China’s “Helmsman” President Xi Jinping wants the 1.4 billion people he leads to enthusiastically embrace the teachings of German philosopher Karl Marx, as part of a broader revival of the Communist Party.
China’s strongman leader will make a speech to celebrate Marx’s 200th birthday on Friday, and recently marked the 170th anniversary of his seminal work, The Communist Manifesto, by encouraging senior leaders “to grasp the power of the truth of Marxism”.
To further celebrate China’s favourite Western philosopher, the state broadcaster has been carrying a special five-part program called Marx is Correct, in which Communist Party scholars lecture an audience of teenagers about traditional socialist doctrine.
For close observers of Chinese politics, the rhetoric is not particularly new.
But there is growing reason to suspect Mr Xi believes more in the principles of Marxism-Leninism than his three immediate predecessors, who largely abandoned the economic ideals of communism in favour of “opening up”.
For starters, Mr Xi has tightened ideological controls, reversing a trend started under former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to gradually loosen them.
Secondly, he has moved to reassert Communist Party guidance of the economy by raising the profile and importance of party committees at major state-owned, private, and even foreign companies.
Most significantly, he has reportedly been pushing to give the party a direct stake and management role in some of the country’s major tech firms — a step that, if implemented, would see the Communist Party take some control of the private sector’s most successful companies.
“Most ordinary Chinese have zero interest in Marxism or Leninism,” veteran observer of Chinese politics Willy Lam, who is based at the City University of Hong Kong, said.
“But Marx and Lenin in particular are useful for Xi Jinping because their teachings justify what he is doing — namely, concentrating all powers in the Communist Party and concentrating all powers in the top leader himself.”
Mr Lam described the Chinese leader as more of a “closet Maoist”.
“He believes even though China should go around the world with an open-door policy, the party-state apparatus should still be largely in control of the economy,” he said.
Sign of the sensitivity of the anniversary
The theoretical basis of the state, like history, is an area where Chinese scholars within the mainland have little room to move.
A senior scholar of Marxism at China’s state-run Academy of Social Sciences pulled out of a pre-arranged interview with ABC News at the last minute, in a sign of the sensitivity of the anniversary.
But noteworthy in the state media coverage is a lack of emphasis on key terms such as “proletariat”, “class”, and “bourgeoisie”.
China’s official political ideology of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” allows the Government to define its form of state-backed capitalism within the socialist mould.
“China is about the ideology of power, it’s not particularly left wing,” author of The Party and senior fellow at the Lowy Institute Richard McGregor said.
He agreed Mr Xi’s China embodies the Communist Party-centric structure of Leninism more than Marx’s theories.
“The Government in China still runs on Soviet hardware,” he said.
“The constant focus on Marxism is more about controlling the definition of it within China, rather than actual adherence to the core beliefs.”
Since Chairman Mao, each Chinese leader has had their own contribution to ideological thought added to the party’s constitution, including the latest (and longest) addition: “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.”
But unlike Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought, or Deng Xiaoping Theory, Mr Xi’s writings are more an affirmation of existing Communist Party ideas mixed with strategic goals for the country’s development.
“The Communist Party doesn’t have ballot box legitimacy, so it has to hinge its legitimacy on doctrine,” Professor Lam said.
“The insistence on the sanctity of Marxism is going against the popular current, but Xi feels he needs to do this to assure the 90 million party members the CPC will remain the perennial ruling party of China.”
By China correspondent Bill Birtles