With its soaring glass towers and giant neon signs, Beijing looks like the new mecca of global capitalism. But behind the glitz there’s growing disenchantment with relentless market reforms that have shrunk social services and thrown at least 20 million people out of work. Within intellectual circles, the echo of this disillusionment has become the rallying cry of a group known as China’s New Left. This loose coalition comprises leading academics, many of whom have studied in the West and are disenchanted by it. They’re challenging China’s current market reforms with a simple message: China’s failed twentieth-century experiment with Communism cannot be undone in the twenty-first century by embracing nineteenth-century-style laissez-faire capitalism. China is “caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism, and suffering from the worst of both systems,” says Wang Hui, a professor of literature at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. His passionate denunciations of China’s market reforms in Du Shu, a magazine he edits, are partly credited with energizing China’s New Left intellectuals. “We have to find an alternate way. This is the great mission of our generation.”

Such grand visions notwithstanding, the New Left’s adherents don’t have a unified ideology beyond the broad brush strokes, or a coherent set of alternate policies. Some are hard-liners who find common cause with China’s “old” leftists, who remain faithful to Mao’s radical “Communism with Chinese characteristics.” Though they say they rue the violence of the Maoist years, they remain enchanted with the sociopolitical initiatives of that period, such as collectivization. But the majority of New Left intellectuals are moderates who recognize that old Communist dogma lies discredited, and who simply want to rein in the excesses of China’s market reforms. Their main complaint is that China’s export-led growth strategy skews society and allows the fruits of reform to be harvested by urban residents and by government and Communist Party officials.

That criticism resonates increasingly with both discontented workers and peasants. “This is now an unjust society,” says Lu She Zhong, 55, a village leader in central Henan province, who’s been battling local authorities for six years over unpaid compensation after his entire village was resettled to make way for the giant Xiao Langdi dam on the Yellow River. “I know such projects are important, but why were we cheated in the bargain?” Public anger over illegal demolitions, withheld pensions and corruption led to more than 50,000 protests in 2003, seven times the number from a decade before, according to official reports, including those from the Ministry of Public Security.

But significantly, public security officials and police who used to crack down hard on such protests and blame external forces for trying to destabilize China now apply New Left thinking to explain the causes of the unrest and urge a kinder, gentler response. “Surprising numbers of analysts in the public security system display an undisguised sympathy for the very worker and peasant protestors the police are supposed to suppress,” wrote Murray Scot Tanner, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington, DC, in an article in the Summer 2004 issue of Washington Quarterly. “In their writings, they characterize laid-off demonstrators as ‘exploited,’ ‘marginalized,’ ‘socially disadvantaged,’ ‘victims’ and ‘losers’ in economic competition, driven to protest by social distrust and the ‘heartlessness’ of the free market. They frankly concede that many protesters are victims of crooked managers who drove their factories into bankruptcy through illicit dealings or who absconded with company assets.”

Indeed, the degree to which the New Left’s rhetoric meshes with that of the government’s indicates that President Hu Jintao and his team are tacitly supporting the New Left. Part of Hu’s motivation is to discredit previous President Jiang Zemin, who committed the country to his awkwardly named “Three Represents” theory. Generally dismissed in the West as a euphemism for Reaganesque trickle-down economics, Jiang’s theory is enshrined in China’s Constitution, even though it is widely blamed for the deep inequalities gripping the country.

Though China is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it is also one of the world’s most unequal societies. In a country where people used to save for months to buy a Flying Pigeon bicycle, the roads are jammed with gleaming Audis and Buicks. But among them, the unlucky ones who have missed the opportunities that have come with economic reforms still pedal their now-rusty Flying Pigeons. Free access to education and healthcare has been drastically cut, especially in rural areas, and property that was once seized from the rich and redistributed to the poor is being taken from farmers and given to developers.

The argument that these changes were forced by “the discipline of the market” has angered many Chinese, causing party leaders to worry about the nation’s stability. Chen Xin, a professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and a self-described New Lefter, says Hu realizes he must correct the imbalances created during Jiang’s term because while a democracy can balance between extremes by throwing a party or a president who’s gone too far out of power, “in a one-party system, the party must have its own self-correcting mechanisms–or else it will lose touch with the people.”

Emboldened by such tumult, New Left intellectuals, who have been questioning China’s market reforms from the sidelines since the early 1990s, have stepped up their criticism. Wang says it’s time for people to understand that China’s problems are not merely fallout from market mechanics but the result of “bad policies and bad governance.” He and other New Lefters have begun educating the public about the faults they see in China’s reforms through a series of well-publicized articles. “The government is more focused on helping export manufacturers than agriculture and rural welfare,” which affect far more people, says Cui Zhi Yuan of Tsinghua University, a leading New Left thinker. “[One of] the largest expenditure items in the budget is not education or healthcare but tax rebates to exporters. So essentially the government is returning money to [domestic and multinational] exporters while cutting welfare programs.”

