A Protest Song Has Emerged in China — It’s the Communist Anthem

This article was written by Yaxue Cao and originally published on the China Change webpage on March 5th, 2023.

The first time I heard The Internationale sung in China as a protest song was when Shanghai went into lockdown for about a week last spring. At that time, I watched dozens of videos from Shanghai on social media every day. One clip left an impression on me. It was taken in a residential area populated by apparently middle-class families. Virtually every household had their lights on, illuminating almost every balcony as their occupants stood facing the outside. A brass-band performance of “The Internationale” resounded throughout the night; upon close attention, the sounds of people singing along were faintly audible. In the apartment of the person shooting the video (you can see an elegantly furnished room), a little girl asks an adult, possibly her mother or a caretaker: “Why is there…?” The woman responds, “They’re singing, do you know how to sing?” What you hear in this 30-second clip is the opening verse of The Internationale: 

Arise, ye stricken by hunger and cold
Arise, wretched of the earth
Hot blood has begun to boil
In struggle for the cause of truth
Let us smash the old world to smithereens
Slaves, arise, arise
Say not that we own nothing
We will become the masters of the world

Shangai, April, 2022

My first reactions were conflicted, as I was both drawn to and repelled by the song. The scene itself was quite striking: locked-down Shanghainese standing on their balconies in a display of unspoken unison to spontaneously sing out in protest. But this was a communist anthem, the iconic theme of the proletarian revolution. The Internationale is emblematic of the decades of indoctrination by the Communist Party, which imprinted those lyrics deeply into the minds of every Chinese. Any other song would be preferable.

But on the other hand, what else could they sing? Virtually every Chinese knows this tune, myself included. I can’t think of any other song that would allow everyone to join in as a collective expression of anger and protest. Of the some 3,000 clips I reviewed from the Shanghai lockdown last April and May, this clip was among the most memorable, so I included it in the first of the two-part Shanghai lockdown compilation of montages posted on China Change. In fact, spontaneous choruses of The Internationale occurred not just in Shanghai but in multiple other Chinese cities during the course of the pandemic. On Douyin (抖音, the Chinese app that TikTok is copied from), there are “relays” of the song accompanied with anti-government expressions flashing across the screen.

In the months that followed, The Internationale gained currency with Chinese protesters as a resistance hymn. Last October, shortly before the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress, the lone protester Peng Zaizhou (彭载舟) unfurled banners and ignited a smoke beacon on Sitong Bridge in Beijing, playing a pre-recorded message through a loudspeaker to demand liberty, democracy, an end to the zero-COVID policy, and that Xi Jinping step down from leadership. His singular act of defiance sparked similar protests across the country. People wearing disguises and moving at night spray-painted or put up stickers in public venues such as restrooms, bus stops, bulletin boards, or even on rental bikes with simple slogans echoing Peng’s words: “No to lockdowns, yes to freedom, no to dictatorship, yes to elections.” On social media, Chinese widely shared the song Warrior of the Darkness to salute him, but it was quickly blocked by censors. 

In the evening of October 22 in a bustling Shanghai street, seven or eight young people held up a white banner, blank but for the four loaded words “No, Yes, No, Yes” (不要,要;不要,要) referring to the demands Peng had made. Their banner was the precursor of the idea of blank paper. Together they sang The Internationale in an ad-hoc, uneven chorus. The sight of them moving along the vehicular traffic caught the attention of passers-by, many of them stood to watch. 

A month later, on November 26, the Blank Paper protests began in Shanghai. Several hundred young people gathered at Urumqi Middle Road (乌鲁木齐中路) to mourn the victims of the residential fire in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, who perished in the flames due to the strict lockdown measures that kept them prevented them from running for their lives. Over the last three years, especially by 2022, many Chinese had reached the breaking point under zero-COVID, and the daily stream of outrageous tragedies on social media, or which had occurred to themselves or those with whom they were personally familiar, tested their nerves. That night at Urumqi Middle Road, the protesters sang The Internationale as they faced down the police officers forming a wall before them.

This is the final struggle
Let us gather together, and tomorrow
The Internationale
Will be the human race

At the end of the song, the crowd chanted in thunderous unison: “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

Urumqi Middle Road, Shanghai, November 26, 2022.

The next night, a similar scene repeated itself at Liangma Bridge (亮马桥), near the enclave of foreign embassies in the third ring of Beijing. The area was flooded with demonstrators, numbering minimally in the several hundreds. Mostly young people, they held up blank sheets of white A4-sized paper, singing The Internationale in the light of the streetlamps and their smartphone screens.

Mirror mourning events and protests — featuring the same song — played out on Chengdu’s Wangping Street, in Yunnan’s Dali autonomous prefecture, and in numerous other cities throughout China.

