This is the first of a series of five articles on understanding China today. The articles cover politics, economics, culture and religion, since all of these are important for making some sense of what is happening. Each topic is approached from the Marxist tradition, for this is a key that is too often ignored. The articles provide a framework for how one might approach political theology in relation to the Chinese situation. The author teaches for a semester each year at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing.
How does one come to understand China? Many wish to do so, especially in light of China’s growing global influence.
For some, language is the key that opens the door. With Chinese language, one is able to enter a people and their culture, opening up communication, literature, philosophy, belief and much more. Engaging and studying in translation always presents a barrier to understanding, but language is not enough.
For others, the Chinese classics provide the way to understand the place. You may focus on the traditional “four books and five classics” (四书五经), from before the unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE), or on the many texts gathered until the end of the last dynasty, the Qing, in 1912. Again, there is merit in this approach, especially in light of the way the classics are restudied and reinterpreted at every important turn in Chinese history – as is the case now.
For others, Confucius provides the way into China, if not each country deeply influenced by Confucianism. The “four books and five classics” are themselves from this tradition. Once again, such study is important, but does not provide the key to modern China.
Yet more possibilities are proposed, whether Daoism, or some mystical notion of the “East”, or kinship, or the metaphysics of yin-yang (阴-阳), which found its way into nearly every tradition or school of Chinese thought.
On a different note, some eschew language, culture, philosophy or belief and focus on economics. In this case, the “Asian Tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – provide the template for China. Here, export-focused economies, industrialisation and state intervention led to rapid growth, high incomes and now economic specialisation.
Or perhaps Japan provides the model, with its rise to economic pre-eminence under American patronage. This is perhaps the least persuasive option.
Marxism is the key
The missing element in all this is Marxism. China remains a socialist country, with the Communist Party being the largest political party in the government.
Many continue to dismiss Marxism in China, whether in terms of a repressive and inadequate ideology or as empty words in which no one “believes” any longer. This is a great mistake and risks neglecting what is arguably one of the most important factors for understanding China.
Mao Zedong is the point at which one should begin, although it helps to understand Marx, Engels and Lenin, let alone the history of successful socialist revolutions from Russia onwards. Mao’s thought remains the focus of intense study and debate in China – so much so that President Xi Jinping frequently quotes Mao in national and international contexts.
Xi has a PhD in Marxism and has directed even more resources to the study and fostering of the Marxist tradition and the work of Mao Zedong. Marxism is now a distinct discipline in China.
Mao’s legacy continues
More controversially, Mao’s acts as a leader are also vital for understanding China. Most debate turns around the role of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which he fostered over the last decade of his life. Was it an aberration, an outburst of revolutionary enthusiasm, or perhaps an effort to restore his sliding power?
The semi-official narrative is that the Cultural Revolution set China back in terms of economics, politics and society. The aberration was thus corrected after Mao’s death, when the path of reform was undertaken.
However, another and persuasive argument, made by Mobo Gao, is that it was precisely the Cultural Revolution that set China on its current path. Thoroughly shaking up vested interests in society, from top to bottom, it cleared the ground for China’s rapid rise to becoming the leading global power. This was the shake-up needed to unsettle centuries, if not millennia, of social assumptions and cultural norms.
Against the orthodoxy that the economy came to a standstill during the Cultural Revolution, it has become clear that the economy actually forged ahead as though released from its shackles.
Unfortunately, I have yet to find a “mainstream” foreign commentator who is even partly aware of the nature of Chinese Marxism. Obviously it entails careful study and a feel for the subject matter. It requires some sense of the meaning of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in all its complexity and apparent paradoxes. And it needs to be understood that in China a “Marxist entrepreneur” is not a contradiction in terms.
Languages, the classics, Confucius: these and more are obviously important for understanding China. But to rely on these is to neglect the crucial factor of Marxism. Many may aspire to becoming a Zhongguotong (中国通) – one who understands and senses at a much deeper level how China ticks.
Without Marxism, such an aspiration is mere pretence.