With businesspeople now allowed to join the Communist Party, New Left intellectuals are also challenging what Cui calls the growing “nexus between corrupt politicians, bankers and businessmen who in the name of reform are looting China.” Though both Wang and Cui say there is no doubt that China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which generally lose vast amounts of money every year, need change, they are calling for a process of “institutional renovation” that would allow SOEs to restructure without surrendering ownership or abdicating responsibilities to workers.

Critics of the New Left, such as Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at the People’s University in Beijing, dismiss their talk as fluff and say New Lefters “criticize but have no real alternative” to the current global economic system, based on the Washington Consensus. While Wang accepts that the major focus of the New Left is constructive criticism, he says a new economic framework is being created. “Just because those without imagination cannot see it doesn’t mean it isn’t being formed,” he says.

At the core of the New Left’s policy recommendations is a focus on what they call the San Nong (or Three Nongs): issues concerning the plight of the Nong Min (peasants), Nong Ye (agriculture) and Nong Cun (rural communities). Currently the average annual rural income in China is the equivalent of about $355, and China’s 786 million farmers, who are 70 percent of the population, account for only 39 percent of domestic consumption and hold just 19 percent of all deposits in the country’s individual bank accounts, according to government reports. More than 50 million people still live in poverty, according to government figures, and the real number is likely much higher. Cui says that focusing on the San Nong will allow China to make the transition from an economy based on foreign direct investment to one based on organic growth and driven by domestic investment, which will raise local salaries and standards of living.

New Left thinkers say their strident criticism, coupled with increasing protests in villages, is succeeding in leading the government to soften some of its earlier policies. For example, China’s National People’s Congress recently passed a new bankruptcy law that will give primacy to workers’ rights when a company goes bust. Financial support to farmers has also increased, and now fewer migrate to cities looking for work as daily wage earners. That’s shrinking China’s pool of cheap labor and upsetting factory owners. But championing such causes and arguing in favor of development that is “less GDP-focused and more people-focused” is what the New Left sees as its immediate role, says Cui.

Still, dissent is a delicate business in China, and sociology professor Chen Xin is quick to point out that the New Left’s concern “is not politics but social welfare. We’re only amplifying what we see happening around us. Hopefully, that will aid and guide the government.” With the Chinese government congenitally opposed to any sort of unsanctioned organization, Wang also emphasizes that “we’re not a group…just a loose affiliation of people with similar beliefs.” He adds, “Even the term ‘New Left’ is not ours. It was first used to discredit us and to portray us as the old socialists. But I don’t really mind. When something new is happening, it’s normal for people to try to define it in old terms.”

If Wang’s benevolence toward his labelers seems magnanimous, it is partly because the “left” label has begun to work in favor of the intellectuals. “I’ve been reading some New Left articles, and they make me feel very warm because they remind me of the values my parents used to talk to me about,” says Maria Zhang, 24, a student at the Beijing Forestry University. “I feel like China has lost its bearing by bending too much toward Western ways. We’re out of touch with our past and core values.”

With such sentiments increasing, President Hu, who took over from Jiang two years ago, has brought a different tone to decision-making in Beijing. His government has said it will look beyond GDP growth to address such issues as environmental decay, regional inequality and unemployment. Lu, the village leader in Henan, dismisses this as “only words” to mollify restive groups. But Chen says rhetoric is always the first step toward change in China. “That sets the national mood,” he says. “Then there are some broad changes in policy and then, over many years, detailed changes in governance and implementation of laws. Right now, I think we are already at the second stage.” Indeed, Hu is currently overseeing a massive reshuffle of officials and replacing older and discredited officials with a younger generation of technocrats.

But even Hu’s public indications that he intends to steer China more toward a German-style socially responsive state doesn’t entirely satisfy Cui. “The truth is that even the Western left’s policies [like progressive taxes] are only reactive and aimed at correcting imbalances caused by a capitalistic system,” he says. “Our ultimate goal should be to develop a new theory of poverty and an independent society where such massive imbalances do not occur in the first place.”

Despite his seemingly anti-Western stance, Cui, whose school works closely with Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, admits that most of the essential principles the New Left is advocating have come from the West: full-cost pricing (which passes on the costs of environmental and health damages caused by products to their manufacturers); full financial disclosure (which reins in potentially destabilizing financial tools such as hedge funds); dismantling of tax loopholes and havens (in countries like Switzerland); new definitions of patents, copyrights and royalties (which emphasize their productive use rather than restricting ownership); and new salary schemes (which emphasize wages plus a share in profits). That these principles are still not widely accepted even in the West doesn’t daunt him. “China is finding itself,” he says. “We have a new will to build a certain kind of society–a better society.”