The Communist Party of China was founded by less than a handful of people in humble mud caves nearly 100 years ago.
Can China resurrect Marxism?
Now it’s the biggest political party in the world, with 89 million members.
Compared to the founding fathers, however, China’s new generation of party members have it easy: no war to fight, no revolution to die for, and no persecution to escape from.
Life has been comfortable, and the good old-fashioned communist values appear increasingly irrelevant: especially when China is championing economic growth and consumerism.
But not so for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Today in an event celebrating German philosopher Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, Xi praised the ideology of the founder of communism.
“Marxism is a powerful spiritual weapon for China’s revolution, development and reform. It helped a great nation achieve miracles,’ he said.
He was addressing hundreds of top Chinese government officials in a nationally televised speech. They stood solemnly in the golden glow of the Great Hall of People, listening to the Internationale – the anthem of the communist movement.
The specter of communism may be haunting them, as Marx would say: But in reality, not even China’s top officials may be among the faithful.
Is the Party losing its faith?
Marxism has been enshrined as a guiding thought in China – the soul of the Chinese Communist ideal. But for some party members – especially the young ones – it is nothing more than a tool to help them advance the social ladder.
“China has around 90 million Communist party members,” Zhang Lifan, an independent scholar told Inkstone. “But there are few true believers. Most people join the party to improve their living conditions or pursue political careers.”
Indeed, the party is struggling to recruit young loyalists, or even to collect dues from its existing members.
In the northern city of Tianjin alone, more than 120,000 party members coughed up $43 million after the party told all its members nationwide to pay up. Authorities blamed an increasing indifference to the party’s rules.
This is a crisis of belief that President Xi Jinping wants to address, especially when the party faces pressure from inside and out.
“Although President’s Xi’s power has reached a peak,” Zhang said, “he needs Marxism to firm up the legitimacy of Communist Party rule and establish his authority.”
Internationally, President Xi also wants his party members to stay united against those who challenge China as it flexes military and economic muscles.
“We have never faced a task so heavy and a challenge so risky to reform and develop our country,” said President Xi in his speech today. “We need to keep strengthening our faith in Marxism and Communism to resolve major risks and conflicts.”
Marxism in crisis
Today, young people growing up in China still all have to study Marxist thought in school: but these thoughts seldom foster the same loyalty as when the party was founded in 1921.
“Many young Chinese know Marx’s theory of materialism,” Li Lizhu, a philosophy doctor’s student at Peking University told Inkstone. “But few are encouraged to engage in political discussions or to read about Marxism in its original text.”
There’s just too much else going on.
In the era of an internet age, Marx’s appeal can’t even compare to a British cartoon figure, Peppa Pig, who has a large group of loyal followers online who call themselves shehuiren – literally “societal persons” – unruly slackers wanting nothing to do with the Party.
Some of those who are truly interested in Marxism, however, are barred from exercising its doctrines, which encourages the working-class proletariat to rise up against oppression.
In November last year, Zhang Yunfan, a Peking University student was arrested on charges of disturbing social order for holding a Marxist book club with students, social workers and labor rights defenders.
“Xi’s praises for Marxism are a satire on China’s current system that suppresses the proletariat,” said Zhang Lifan, who also cited a recent move to clear migrant workers out of Beijing. An internal government document called them the “low-end population.”
The party may be resurrecting Marxism as a powerful spiritual weapon to strengthen its rule – but it doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of the people.