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China's new campaign aims to make Marxism relevant

BEIJING—After three decades of free-market economic reforms, China's leaders are re-emphasizing the study of Marxism and urging ruling party members not to turn their backs on the communist ideology that's guided the nation since Mao Zedong's day.

The renewed emphasis on Marxism is the outcome of a tussle within the party's leadership as it tries to retain legitimacy amid growing social unrest, official corruption and widening gaps between rich and poor. Many conservatives applaud tighter political control under President Hu Jintao, who took the party reins in 2002.

China's Communist Party is financing a program to employ thousands of academics to write textbooks on Marxism over the next decade in a campaign to re-energize Marxist ideology, said Cheng Enfu, a theorist.

Cheng acknowledged that within the ruling party, which has 67 million members, some intellectuals no longer believe in Karl Marx, the German socialist who wrote of class struggle as a way to the collapse of capitalism and the arrival of communism.

For decades after modern China's founding in 1949, Mao adapted Marx's theories to fit China's realities. Communist China nationalized industry, and the government took control of the land and collectivized agriculture. The Communist Party imposed strict top-down political control and involved itself in nearly all aspects of Chinese life.

Several years after Mao's death in 1976, the party began to experiment with economic reforms that allowed capitalist business practices to take root. The party had less of a role in people's daily lives; for example, it no longer assigned all jobs and housing. The Communist Party continues to hold a monopoly on political power, though, and it represses any dissent that threatens its grip.

Still, the ideology of communism—especially its ideals about equality and government ownership—doesn't always square with the get-rich mentality of China today.

"It is very normal now to find some people in China who do not believe in Marxism," Cheng said recently in his first remarks to the Western media on the subject.

"We are trying to make the elite class, that means the senior and mid-level cadres and intellectuals, believe in Marxism. That is our focus," Cheng said. "We have got some results ... but it's not very ideal."

Cheng, the executive deputy director of the Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said his school has expanded from 50 to 200 scholars.

"We are not new leftists. We are new Marxists, modern Marxists," Cheng said, adding that China wouldn't try to export leftist ideology as it did in the 1950s-1970s.

Many Chinese support the Communist Party because it's brought astonishing economic growth that's lifted China quickly into the ranks of world powers and improved standards of living.

But Cheng said that moves to relax government control and allow private ownership have allowed a concentration of wealth and other conditions that are hurting the party's image as a champion of the common people.

Cheng didn't advocate a return to a state-planned economy, but he said that China's leaders should act when market speculation hurts low- and middle-income urban Chinese, such as in the financial hub of Shanghai, where speculators have grown rich in real estate.

"If you accept Marxist economic ideas, you will agree that the government should have some control over the market economy," Cheng said.

Cheng also said that a Marxist approach would favor more efforts to control population growth.

The government limited most families to one child in the late 1970s, but it later relaxed the rules so that many rural families could have two children.

"If you control the total population more strictly, it would be helpful in improving the overall quality of people's lives," Cheng said, noting that at current rates China will have 1.5 billion citizens within a few decades. "Maybe it's good to advance the idea that some couples have no children."

The study of Marxist philosophy remains compulsory in China's middle and high schools and universities, although many students see little relevance in the classes.

Cheng asserted that the campaign to revive Marxism has strong support among China's leaders and would bring them political dividends by promoting social justice.

A dissident intellectual dismissed the campaign to revive Marxism.

"Party members believe in nothing but money," said Liu Xiaobo, an Internet commentator. "I don't even think Hu's family believes this stuff."

President Hu and his aides have implemented a "Put People First" governing philosophy, and some scholars say that Hu may believe in more traditional Marxist ideas. Yet he faces a challenge from internal corruption within the ruling party.


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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