China's Marxist Dilemma

Cover Image: Badiucao

“Comrades! Today we commemorate Marx, to salute the greatest mind of human history, and to demonstrate our steadfast faith to the scientific truth of Marxism,” said Xi Jinping, the president of China and the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, in the party conference celebrating  the 200th anniversary of Marx.

In fact, Marxism did make a comeback in the Chinese civil political discussion in recent years, yet the government chose to crack down on it. This phenomenon has demonstrated the Chinese communist parties’ dilemma in dealing with its Marxist legacy.

China is currently the second biggest economy in the world and has achieved rapid economic growth since the economic reforms of 1979. The reform transformed Chinese economy from a Soviet-style, central-planning economy to a relatively free market. Despite its de facto adaptation of a market economy, Marxism remains, at least on paper, a guiding ideology for the Communist party. But why does the party still attempt to preserve Marxist elements if they no longer play any crucial roles in Chinese society today?

Such an attempt can be attributed to two major motives. First, the party seeks to mask the huge ideological discrepancy as “unique”. The official name of the CCP ideology is known as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” which essentially is tailored for the Chinese society. It provides an expedient justification of the status quo, a relatively free market that co-exists with an authoritarian party operating under Leninist principles like democratic centralism. It’s still “socialism”, but with Chinese characteristics; there are billionaires, but they can also join the Communist Party. It’s free for one to create a company, but not a political party.

Moreover, the party preserves Marxism in order to preserve its revolutionary legacy. Revolutionary legacy is a common source of political legitimacy that allows the party to gain popular support. It also allows patriotic political mobilization through party establishment. This phenomenon is exemplified by other revolutionary authoritarian parties like the Ba’athist Parties in the Middle East and the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico.

As a result, the adapted version of Marxism is deemed to be inclusive of everything the current party leader wants it to be. This system, according to the party, would always operate perfectly normally in its current form. Such an effort was even intensified after 2014, as Xi increased his authority within the Party as well as in the political institution. In a visit to Peking University in May, Xi claimed that students should study and promote Marxist ideology.

In this process, Marxism has gradually become hollow, merely a means of party propaganda instead of a concrete ideology. However, among popular political discussions, Marxism was adopted by some as a way to express their grievances. The decline in civil society tolerance and economic growth has caused discontent across Chinese society, and many young students have again adopted Marxism as calls for more radical change. All of this seems similar to the early 20th century, just like when the Communist Party was established and gained support among college campuses. Increasing numbers of Marxist societies are being established in colleges, and online pieces promoting Trotskyism and Maoism are gaining greater attention.

Ironically, it is the political education by the state that provides these students with political inspiration for radical change. Works of Marx are just readily available sources for them to question reality and demand greater equality and justice. Also, these students are mainly born in the 1990s and bear no historical burden from Marxism’s controversial past in China, such as the Cultural Revolution. Unlike liberal dissidents born in the 70s and 80s, the younger generation has no memories about the 1989 massacre, which allows them to take a more radical approach without fearing consequences. Furthermore, unlike old-guard Maoists who resist Western values, these students have clearly learned strategies and languages from left-wing activists in Western countries.

For a long period of time, this kind of dissent went unnoticed, under the cover of Marxism and Maoism. The tolerance quickly vanished after these student activists took their politics to the streets. The decline in Chinese economic growth and unfair labor laws have caused several labor unrests since 2014. In July, 90 workers signed the petition to form a union in the Jasic factory in the city of Shenzhen with active involvement of a Marxist student activist. The strategy, in which the student activists promote labor movement by entering factories, was widely utilized by South Korean left-wing activists in the 80s. This labor unrest quickly drew considerable attention online, sparkling discussion. Marxist students across the country wrote open letters calling for the release of workers after thirty workers were detained, and some students went to Shenzhen to demonstrate their support.

At this time, the state decided to crack down on the unrest before further consequences developed. At least 40 students and workers were detained, and the whole unrest was accused of being “penetrated by foreign power.” These students faced even greater pressure from the state after the incident. For instance, Peking University actively threatened to shut down the Marxist Society in their campus. Recently, Marxist students were even assaulted at Nanjing University.

The rise of Marxist activism has essentially demonstrated the dilemma faced by the Party. Their expedient ideology can no longer be justified by economic growth, as it has slowed down in recent years. It would be impossible for the party to either completely abandon its revolutionary legacy or restore the old central-planning economy, since either option will weaken the legitimacy of the current regime. Nevertheless, the good news for the party is that it still possesses time, opportunity and popular support for adjusting to a viable solution. If the values of equality and justice continue to disappear in China, the party ideology and revolutionary legacy will continue to be challenged by radical students and workers, just like the Jasic incident.