Hot blood has begun to boil
In struggle for the cause of truth
Let us smash the old world to smithereens
Slaves, arise, arise
Say not that we own nothing
We will become the masters of the world

Liangma Bridge, Beijing, November 27, 2022.

The Communist Party’s Internationale

From Red Square to the Congress of Soviets; from Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to the conference hall of the Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang, my ears spent several days on a bizarre tour that reeked of a musty smell. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, from 1922 to 1944, The Internationale was the national anthem of the Soviet Union. In 1941, after the Soviet Union came under attack by Nazi Germany and joined the Allies in World War II, Winston Churchill instructed the BBC not to include The Internationale in its repertoire of National Anthems of the Allies that played before daily news broadcast at 9 p.m. The Brits proposed to replace The Internationale with a segment of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and the Soviets said no. To avoid having to play the communist hymn, the BBC simply canceled the entire anthem segment, until Churchill relented six months later. The Americans likewise censored The Internationale in the production of the 1944 short documentary Hymn of the Nations until, in 1988, the Library of Congress restored it to its original version. 

That says all about the free world’s misgivings about the communist anthem at the dawn of the Cold War. 

The Internationale traces its origins from the Paris Commune, and became an anthem of international socialism and communism by the late 19th century. In 1923, the song was translated into Chinese and played during the closing ceremony at that year’s Third National Congress of the nascent Chinese Communist Party — a tradition that has been followed ever since. During the Mao Zedong era, the morning and evening news programs of the Central People’s Radio Broadcasting at 6:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. all began with The East Is Red and concluded with The Internationale. At those two slots, this program was the only voice on all channels throughout China. 

Chinese during the Mao era were destitute. Everything was in short supply but not The Internationale. From what I heard, the first step at the oath-taking ceremonies when joining the CCP is to play or sing The Internationale. In the ocean of suffering created by the Party’s endless political campaigns, this music equivalent of the Communist Manifesto has never been absent. One video clip from 1965 that I watched shows a massive chorus of ten thousand singing The Internationale in the Great Hall of the People. Such scenes were common fare in the Mao era, except that unlike today they could not be so conveniently recorded. In Maoist “revolutionary films,” whenever a Party member is executed by the Nationalist government (Kuomingtang), The Internationale is bound to appear in the soundtrack. Here is a compilation of clips to give you an idea of how it looks:

Be it commemorating the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, or official mourning at the death of late CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin, The Internationale features heavily in the communist regime’s events. 

On July 1, 2021, when the CCP celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding, The Internationale was played in the presence of the thousands of performers at Tiananmen Square, and Xi Jinping sang along piously. And last October, it played at the closing ceremony of the 20th Party Congress, as is customary, with Xi Jinping personally announcing “Perform The Internationale!” All delegates stood as a military band blared out the tune. 

In the 2021 movie “The Revolutionary” (《革命者》), which follows the early Chinese communist revolutionary and CCP founding member Li Dazhao (李大钊), when Li is brought to the gallows, the theme song The Internationale, performed by singer Na Ying (那英), plays in the background. In an ahistorical dialogue, Li Dazhao tells a young uniformed man: “Promise me you will live until the day that the revolution succeeds. For my sake, see what that day is like.”

The Internationale in 1989

There are many eyewitness accounts from the 1989 student protest movement describing how demonstrators at Tiananmen sang the Internationale, the Chinese national anthem, and the then-pop hit Nothing to My Name (《一无所有》) by rising rock star Cui Jian. Of these songs, The Internationale clearly predominated among the protesters. An example can be seen in the clip published by ABC, “Chinese protesters sing anthem The Internationale.” In an audio recording from the scene in Beijing, student leader Chai Ling (柴玲) cried herself hoarse shouting, “Defend Tiananmen to the death, to the last man! Fellow students, please join us to sing The Internationale!”  

In this clip from the BBC archive, Kate Adie reported from the scene on the night of June 3rd, 1989: “A line of soldiers were strung out facing a huge crowd. The air was filled with shouts, ‘Fascists! Stop killing!’ We were in the line facing the troops. They were about 250 yards away. Young people were singing The Internationale to the background of gunfire.”

As many witnesses would recall, at 4 a.m. in the morning of June 4, the lights at Tiananmen Square were suddenly turned off. To the thousands still left on the square, it was becoming apparent that the final moment was fast approaching, and they sang The Internationale. Shortly after the lights went out, columns of tanks and other armored vehicles moved in from Jinshui Bridge in front of the Tiananmen, crushing tents in their rapid advance to the Monument to the People’s Heroes, where the students were gathered. Columns of soldiers moved into the Square and closed in around the students. 

