Karl, China needs you

Just when it seemed it was all over for Marx, the Chinese Communist Party has had a spectacular chan

According to Hu Jintao, China's president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Marxism is still applicable in China. And, in a recent announcement that has startled analysts, the party has pledged "unlimited funds" to the cause of "reviving" Marxism in China, in an attempt to turn the country into the global centre for Marxism studies.

The project is nothing if not ambitious: 3,000 "top Marxist theorists" and academics from across the country are to be summoned to Beijing to compile more than a hundred Marxism textbooks, each one to contain contributions from between 20 and 30 scholars. Each textbook will be funded to the tune of one million yuan (£70,000). In addition, the party promises a huge investment of human and financial resources to build more research institutes, train more theorists and produce more academic papers, all with the full support of the Politburo.

Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the party's chief official in charge of ideology, was reported to have told a meeting of propaganda officials and theorists that the leadership saw the project as a means of resolving various issues facing the country, and had given it "unlimited" support. The Institute of Marxism at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics will host an international seminar - on 1 April, appropriately enough - while the newly established Academy of Marxism at the notoriously liberal Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Cass) is planning one for next year. All over China, heads will be bent over translations of Das Kapital as school and university students fulfil their mandatory quota of Marxism studies. In turn, teams of translators will be hired to translate the new textbooks into foreign languages for the waiting world.

This most remarkable ideological high-wire act since new Labour abandoned Clause Four is a sign, perhaps, that the CCP's identity crisis is reaching fever pitch. Marxism, or the local variant of it, was the ideology that produced stagnation in China for the first 40 years of the revolution, an ideology that few in China today remember, let alone subscribe to, and which the Chinese Communist Party itself appeared to abandon as a working model in 1992. China's current success derives from ditching Marx in favour of Warren Buffett.

Since then the country has enjoyed such spectacular capitalist-style growth that the expectation that the Chinese Communist Party will be ruler of the world's largest economy within two decades may well be fulfilled.

In the past decade and a half, the party has dismantled the state sector, thrown hundreds of millions out of work, given up on collective agriculture, celebrated the art of getting rich (not least through its own corruption), embraced the market "with Chinese characteristics", dumped the principles of free education, healthcare and cheap housing for the workers and created one of the most unequal societies in the world. Workers are not allowed to form trades unions, have little job protection, suffer appalling labour conditions and routinely go unpaid for months on end: a recent study by the National People's Congress concluded that migrant workers were owed more than £5bn in unpaid wages. Meanwhile, the peasants suffer the depredations of greedy and powerful local officials, against whom they have no redress. China's 2005 National Human Development Report concluded that inequality was growing fast by every index and that its Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, had increased by more than 50 per cent in the past 20 years. China now ranks 85th in the UNDP's 177-nation Human Development Index.

In the course of its rapid development, China has created conditions that capitalists elsewhere can only envy. The only shreds of former Marxist practice left are the repressive nature of the state and the party's undying conviction that, as the vanguard of the proletariat, it has the right to remain in power for ever.

But just when it looked as though it was all over for Karl, the Chinese Communist Party appears to have had a change of heart. Would Marx have any advice for a Communist Party that found itself in such a situation?

Plenty, says Cheng Enfu, executive president of the Academy of Marxism at Cass. Far from abandoning Marxism, according to Professor Cheng, China has taken the lead in its development. One of two academics invited to lecture Politburo members last year on the need to modernise Marxism, Professor Cheng said recently that the Politburo had been studying the knotty question of how to reconcile the contradictions between Marx and free-market reforms. President Hu himself had chaired a meeting of top leaders to study ways to apply Marxist precepts to China's economic modernisation, one of several held since early last year to find Marxist answers to what the president called "a series of changes, contradictions and problems in all fields".

Professor Cheng offered a clue about the approach he plan- ned to adopt to this challenge: the aim, he said, was to "modernise" Marxism by building a theoretical system with "Chinese characteristics".

Quite how the Chinese masses will respond to this resurrection, it is hard to predict. Many of them, after all, appear to be in a revolutionary mood already, although, lacking the benefit of the CCP's organisation and leadership, they have not yet turned to the overthrow of a system that Marx would have had little trouble identifying as exploitative and oppressive.

Violent protests in China have been growing as fast as the economy, according to official statistics. In 2004, the ministry of public security reported 74,000 such incidents, up from 58,000 in 2003, and 17 of them involving more than 10,000 people. The 2005 reports showed another jump to 87,000 incidents of "public order disturbances", up 6.6 per cent on 2004; events that "interfered with government functions" jumped 19 per cent, while protests seen as "disturbing social order" grew by 13 per cent.

Perhaps the leadership hopes that a revival of Marxism might stop these restless citizens asking themselves what right a Communist Party that has abandoned the notion of the workers' state has to perpetuate its own power. Just in case, however, the CCP has also been investing heavily in the million-strong People's Armed Police, the main force that the government uses to deter revolutionary thoughts among its people. In a recent article in the party's aptly named Qiushi ("seeking the truth") magazine, the two highest-ranking PAP generals promised to enhance the combat effectiveness of the paramilitary force to deal with the increasing numbers of "sudden incidents".

Last August, the government announced the institution of specialised riot-police units in 36 cities; a month later, it announced a ban on any internet material that "incites illegal demonstrations". Would that include Marx himself? After all, in his Theses on Feuerbach, the sage observed that "the philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point," he wrote, "is to change it."

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