Chinese leader holds up German philosopher as inspiration for national prosperity
BEIJING—Decades into China’s capitalism-fueled economic miracle, President Xi Jinping is promoting Karl Marx as a rallying symbol for the nation.
To mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth this month, Mr. Xi launched a high-profile campaign celebrating the German philosopher. Communist Party newspapers hailed “Das Kapital,” Marx’s critique of capitalism, as “holy scripture.” Comics portrayed his life’s lighter moments—like when he was detained for rowdy drinking. State television aired a prime-time documentary and a talk show to celebrate the “greatest thinker of modern times.”
For Mr. Xi, the campaign is a way to demand loyalty within the ruling party and persuade Chinese to keep faith with a Communist government that he says has employed Marx’s ideas to make China prosperous and powerful.
While Marxism remains an official ideology, many Chinese now see their country as socialist only in name—home to hundreds of billionaires and some of the world’s biggest startups, and saddled with a widening wealth gap between urban elites and the rural poor.
The propaganda is heavy on symbolism but thin on theory. Spurning discussions of capitalist exploitation and class struggle, Mr. Xi and party officials portray Marxist ideas as tools for standing up to Western imperialist bullying and restoring China’s greatness. Their appeals carry an air of spiritual fervor, with calls to study Marx’s life for pointers on morality.
Marx “lived honestly and simply, and valued affection and comradeship,” Mr. Xi said Friday in a speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. He offered his own interpretations of Marxist theory and ordered party members to master them by reading Marxist classics as a “way of life” and “spiritual pursuit.”
Propaganda campaigns in China have often focused on promoting Chinese leaders—especially Mao Zedong —and portraying their policies as Marxism interpreted for the Chinese context. In invoking Marx, Mr. Xi is claiming the authority to replace his predecessors’ policies with his own, some analysts said.
“The posthumous cult of Marx these days serves to legitimize the present leadership and whatever it claims Marxism to be,” said Daniel Leese, a China historian at Germany’s University of Freiburg. “And only Xi Jinping is said to be capable of synthesizing classical doctrine with present realities.”
At a party congress in October, Mr. Xi declared a “new era” in Chinese socialism, a move seen as his bid to reshape the development model laid down by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping four decades ago.
Chinese officials have long grappled with the contradictions of their state capitalism and professed Marxist beliefs. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, party officials and academics debated alternative political models, and contemplated renaming the Communist Party to better reflect its tilt toward state-led capitalism.
During internal party discussions nearly two decades ago, “I said we definitely can’t change our name” as it would mean “giving up” on the party’s revolutionary history and ideals, Li Junru, a former vice president of the elite Central Party School, said at a recent Beijing seminar, according to a transcript. “Once this ideal is shattered, society would descend into turmoil.”
Instead the party kept its name and chose to “accommodate” new ideas within its traditions, Mr. Li said.
Since that debate in the early 2000s, the party has welcomed capitalists to join its ranks, experimented with political reforms to professionalize the civil service and allowed an expansion of civil society—eroding the party’s dominance to slip.
For Mr. Xi, who insists that “the party leads everything,” celebrating Marx is a way of doubling down on the party’s revolutionary roots, and rejecting China’s perceived drift toward political pluralism under his predecessors.
“Karl Marx is a holy symbol that the Communist Party uses to keep itself ideologically monolithic,” said Ding Xueliang, a social-science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The campaign started in late April, when Mr. Xi led his party’s governing Politburo in a study session focused on “The Communist Manifesto,” the 1848 political pamphlet penned by Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels.
A propaganda blitz ensued. State media played up Marx’s purported contributions to China’s present-day prosperity. While the West descended into “a new era of uncertainty and instability,” China’s experience “eloquently proved that Marxism…has opened a pathway to the truth,” the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, said in a front-page commentary.
Peking University hosted a “World Congress on Marxism,” gathering more than 120 scholars from some 30 countries to discuss “Marxism and the Human Community of Shared Destiny”—a reference to Mr. Xi’s signature diplomatic slogan.
To reach younger Chinese, propaganda officials produced videos and comics that focused on Marx’s personality and appearance.
The party’s flagship theoretical journal, “Seeking Truth,” published a 2½ minute video titled “10 Little-Known Facts About Marx,” which highlighted Marx’s Jewish background and his zodiac sign (Taurus), and explained that his iconic beard was fashionable for his time.
State television aired a two-part documentary, titled “Immortal Marx,” and a five-episode chat show, “Marx Was Right,” that featured academics and students exchanging views on the philosopher’s life and ideas.
“Was Marx really so brilliant in determining that capitalism can never avoid crisis?” Nanjing University student Kong Weiyu asked.
“Science never makes predictions without foundation,” replied Qiu Haiping, an economics professor at Beijing’s Renmin University. “Marx believed that the origins of economic crises stem from the fundamental contradiction of capitalism.”
Write to Chun Han Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org