In a clip broadcast by CCTV later that day — and the only time that state media broadcast such footage to the nation to show the military’s victory in clearing the square and “suppressing the riots,” you can see crowds of surviving students packed together and hear them singing The Internationale: “This is the final struggle/let us gather together, and tomorrow…”

Thirty years of Rock & Roll Internationale

Newly out of Mao’s era in late 1970s and early 1980s, urban Chinese for the first time began to peek into the world through a crack in the newly opened gate to the outside world. Western cinema, art, literature, and pop music, accessible only to a very small, enterprising number of people in the capital and other major cities, shocked Chinese sensibilities. Take music for example. What captured the eyes, the imagination and feelings of a small number of young music-lovers in Beijing was not the pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but Rock & Roll from America and Europe: The Beatles, Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and more. 

“I was washing clothes and listening to music, so excited like I was about to cry. As I washed clothes, I said to myself, How could there be such wonderful music in the world?”, said Ding Wu (丁武). At the time, there was only one store in in Wangfujing (王府井) selling string instruments, and the store had only one electric guitar, made in China. Ding Wu was the young man who bought it with 400 yuan, which was his entire savings, working as an art teacher for a year and a half. Soon he quit his job and began to play Rock & Roll with music friends, starting from imitating the songs of European and American rock bands. They rehearsed on rooftops of apartment buildings, in warehouses, factory workshops, any place they could find. And they borrowed from each other rare or hard-to-find instruments. They performed in restaurants serving Western food or small parties, making little money and getting by eating ramen noodles and milk powder. In 1988, Ding Wu and his friends formed a band and named it “Tang Dynasty.” Beijing was the birthplace of Chinese Rock & Roll, and Tang Dynasty was one of its few early bands.

Every day in Beijing of the 1980s, people were discovering new and exciting things, and exposed to what they had not known before or could not have imagined. But Rock & Roll, in the most direct way, awoke the sleeping volcano in the hearts of young people.    

On February 17 and 18, 1990, “90 Modern Concert” was held in the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing (北京首都体育馆), and six rock bands were invited to perform. Outside the ticket office, the queue stretched several blocks, and for a 5-yuan ticket, a scalper ticket sold for ten times more. That concert of 18,000 audiences was dubbed Beijing’s Woodstock, and Tang Dynasty was an instant hit. Between 1990 and 1991, the band recorded its first album, also the first Rock & Roll album in China, with a Taiwanese label called Magic Stone (魔岩唱片), and sold half a million copies the first year. Starting with A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty (梦回唐朝), also the title of the album, the first ten numbers were the band’s own creation, and the last was The Internationale, a choral piece and the band’s first-ever rendition of the song.

The inclusion of The Internationale in the album struck me as curious, and I didn’t find an explanation for it. For more than thirty years since, the band has sung The Internationale in just about every rock concert they’ve performed at. Often, thousands of fans in the audience would sing along, bringing the concert to an electrifying climax. (An early version, 1993 Berlin, 1994年 Hong Kong Coliseum, 2017 Fushan Lake Qiandeng Music Festival, 2018 in Chengdu Cactus Music Festival, 2021 Shandong Cable TV– first 2’16”, 2021 Chengdu Hope Music Festival, 2022 Xinxiang, Henan, 2022 Changzhou Canal Rock & Roll Festival)   

In KTVs throughout China, when you select The Internationale, Tang Dynasty’s hard-rock rendition shows up on the screen. 

Reverberating in the air on the April night in Shanghai that I described at the beginning of the article was Tang Dynasty’s performance of The Internationale

On Zhihu (知乎, a question-and-answer forum similar to Quora), a netizen wrote, answering to the question “How to evaluate Tang Dynasty’s Internationale” in 2020, “Speaking of dissemination, there is nothing that can compare with Tang Dynasty’s version. It’s been almost thirty years, people are still listening to it, singing it; it’s still considered one of the iconic songs of Chinese Rock & Roll. I found that many of my students have memorized the lyrics of The Internationale because of the band.”

Tang Dynasty, 2021.

A specter to haunt the CCP

Over the past two years, especially in the past year, The Internationale has seen a resurgence of popularity in China. “One internet user said that he came across the song five times in one day [on WeChat], including existing versions by professional singers, choral performances, and people singing along with recordings [of the tune]; some of the videos had gotten thousands or tens of thousands of likes and reshares.” 

From a rock band on the streets of Xi’an (西安), to the solo of an old man on the street of Dandong (丹东), and even in some unexpected venues and niches, such as the CP28 Shanghai Comic-Con in July 2021, The Internationale was sung.  

Of course, some do use it as part of the repertoire of “red songs.” One singer in his twenties set up a “thousand-member online choir project” to sing The Internationale in celebration of the CCP’s 100th anniversary. Between the end of 2020 and July 2021, over a thousand people participated.

