By Palden Sonam*
In theory, Marxism has for long been the ideological foundation of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) regime. In practice, however, while Marxism is employed as an instrument of Party rule, its principles are not. Under China’s President Xi Jinping in particular, a new lease of life has been injected into ideological propaganda to garnish the increasing re-partification of the state and society.
In May 2018, during a commemoration of the 200thanniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, Xi hailed Marx as the “greatest thinker of modern time” whose ideas inspired a society free of oppression and exploitation. The study of Marxism is actively promoted from classrooms in the hinterland to the corridors of power in Beijing. Television shows, rap music and cartoon series have been launched to make communism, cool, and Marx, modern—especially for China’s tech-savvy millennials. This new push for ideological studies also includes the ‘Xi Jinping Thought’—described by the party’s chief ideological theoretician as the “Marxism of modern China.”
Therefore, in this atmosphere of renewed love for Marx, the government’s reaction to the activities of young Marxists in China is particularly intriguing. In August 2018, 40 Marxist students who came to support workers to form a union in Shenzhen disappeared after they were raided by authorities. In China, barring the Party controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, no other union is permitted to exist. In November 2018, authorities detained over a dozen students from premiere universities across the country in a seemingly coordinated effort to clampdown on labour related activities. The latest offensive on Marxists in China took place in December 2018 coinciding with Mao Zedong’s 120th birth anniversary, when the head of Marxist Society at Peking University was bundled into a black car while on his way to attend a memorial for the very founder of People’s Republic.
These incidents beg the question: why does the Party treat young communists with disdainful repression for practising what the Party has for long been preaching via its ideologically greased education system?
Primarily, the activism of the young Marxists makes evident the fact that the Party hides and seeks its interests using the facade of Marxism. Despite the Party’s lofty rhetoric, labourers (especially migrant workers) live and work in substandard conditions. The students’ attempts to advocate the case of the labourers embarrassingly exposes the gap between official rhetoric and ground realities in the country. For the authorities, this represents a bigger threat to their power than the formation of a small union as the former exposes their hypocrisy, whereas the latter is a negligible challenge.
Secondly, the Party is also apprehensive of the organised nature of activities, particularly by students, given the memory of the 1989 students movement whose 30th anniversary (June 2019) is fast approaching. Additionally, the authorities are aware of the students’ ability to mobilise in the age of social media. Moreover, the political price of a violent suppression of any student movement is likely to prove costly. In this context, the regime seems to be frantically dousing any emerging sparks of discontentment before they transform into a bigger flames like 1989. It is due to such considerations that the Party is aggressively targeting the activities of the young Marxists notwithstanding the latter’s appeals to working class consciousness.
The CPC is not Marxist in the true sense of the term and the so called Sinicisation of Marxism is hardly a justification for its disregard for the core principles of Marxism. Since inducting the super-rich into its membership in 2002 under Jiang Zemin, the Party has become club of billionaires and millionaires. At present, the higher rungs of the pyramid of power include over 100 billionaires as members and/or advisors to the CPC leadership. The nexus between the powerful and wealthy changed the Party from being a mass party to an elite party with less emphasis on revolution and more on self-aggrandisement. The students’ attention to and advocacy regarding the hardships of workers highlights the Party’s failure to address the grievances of the proletariat and peasants who paid the most for China’s economic miracle in terms of their lands and labours but gained the least from the ensuing development.
Despite Xi’s loud calls of Marxism’s relevance to China’s present and future under the Party’s guidance, the rift between the rhetoric of Marxism and reality in China has never been clearer. With its omnipresence in every aspect of the Chinese society, the Party is free to interpret and employ Marxism depending on circumstances because it enjoys the exclusive right to choose an ideology and its interpretation in the country.
However, the recent crackdowns have not been without international backlash. For instance, in October 2018, Cornell University suspended exchange programmes with Renmin University on account of the latter’s failure to respect the academic freedom of its students. In another case, in November 2018, over 30 scholars including Noam Chomsky announced their boycott of Marxism conferences in China arguing that their participation would make them complicit in the state’s clampdown on Marxist students.
Overall, from Mao to Xi, whether it is due to the faction-ridden nature of Chinese politics or a lack of genuine interest in Marxism, Party leaders have been more Machiavellian than Marxist; and they view the preservation of Party’s dictatorship as imperative for the preservation of their own power within the Party.
*About the author: Palden Sonam, Researcher, China Research Programme (CRP)