The method in Xi Jinping’s Marxism: What’s behind the president’s push for the economic theory?

The president’s calls for Marxist economics are designed to pave the way for his policies and not a return to orthodoxy, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 12:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 12:28pm

Xi Jinping’s call last week to promote Marxist economic philosophy was more about the president’s desire to develop his own political theory and shape his legacy and less an attempt to return the country to communist orthodoxy, analysts said.

Xi has chaired three study sessions with Communist Party leaders on Marxism, most recently one last Monday with the Politburo on Marxist political economy. In the sessions, he stressed both Marxism and traditional Chinese culture and values as part of a broader push to fill a perceived ideological void in the country, analysts said.

Addressing the Politburo last week, Xi said Marxist political economy could “help conduct economic analysis in a scientific way, improve the capability of managing a socialist market economy, and better answer problems of economic development”, in the face of the extremely complex economic situation at home and abroad.

He also said the party had enriched Marxist political economy by combining its basic principles with new practices on the mainland.

READ MORE: Communist Party orders a course of Marxism for China’s universities

But Xi has also promoted market-oriented reforms, which run counter to Marxist thought. Rather than public ownership of the means of production, China has become a major destination for foreign capital and a centre for private enterprise.

That is because Xi’s focus is not on the party but on himself, according to Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

“He is not preaching Marxism as insisting that the party should continue to uphold its ideology, whatever it is, in a pragmatic way, but as it is interpreted by him as leader,” Tsang said.

Tsang added that Marx would not recognise Xi’s ideas, but China watchers realised that his take on Marxism was an attempt to make it relevant to the country’s development.

Like his predecessors, Xi apparently wants to have his own trademark theory
Zhu Zhiqun, political science professor

Zhu Zhiqun, a political science professor and director at the China Institute at Bucknell University in the United States, agreed that Xi was trying to form his own political theory and adapt Marxism to highlight his thoughts on the country’s development. This was apparent in the use of political slogans such as the “Chinese dream” and “the new normal”.

“So, like his predecessors, Xi apparently wants to have his own trademark theory, even though it’s still too early to think about his legacy,” Zhu said.

“With an officially approved theory, it will be easier to popularise and implement his political and economic policies.”

Zhu said it would be interesting to see how Xi would try to reconcile Marxism with market reforms down the track, especially in terms of private ownership and a mixed economy.

READ MORE: Workers of the world yawn: Marxism must find answers to today’s social woes, or become irrelevant PLA general warns

“Also, why has the working class, the vanguard of the revolution, been left behind in China’s modernisation?” Zhu said.

University of Nevada political science professor Pu Xiaoyu said Xi was aiming to tie Marxism with traditional Chinese thought.

“What this really emphasises is the so-called Sinicisation of Marxism,” Pu said. “For instance, Xi’s speeches emphasise the dominant role of state firms, but also acknowledge the positive role of the non-public sector and economic openness.”

Marxist political and economic theory had become increasingly irrelevant in China after three decades of market-oriented reforms.

City University associate professor Li Xigen said Marxist thought drove China’s development in the first 30 years after 1949 but the next 30 years reversed many of those changes.

“While China still can’t shake off the label of Marxism, it has embarked on a totally different form of economic development.”