But The Internationale has undeniably become a hymn of resistance for multitudes of Chinese. One poem by a Chinese internet user reads: 

The whole internet sings The Internationale
Our people suffer but with no way to tell
Dark clouds cover all the sun in the sky
Evil prevails to steal goodness away
It’s the New China in which we live today
Don’t force us to cry these rivers of tears

One young woman observed that The Internationale enjoys the popularity it does because it “expresses the hopes and voices of so many working-class people” and their discontent towards those with capital. A response on Zhihu says: “As the pandemic has dragged on for over two years, nationwide economic growth has slowed down, inflation has placed considerable financial pressure on the people, and the three mountains of medical care, education, and pension [decline] directly impact the survival and livelihood of the common folk. Coupled with the corruption of certain unscrupulous officials, the law enforcement agencies’ [crackdown] on various cyber financial frauds, food safety, people are experiencing unprecedented anxiety about the future. Moreover, there is no way for the people to vent their feelings of dejection. Singing The Internationale is for them a means to call for justice and fairness. This may be the reason why The Internationale has become so popular on the internet.”

However, The Internationale going viral has caused disquiet among the CCP and its supporters. A widely shared clip from the Shanghai lockdown in 2022 shows four police officers donning the “big white” full-body hazmat suits as they knocked on the door to a young couple’s flat. 

The police say: “somebody [made a police report], and we’ve also heard you playing The Internationale. We ask you to cooperate with our investigation.” The response: “When did we play The Internationale?” The police continue: “That’s what our investigation is for, we need to ascertain the facts. Right now we are making an oral summons, and hope that you’ll cooperate.” The husband said that he would comply, and the police asked him to come with them. The man said: “Now it’s a crime even to play The Internationale.” His wife protested, “What’s wrong with playing The Internationale?” An officer dismissed her: “It’s okay to play The Internationale, but we need to investigate.” 

An article posted on WeChat expressed concern of incitement by far-left Maoists: “These days The Internationale is performed only at the conclusion of Communist Party meetings. How is it that this song has suddenly proliferated all over the internet in all stripes and colors? Some even match it with displays of red flags that suggest mass rallies and parades. It seems to me that there are some hands acting behind the scenes to intentionally stir up the emotions of the masses.” 

In a Chinese-language community on Reddit, someone commented in a post titled “Beware of foreign forces singing The Internationale at CP28 [the Comic-Con in Shanghai] and spreading mistaken left-wing thought” wrote: “A group of well-fed people at a cosplay-themed anime and manga exhibition sang The Internationale. Are they saluting the revolution, or are they cosplaying Valvrave the Liberator? …The spirit of communism cannot be cosplayed.” 

Another article posted on WeChat takes a threatening tone: “Playing The Internationale to incite people and cause trouble is not only illegal, you could be committing a crime. You have to be aware of the setting when you play the song: who is playing it, where you play it. The Internationale is not a free pass for you to disturb public order.”

On Douyin, people discovered that the comment and share sections on many videos featuring The Internationale had been disabled. 

It’s not just the young who have discovered The Internationale as a protest hymn. This February, retirees in Wuhan and Dalian came out en masse in front of government buildings to protest the reduction in healthcare benefits. They loudly sang The Internationale, and some even called out “down with the reactionary government!” Some of these seniors described how they had lived through the political campaigns of the 1950s, the Great Famine, and the Cultural Revolution, only to be laid off in the 80s and 90s. They got hit with all the miseries, but didn’t get to enjoy much of the prosperity associated with the reform and opening up. Now in their old age, they’re not only worried about their healthcare, but also their pensions and even their funeral arrangements.

From 1989 to 2023, from the students at Tiananmen Square to the middle-class Shanghainese, from the “blank paper” youths to the “white-haired” seniors, The Internationale has apparently become the go-to song of protest in China. Everyone knows it by heart, and it sparks resonance from all quarters: “Slaves, arise, arise/Say not that we own nothing/We will become the masters of the world!”

This is awkward for the Communist Party, as their own ideological anthem is stolen from them in broad daylight to become the hymn of an eclectic revolution directed at the regime. Should the trend continue, we can expect the CCP to designate “singing The Internationale with malicious intent” as the newest item on the list of banned activities in the People’s Republic of China.

The Party may decide to expand its censorship and suppressive measures, but the problem is: they have no way to delete The Internationale from the collective memory of the Chinese people.

Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) is the editor of China Change. Cover photo credits: Shanghai, 1973. Photo: Bruno Barbey

The Chinese version 一首反抗歌曲在中国诞生,它是共产主义战歌《国际歌》

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