Zuo Dapei took the microphone and declared that China's leaders were going in the wrong direction. The country had become too capitalist. Things would improve, he continued, only if the state reasserted its control over corporate assets.
The crowd of about 220 people, who had come to hear Zuo and other authors and academics speak on the topic of "Unhappy China," cheered.
For a growing number of Chinese, the solutions to the problems of the country's present -- including the income gap between rich and poor and the manipulation of the court system by state officials and company executives -- lie in its past, with the teachings of Mao Zedong.
Although Chairman Mao continues to be revered here as the visionary who founded the country and transformed it into a world power, the Communist Party has broken from many of his ideals through market-based reforms over the past three decades.
Not everyone has been supportive of this shift, and a nostalgia for the old days has increased amid the global financial crisis. The most influential critics, known collectively as the New Left, are not like the dissidents or political exiles of a previous generation. They are not calling for an overthrow of the Communist regime. Their recommendations and criticisms are, instead, based on a belief that state power can redress the injustices created by free markets, privatization and globalization. Their views are also characterized by a fierce nationalism and criticism of the West.
Into the spotlight
Although the New Left has been publishing position papers in journals and on the Internet since the 1990s, the global financial crisis has brought the group's leading figures into the spotlight as never before. Their rise comes as the Communist Party, which has held absolute power since 1949, faces growing discontent over unemployment, contaminated infant formula that has sickened more than 300,000 babies, shoddy construction that led to the collapse of thousands of school buildings during last year's Sichuan earthquake and corruption among public officials at all levels.
In a country where the state is often quick to crush criticism, Communist officials have tolerated the New Left, which is just one part of a broader phenomenon of emboldened Chinese questioning officials and speaking out about the failings of their government.
In what commentators have called a "patriotic movement," ordinary citizens, or "laobaixing," are increasingly seeking to find a way to participate in government in order to improve it: to educate themselves about policymaking, to influence legislation and to increase transparency and accountability.
The new passion for politics can be seen in the existence of public seminars such as the one at which Zuo spoke this month. It is apparent in the popularity of such books as "Unhappy China" -- a collection of essays that reject the government's policy of increased international cooperation to help the world out of the financial crisis and argue that China should use its power to further its own position. There is also a new, wildly popular genre of fiction called "officialdom novels."
The books focus on the messy, behind-the-scenes workings of high-level government in China. One series, "The Beijing Office Representative," tells the story of a municipal official who observes real estate developers and company executives offering bribes or sex to government officials in exchange for favors. Another, called "The Mayor's Assistant," is told through the eyes of the assistant to a deputy mayor who watches as his boss gradually becomes more and more corrupt and, in the end, is sentenced to death for his crimes.
Appeal built on work of academics
The New Left's appeal is built on the work of prominent academics, including Zuo, 58, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Tsinghua University professors Cui Zhiyuan, 47, and Wang Hui, 50. They have become especially popular among young people, farmers and laid-off factory workers.
Wang, a professor of humanities who is considered the leading New Leftist, has said that China is caught between two extremes: "misguided socialism" and "crony capitalism."
"The common objective of China's New Left is to create an understanding of the full implications of China's current policies. I think if people see what is really happening in China, they might be less excited about reforms," he said.
Zuo has been critical of the robber barons who took advantage of the privatization of state enterprises. He has argued that because they did not have to pay back government-run banks and did not adequately compensate workers, they essentially looted the state's coffers.
"Look at health-care system reform, property market, and education reform -- all of them have deviated from benefiting the ordinary Chinese public under the huge influence of those interest groups that argue in the name of reform," Zuo said in an interview after his talk.
Wang Xiaodong, 55, one of five authors whose works are included in "Unhappy China" and a speaker at the event with Zuo, said in an interview that he has been disillusioned with the current leadership.
"Today in China, those elite are lazy and do nothing. They failed to generate any innovations even after spending all that money from taxpayers," he said. "China's current achievements are more a product of efforts by industry workers, rural workers."
A gathering place
The Utopia bookstore -- named after the perfect sociopolitical-economic system of Sir Thomas More's imagination and located northwest of Tiananmen Square in Beijing -- has become the premier gathering place for these intellectuals and their supporters.
Members include environmental activists, songwriters, Internet programmers and entrepreneurs, few of whom are shy in speaking out at the weekly meetings. Although attendees of the seminars have been variously described as pan-Leftists, Maoists or nationalists, many participants say they reject labels but are united in their passion to make sure the rewards of China's development are shared equally among all its citizens.
Blogger Yang Songlin, a 60-year-old who used to run his own business in Henan province, said he began to attend the meetings because of his concern that China had veered from its founding principle of helping the ordinary man. "Bureaucrats, big bosses and intellectual elite formed a joint, strong interest group while Chinese laobaixing, like workers and rural farmers, were marginalized and benefited little from the reform process," he said.
Another regular, Chang Xiangle, a 29-year-old copy shop owner from Shandong province, said he became interested in the meetings as he observed what he called the "uncured disease of the capitalist system." He has been fighting government officials and developers in his home town who have, in his view, illegally seized land from farmers. In the Mao era, he said, there was little corruption because there was a powerful system of checks and balances.
A different path
Filled with books such as "Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals and the Truth About Global Corruption," "Empire of Debt" and "Against Capitalism," the Utopia bookstore is a reflection of the group's philosophies.
Fan Jinggang, 32, Utopia's manager and a former graduate student in Marxism at Peking University, said sales of books about Mao have increased tenfold since the economic crisis began.
During 30 years of capitalist-style economic reforms pioneered under Deng Xiaoping, Fan said, "we had been sticking to one goal: America's today is China's tomorrow, and we should work for that." Now, with the United States in crisis, Fan said, "Chinese people are beginning to reflect on this phenomenon -- whether the financial crisis is not only purely economic or financial but something that arose because of a development-path issue, that there might be a problem for us to pursue such a path."
Researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.