Chinese university revives research on official ideology to head off suspicious values

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-1 18:33:01

Chinese leading universities have initiated a series of activities to encourage the study of Marxism. In addition to naming a building after Karl Marx, Peking University has also started compiling a collection of Marxism classics, using a name that puts it on an equal footing with collections of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian texts. Despite government efforts to stress ideological education, Western ideas such as liberalism, conservatism and religions have much bigger impacts on the minds of students. The launch of the Marx collection along with other related projects is hoped to raise the profile of Marx, buttressing the governance of the CPC.

A student sweeps the playground in front of a wall with portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in a primary and secondary school in Huaiyang county, Central China's Henan Province. Photo: CFP

A day after China celebrated Youth Day, marking the start in 1919 of the student-led May Fourth Movement that helped lead the country toward communist governance, a foundation stone was laid by the Party secretary of Peking University near the south gate, for a new building named after Karl Marx.

The new building is part of a larger push to highlight the relevance of the German philosopher to students, intellectuals and scholars. But several years into campaign, it's becoming obvious that the ideas of Marx no longer hold the attention of China's students, who have grown up in a nation that is rapidly becoming rich and powerful and experiencing the exact sort of wealth gaps that Marx himself forecast.

One year ago, when talking with the teachers and students at the university, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee,  mentioned three places related to the origin of the Party. The Red House of Peking University was one of them.

The original Red House is on May Fourth Street, opposite the Forbidden City, on the former campus of Peking University before it moved to Haidian district in 1952. Some of the founders of the CPC - Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong - used to work in that building.

The new Marx building incorporates some of the design elements of the original Red House, and is being paid for with a 100 million yuan ($16 million) gift from Baoshang Bank.

The Marx building is part of the university's "Six Marx Projects" that kicked off this year. Another highlight of the project is the launch of "Ma Zang," a grand collection of Marxism classics and documents. In the Chinese tradition, "Zang" means collection of sacred sutras or treasures.

Currently, there are only three collections of scriptures named "Zang" in the Chinese language: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The launch of the Marxism collection as "Zang" put it on an equal footing with the other three major Chinese traditions.

Sun Daiyao, deputy dean of the School of Marxism at Peking University, told the Global Times, "'Zang' is a collection of treasures. Marxism isn't a religion and it should not be a religion. It is the mainstream and ruling ideology in China."

Meanwhile, since last September, Tsinghua University has included a course on Marxism on its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Within four months, the course had attracted around 1,000 Tsinghua students and more than 100,000 students outside of university.

Marx was first translated into Chinese by British Christian missionary Timothy Richard in an article published in 1899 for China Global Magazine. During the last 100 years, the invocation of Marxism has been pervasive in Chinese thinking, expression and everyday life.

Gu Hailiang, the head of the "Ma Zang" project, said that the school will publish a Chinese-language version featuring documents beginning from the late 19th century when Marxism started entering China, and an international version focused on the literature of Marxism's development. The collection is expected to be finished in 20 years.

Pressure to move on

For many Chinese Marxists, the introduction of Western liberal democracy and the revival of traditional Chinese values have challenged the status of Marxism, and ultimately, the Party's governance.

"The louder people hear the calling to enhance something means the weaker its influence is in reality. Marxism is losing on the ideological battleground and being marginalized in universities," said Wang Xuedong, former deputy director of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau. "Various other modern Western ideas such as liberalism, conservatism and religion have much bigger impacts on students' minds. Marxism is the foundation of the CPC's legitimacy. Enhancing Marxism is to enhance the legitimacy of the Party's rule."

Recently, Chinese universities have been urged to strengthen ideological education. In January, a guideline on the ideological work in colleges issued by the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council stated that ideology-based instruction in colleges is "a strategic project that can consolidate the foundation [of values] and shape the spirit."

Education Minister Yuan Guiren also warned in an article in January against textbooks disseminating "wrong Western values" from entering China's universities and colleges. He called for introducing a range of textbooks guided by Marxism to support mainstream ideology.

