll in.

The 19-year-old registered himself in the Independent Musician Recruitment Initiative on NetEase Cloud Music during quarantine in March last year, becoming one of over 200,000 independent musicians on the platform. One of the major benefits of NetEase is the highly personalized recommendation function. It allows smaller musicians to more easily reach niche audiences — in Henry’s case, a growing community of internet savvy young Chinese leftists.

Young Chinese Leftists Tuning In

This group of young leftists have taken full advantage of functions on NetEase Cloud Music that allow the streaming platform to double as a social media site, creating playlists of revolutionary music, addressing each other as comrades and discussing Hegel in the highly active comment sections. 

Many have profile pictures and usernames that explicitly reference the Soviet Union. One user, for example, bears the name of Bolshevik-revolutionary-turned-politician Mikhail Kalinin. Another identifies as a “sailor of the Soviet Navy.”

Each playlist functions as a themed forum. Some are hyper-specific, with only songs relating to the Sino-Vietnam war. Others are more comprehensive. One playlist titled (without much subtlety) “Communism! Dialectical Materialism and the Restless Youth” with the description “Workers of the World Unite!” has over 360,000 listens. It contains the repertoire of the Russian State Academic Choir, popular songs from China’s socialist era and multiple versions of the socialist anthem, “L’Internationale.”

Netease China Leftist Playlists RADII

Leftist playlists on NetEase Music

Meanwhile, in the comments section, users bemoan the fact that “the capitalists have banded together” while praising “our great mentors and leaders, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin!” 

For those who want to go beyond socializing in comment sections but don’t want to register as independent musicians, NetEase’s “private radio” function allows users to upload audio files as episodes with less restrictions on content. 

Ziyu, a self-described “hardcore atheist, amateur Soviet Union researcher, Marxist-Leninist student of Economics,” has a radio show named, “The Crimson Banner on West Village” — West Village being the location of New York University, where he is currently studying as a freshman. His episodes consist of Soviet-era songs and the occasional social commentary.

His journey on NetEase Cloud Music began towards the end of his junior year of high school. According to him, it all started when he randomly discovered the Russian patriotic march “Farewell to Slavianka” on the platform: “Then I got recommended more and more Russian or Soviet songs from NetEase, and I discovered the community by reading some of the comments,” he says.

Having embraced leftism a year prior, he soon became an active voice on the platform. In February 2020, after completing his college applications, he created his own radio show.

C’mon Workers!

Ziyu had been interested in politics since eighth grade, but only turned to what he calls “authoritarian leftism” amidst mounting pressure from his home and school life in his sophomore year of high school. 

He is not alone. It is easy to find references to frustrations around school, parents and the uncertainty of the future in comment sections. “Listening to this playlist makes pulling all-nighters doing homework every night bearable. Communism gives me strength,” writes one user.

Young people in China are coming of age in an era of deteriorating employment conditions, rising class inequality, and increased surveillance and censorship. They face extreme academic pressure at school only to graduate into an increasingly uncertain job market. 

The anxieties of late-stage capitalism have manifested in various ways in popular culture, most recently with the viral meme “Morning, dagong ren (laborers)!” and the buzzword “involution”, which is used to decry intense, inescapable and often meaningless competition. 

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As faith in liberal democracy and neoliberalism wanes, it’s no surprise that socialism — in this case, a refutal of the present day and a nostalgia for China’s pre-1979 past — has regained popularity among the young and discontent, especially in a society where terms like “communism” and figures such as Marx and Lenin are not burdened with the same derogatory intonations as they are in the some other parts of the world. 

There’s also a particular appeal in the brand of leftism that NetEase music fans embrace most passionately. “[It] tells you who your enemy is and what you need to do right from the start,” says Henry. “And violent revolution is the mainstream opinion in the community. Emotionally, it’s very attractive.” Many people — including Henry — go from being apolitical to extremely radical overnight. 

It is worth noting that the community is overwhelmingly male, in part due to the military fetishizing elements of the culture. Previous popular military-oriented subcultures had mainly focused on Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union. When jingri (精日 Japan-admiring) and jingde (精德 Germany-admiring) content — often veering on fascist apologia — became the target of heavy censorship in 2018 and 2019 preceding the 70th anniversary of PRC’s founding, Soviet-admirers were left alone to take over the vacuum. 

Rising Above Online Trash Talk

While traditional leftist rhetoric is less likely to be outright censored compared to other forms of political speech, the community still exists between the uneasy boundaries of political discourse on the Chinese internet. Ziyu’s radio was almost banned for uploading “Marching for Our Beloved,” a song about the Gwangju democratic uprising on May 18, 1980 that was also sung during the 2016 Candlelight Revolution and the 2019 Hong Kong protests.   

Henry’s first song, a cover of the Polish socialist revolutionary anthem “Whirlwinds of Dangers,” was taken down after only a day for reasons unknown to him. He’s since developed a clearer sense of what is allowed and what is not. “Red” songs from pre-1979 China are tricky: the ones praising the Party are welcome, while ones that are more explicit about class struggle and conflict are less so.

He’s also become more cautious about protecting his identity. He no longer uses his real name on NetEase Cloud Music, and has decided to refrain from publicly discussing his ideological views on other social media. 

As China cracks down on labor organizing and imprisons labor-rights activists, the caution is hardly unfounded. 

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But the majority of young leftists on NetEase Cloud Music have no part in any form of political organizing. Mostly, their engagement in leftism extends only to listening to the music and venting in the comment section. For many, social commentary doesn’t go much deeper than jokes and expressions of frustration. Many are enthusiastic about leftist symbolism without being well-versed in the theory or the background of historical events that they invoke. Few understand the daily realities of labor advocacy. 

Henry says he’s currently reading Leon Trotsky; Eduard Bernstein is next on the list. He doesn’t participate in discussions on NetEase Cloud Music too much anymore, although he says he will continue to create and upload music. “Using your political passion to make jokes and trash-talk online isn’t terrible,” he says, “but that’s just for blowing off steam.” 

He hopes that his fellow comrades study theory, critically analyze class realities and actively work to garner public support. That is, after all, the only way to truly prepare for the revolution.

Ting Lin
    Ting Lin grew up in Guangzhou and Toronto. She is a freelance writer covering Chinese history, culture, and internet politics.