On the global stage, President Xi Jinping presents China as a proponent of the free market and a champion of economic globalisation.
Back home, however, he is leading a campaign to indoctrinate the nation with ideologies of Marxism, Leninism and Mao – communist greats who advocated the elimination of capitalism.
As the world’s last major communist-ruled nation, China claims to uphold the ruling philosophy of Marxism and its various mutations, such as Leninism and Maoism. And now Xi’s thought is also enshrined as another such mutation.
In practice, China has long abandoned Karl Marx’s basic principles, after it began market reforms in the late 1970s that turned the once Stalinist backwater into the world’s second-largest economy.
Today China bears many of the hallmarks of a capitalist society, but a kind of party-led capitalism with a state-regulated market. It is now a marketplace dominated by tycoons and state monopolies; corruption is systemic, and inequality prevails. In this state-directed capitalism, wealth inequality is rampant, Dickensian exploitation is not uncommon, and the number of billionaires is even greater in China than the United States, the world’s largest economy. And this is exactly the kind of the political-economic system Karl Marx and his German philosopher Friedrich Engels called the world to overthrow in their famous 1848 Communist Manifesto.
Ironically, China’s Communist Party says it is exploring Marxist economics even as it pledges to allow market forces to play a “decisive role” in the distribution of economic resources.
History has proven the total failure of all Marxism-inspired socialist movements, be it in Mao’s murderous Great Leap Forward and the destructive Cultural Revolution, the Orwellian rule in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the genocide perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and the miserable life under the Kim family dynasty in North Korea.
For sure, few of China’s near 90 million party members are true believers of Marxism. Many of them joined the ruling party to get a golden passport to power and privilege, or they were just seeking a symbol of success. That is why all Xi’s predecessors – Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – showed little enthusiasm while paying lip service to communist orthodoxies that they themselves might not have believed.
However, Xi is now leading a campaign to attach communist orthodoxies to his own dogma.
Since he came to power, he has directed more resources to promote and foster Marxist doctrine and Maoist traditions.
Xi also wants to make China the global hub of Marxism, more than two decades after the worldwide demise of socialism. Driven by him, China went all-out with much celebratory fanfare to mark Marx’s 200th birthday, which fell on May 5.
The question is whether Xi is really dedicated to socialism and a believer in Marxism, Leninism and Maoist thought, or is he just using campaigns to promote his own political theory and shape his legacy?
With his thought being enshrined in party and state constitutions, Xi now enjoys a stature as a communist spiritual sage, paralleling Mao and superior to Deng.
Indeed, for Xi, communist rule and his absolute grip on power matter more than any particular “ism”. It is apparently an effort to resist the universal values on freedom and democracy, ideas thought to be a threat to single-party authoritarian rule.
Xi’s enthusiasm for communist orthodoxy might also aim to assert his absolute authority and justify what is likely to be a lifelong, monarch-style rule.
This was revealed on Monday by Wang Huning, China’s top party ideologue, and a member of the pinnacle Standing Committee of the Politburo, when he declared that Xi’s thoughts are the “Marxism of modern China”, thus making him the “savour of the Chinese nation”.
We should ask: would Marx now even recognise the last major power founded on his dreams? ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s