China Confronts Contradictions Between Marxism and Markets

A shopper passes a display of televisions in a Beijing mall. Last month, Chinese leaders advocated adaptation of Marxism to consumer society.
A shopper passes a display of televisions in a Beijing mall. Last month, Chinese leaders advocated adaptation of Marxism to consumer society. (2004 Photo By Stephen Shaver -- Bloomberg News)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 5, 2005

BEIJING, Dec. 4 -- The Communist Party has launched a campaign among political leaders and senior academics to modernize Chinese Marxism, seeking to reconcile increasingly obvious contradictions between the government's founding ideology and its broad free-market reforms.

The campaign involves the allocation of millions of dollars to produce new translations of Marxist literature and to update texts for secondary school and university students obliged to study the official philosophy, officials said. In addition, the campaign will promote more research on how Marxism can be redefined to inform China's policies even as private enterprise increasingly becomes the basis of its economy, they explained.

The undertaking, which coincides with an 18-month campaign to reinvigorate the party rank and file, seems designed as a response to frequent complaints about the chasm between official discourse in Beijing -- emphasizing "socialism with Chinese characteristics" -- and the growing reality of often unbridled capitalism in which party officials are eager partners.

Unease over this gap has become particularly apparent among university students, who often chafe at their required classes on Marxist theory. A prominent university's party secretary recently told a visitor that his school had resolved the problem by simply teaching traditional Chinese philosophy during the time set aside for the study of Marxism.

But students are not the only ones complaining. One Marxist researcher, Yan Shuhan of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, told Oriental Outlook magazine last month that some local officials had responded to his survey queries by chiding him that "it's already out of date to talk about and do research on Marxism."

"The theory needs to be innovated on and fully developed," acknowledged Zhen Xiaoying, deputy head of the government's Chinese Socialism Institute. She added: "This is the most important stage. We are trying to use Marxism to solve China's problems. We are not only going to study the basic documents but also to seek solutions to China's current problems."

The Communist Party leader and state president, Hu Jintao, recently presided over a meeting of senior leaders during which, the government announced, they studied ways to apply Marxist precepts to the vast economic modernization underway here over the past 25 years. The gathering was one of several since early last year to deal with the role of Marxism in confronting what Hu called "a series of changes, contradictions and problems in all fields."

Since taking power nearly three years ago, Hu repeatedly has hailed China's Marxist roots, dismissing Western-style democracy as "a blind alley" for China. At the same time, he and Premier Wen Jiabao have resisted calls to rein in the economic liberalization, which has produced booming economic growth. The result has been the continuing spread of private business alongside unrelentingly Leninist policing of information, association and political thought.

In the Nov. 26 meeting, Hu called for new ways of looking at Marxist doctrine to bring it into line with China's modern reality. He did not address the question of whether this would apply to political activity as well as the economy. But he and other leaders have made clear that their promises of eventual democratization do not mean drastic changes in the system anytime soon.

"In order to build a well-off society in a complete way and promote the modernization of our socialist society, China must step up theoretical studies of Marxism and explore the theory on a still broader stage," Hu was quoted as telling fellow members of the Central Committee's Politburo.

The study meeting was featured prominently on official China Central Television's main news broadcast several days later. By an awkward coincidence, it vied for airtime with a report on Harbin, a city whose water supply was cut off because of a giant slick of dangerous pollution that local and national officials had sought to conceal.

Scholars from the Central Party School and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have said they would look for inspiration in past Chinese interpretations of Marxism. These include Mao Zedong's founding thoughts, Deng Xiaoping's liberalization theory and former president Jiang Zemin's Three Represents doctrine, which urges embracing capitalist and other leaders in addition to workers and peasants.

Some analysts have suggested that the research project could be designed to produce an elaboration of Hu's own, still vague theory calling for a "harmonious society," which he would then seek to enshrine as a national legacy the way his predecessors did.

The emphasis on new research also has fueled a debate within the party, pitting those who advocate pressing ahead with liberalizing reforms against those who say the country must hark back to its socialist roots because too many people are being hurt by the transformation.

Liu Guoguang, former assistant director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote a much-quoted article last July, for instance, accusing those who push for continuing swift reforms of weakening the party's grip on power and "changing our color." Several prominent officials and former officials applauded his views, particularly in the period before a recent meeting of the Central Committee during which a new five-year plan was approved.

Despite the complaints, Hu stuck to economic reform in the plan. But his emphasis on renewing Marxist thought could be seen as a bow in the direction of those who feel China has lost its way.

In any case, a senior diplomat suggested, most of the argument within the party arises in the context of factions competing for power and patronage, rather than genuine doctrinal differences. In particular, followers of former president Jiang have maneuvered to retain their positions while followers of Hu are jockeying to get in, he explained, and the arguments over reforms are mainly weapons in that battle for influence.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company