Since 2004, the Party has launched a nationwide Marxism textbook publication and education project in universities.  The project, known as "the Marx Project," has been carried out by key Party publicity and education institutions. It was planned for just four years, but experts say due to the dwindling Marxism awareness, it has continued into the present. The project aims to put Marxism "into textbooks, into classrooms, into minds."

But the effects of this project are worrisome for many. In a senior training seminar for presidents of top Chinese universities earlier this year, several universities' presidents expressed the concern that though colleges have diligently arranged Marxism courses, Marxism itself has lost attraction among students. The teachers can do few things about it.

"The students learn Marxism just for academic credits. What kind of logic and belief that has been generated from Marxism, that is not something they are interested in," an anonymous politics teacher at a university in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, told the Global Times.

Universities still offer compulsory courses on subjects like Marx, but the students and instructors seem to just go through the motions.

Out of belief

The teachers at Peking University compiling the Marx Project say sincere belief motivates them. Sun explains the urge to build the Marxism collection came from work on an earlier collection of Confucian thought. The collection of Confucianism scriptures has been carried out for the last 10 years, and the university now has China's largest collection on Confucianism.

"Ten years ago, the compilation of Confucius classics met the same public doubts and criticism over its necessity. After 10 years, nobody doubts the worth of our accomplishment," said Sun.

The early introduction of Marxism into China was made by the Kuomingtang (Nationalist Party) and anarchists, including fierce critics of Marx. At that time, a number of Western ideas, including anarchism, pragmatism, Celtic socialism, liberalism and imperialism were competing for dominance.

A debate arose at an academic conference at the university in March over whether to include these early anti-Marxian works in the collection. Old ideological rifts over concepts such as class struggle and mass movement were also revisited during the meeting.

 "As a historical document collection, we have to include as much as possible, including both pro-Marxism and anti-Marxism materials. The authority of an ideology is historical. It should be reflected through documents. It is not a coincidence that Marxism overcome all other ideas and become a ruling ideology. The collection includes both pro- and anti-Marxist viewpoints to show its objectiveness," said Sun Daiyao.

According to an essay published last November in the Study Times, a newspaper under the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, Chinese Marxists have not yet achieved a clear understanding of Marxism, and many disagreements are originated from misunderstanding the genuine meaning of Marxism. The essay called for re-reading the works of Marx.

For the last six decades, the CPC has made continuous efforts in translating the works of Marx. For example, China is the only nation in the world which is translating the recent historical-critical edition of the complete works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Open to ideas

While major universities have a department of Marxism with thousands of Marxism studies graduates each year, the key problem facing the Marx Collection project is not finance, but people.

"The critical issue is talent," said Wang. "Editing Marxism requires extensive knowledge of German, Russian, French philosophy and economics. Even in our bureau, we have to re-train newly recruited PhD graduates by ourselves."

The Confucius collection now has a 500-member domestic and international scholar team. It has its own funding and a school to train its own PhD students. This is what the team of Marxism collection aims to do: train the next generation of Marxism experts.

Peking University has traditionally been open to a wide range of ideas. In cross-discipline studies, Marxism still provokes debates. In the fields of cultural studies, philosophy and sociology, the works of American Marxist Fredric Jameson, Jürgen Habermas of Institute of Social Research in Germany, French-Egyptian economist Samir Amin of the Third World Forum and British Marxist Perry Anderson are widely read and discussed by many students at the university.

Each week, scholars around the world introduce new developments such as ecological Marxism, feminist Marxism, and new aspects of world Marxism to Chinese students.

The university aims bigger and higher. Following the model of the International Marx Conference held every three years in Paris, the university is taking similar move.

In October, China's first world Marxism conference will be held in the university. Some 350 Chinese and international top experts on Marxism will attend the conference. It is aimed to become a Davos-like forum to be held every two years.

Another key mission of this conference is to gather top experts on both Marxism and China to explore new visions of China and the world. Some leading experts, including followers of the Frankfurt School, New Left, Third World Theory and noted China experts have already agreed to attend.

"The center of research of world Marxism should be in China. China's center should be at Peking University," said Sun. "Through this collection, the conference and the Marx building, we aim to enhance the status of Marxism in China and the world."

Newspaper headline: Mecca of Marxism

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