Last week, Beijing hosted the inaugural “World Congress on Marxism,” accompanied by much celebratory fanfare in the capital city. Over 400 luminaries, government officials and scholars from the United States, Egypt, Cuba, North Korea and more than a dozen other countries were flown in for the proletarian extravaganza. The event lasted for two days and it will be held every other year in Beijing, the newly self-anointed center of global Marxism studies.
The event was hosted by Peking University, China’s flagship higher education institution, through which Marxism first came to China soon after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In addition to being the permanent host of the biennial World Congress on Marxism, the university broke ground in May for the Congress’s “Karl Marx Building,” to be completed in 2017.
Peking University has also funded a half-dozen major research groups known as “The Six Projects on Marxism” and created an official flagship website on Marxism as a central depository for research. The Chinese government has just announced that it will devote a large amount of money and manpower over the next 20 years to building the world’s largest collection of materials related to Karl Marx and Marxism.
The world’s largest and most disciplined political party, the Chinese Communist Party enjoys a total monopoly of state power and claims as its founding principle Marxism and its various mutations, such as Leninism and Maoism.
“The realization of communism is the highest ideal and ultimate goal of the Party,” says the Chinese Communist Party’s charter, as printed in the People’s Daily Online, “Marxism-Leninism brings to light the laws governing the development of the history of human society. … So long as the Chinese Communists uphold the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism and follow the road suited to China’s specific conditions and chosen by the Chinese people of their own accord, the socialist cause in China will be crowned with final victory.”
It’s not just empty talk. Marxism is highly relevant to everyday life in the world’s most populous country, a mandatory curricular course taught at every level of the education system from kindergarten to graduate school. Tens of millions of devoted “political teachers” in the schools, unknown millions of “ideological workers” at every level of the society, and the ubiquitous “political commissars” in the People’s Liberation Army — they all collectively serve as the official clergy of Marxism. President and party General Secretary Xi Jinping, who earned a doctorate in “scientific socialism” from the prestigious Tsinghua University, heads the order, whose avowed mission it is to bring the world’s proletariat to the communist nirvana. Average citizens hoping to live a successful life in today’s China must aspire to become a Party member as a symbol of success and a golden ticket to power and privilege; when one dies, one is said to be going to “meet Marx.”
The two-day event, however, was not without some discordant notes.
An American Marxism scholar from California asked whether Karl Marx would censor scholars and prohibit certain taboo subjects from being discussed. A Harvard scholar gave the keynote speech in which he challenged the popularity of Marxism in China and touched on quite a few taboo topics, including the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement of 1989. He further criticized Mr. Xi’s ambitious China Dream agenda as not “intellectually coherent, robust and wide-ranging philosophy needed to stand up to Western ideas.”
To counter these incorrect thoughts, Liang Zhu, former vice president of Peking University and a fundamentalist Marxist, lambasted Chinese intellectuals’ “fantasy and illusion about imperialism” and proclaimed that the international communist movement would not be able to withstand the blow if it were defeated in China.
The World’s Congress on Marxism ended Sunday with a “Statement of Common Understanding” which reads in part: “Marxism is the light guiding today’s international community plagued with various complicated troubles to escape mankind’s predicament [and] march toward a bright future.”
Popular reaction to the event is hard to gauge, but oblique mockery of the proceedings abounds. A contrarian undergraduate student asked a panel how Marxist theory explained Mao’s decision to launch the bloody Cultural Revolution. A renowned academic suggested in his blog that the nation should use Marxism to study China’s murderous Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the genocide perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the pogroms in the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the most surreal reaction, one that has gone viral on China’s Internet, is the image of two serendipitously juxtaposed headlines purportedly appearing in Monday’s Party newspaper, the Guangming Daily. The headline on the left reads “The Voice of Marxism Penetrates through History, Ushers in the Future;” while the one on the right is, “We Should Help the Mentally Ill Return Home.”
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_miles.