Renmin University of China (trans: the People’s University of China) celebrated its eightieth anniversary this October. It doesn’t have the international name recognition of Peking University or produce some of the best engineers in the world like Tsinghua University, but Renmin University (RUC) is associated with one particular characteristic: its close affiliation with the Communist Party of China (CPC). Following Mao Zedong’s strategic retreat into the northern countryside of Shaanxi Province, he and the rest of the Communist leadership established RUC’s precursor as the Party’s first public school in 1937 “to bring up hundreds of thousands of revolutionary comrades to meet the needs of the Anti-Japanese War.” And while its name changed several times during the tumultuous period before it and the government finally settled in Beijing, the institution always maintained a close relationship with the Party (aside from when it was ordered to shut down during the Cultural Revolution) and continued to produce dedicated Marxists for the management of the state.
While practiced, young revolutionaries are the last thing the CPC wants RUC to produce now, its nationally-renowned Marxism Studies program still lends the institution its moniker as the “Second Party School” (following the closeby and official Central Party School). Moreover, as President Xi Jinping wrote in his congratulatory letter to the commemoration congregation, “Since the foundation of the school, Renmin University has always adhered to the leadership of the party, to the guiding position of Marxism, and to the cause of serving the party and the people, all of which forms a distinctive school characteristic. In the fields of the humanities and social science, it has developed a style all to its own, which has fostered batch after batch of outstanding talent for the causes of China’s revolution, construction, and reform.”
Nevertheless, Renmin professors who study the functions of the Party openly doubt if “the guiding position of Marxism” that Xi extols is even believed by the Party’s leaders themselves. Some Chinese academics fret over just how much socialism is contained in contemporary China’s guiding phrase of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” One disheartened professor even suggested to Gate reporters that if you examine the prominent Party members of today, “You would be hard pressed to find a true Marxist among them.”
But the future of Marxism in China doesn’t belong with the old guard. Whether it continues to survive in the Middle Kingdom depends on the attitudes of those who only ever knew Mao through photos, grew up with VPNs and an internet firewall, and witnessed economic change so monumental in their lifetimes that it altered the course of their country and the world. These are the Marxists of China’s millennial generation.
Mr. Pei poses proudly in front of a sign commemorating the eightieth anniversary of Renmin University’s founding.
“The Communist Party may be regarded as the ruling party, but how do we adapt to the modern person or to most of the people who now identify with the concept of liberalism?”
Pei Honghui had clearly pondered the implications of this question to himself many times before. The twenty-eight-year-old is a nine-year member of the CPC, and like many of his generation, he was born at the end of Deng Xiaoping’s economic transformation of China. His age group witnessed this increase in activity and quality of life in every aspect of their lives that he sees as “honestly equivalent to a change that turns the heavens and earth upside down.”
But his present affluence has not obscured memories of his impoverished upbringing. He can recall certain episodes from his youth like when his “parents bought a match” and “needed to borrow one jiao [roughly a penny] in order to buy it.” Yet, now an accomplished law student at Renmin University, the days he spends in the library researching Hegel, Habermas, and Rawls feel like a separate life from the one he led just two decades ago in Shandong Province. For him, despite all its faults, the Party made his current, relative wealth a reality. His family’s condition also greatly improved and while he notes that “there are still poor people in China,” he qualifies this admission by explaining that “these poor in fact are not what is traditionally meant by poor people, since a basic life has been guaranteed to them.” However, the nation’s economic resuscitation has undoubtedly not been uniform. Even as China’s GINI coefficient (a measurement of economic inequality) has almost doubled since the time of his birth, Pei insists the Party’s reforms were going to “inevitably produce a gap for a certain period of time,” but that “this gap is a world economic problem that cannot be solved.”
Mr. Ge, twenty-nine, a human resources management PhD student, doesn’t buy this defeatism. He thinks this gap in prosperity is mainly a problem of priorities: “The pace of the current development is very fast, the economy is rising, technology isn’t bad, and the military also remains strong, but is [the Party] returning back to the lives of the people? How do you deal with the equality issue? Because vulnerable groups still must be paid attention to. The middle class is under immense pressure now and the social elites don’t always keep immigrants in mind [. . .] shouldn’t they dwell on the issue of distribution a bit more so that we all feel the fruits of economic development?” Ge, who grew up in the same province as Pei, chose not to join the Party and, as a result, spends less time contemplating the high-brow functions of the state. “Our most vital interest is the problem of housing prices,” he made sure to tell Gate reporters.
And Ge has reason to be concerned. Housing prices in Beijing, and for most parts of China as well, have reached astronomical heights at breakneck speed. Since the Party opened the home retail market in the mid-1990s, the price for an average home in Beijing has increased over 205 percent, and experts estimate a new, two-bedroom home in the city would cost sixty-nine times the average per capita disposable income of a resident, or roughly $870,000. Young people who flocked to large cities like Beijing in search of work are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in a market where the increase in apartment prices continues to outpace the growth of their salaries.
“After housing prices were pushed higher, it made the value of some of the public’s existing real estate or fixed assets greater,” Ge recounts forlornly. “On the other hand, those who were without these fixed assets or real estate before can’t enter this market now and have been gradually left behind by society. At this point, I think it’s been made clear that housing prices have instead dragged China's wealth inequality gap further apart.”
“I feel like China's income inequality is not particularly large, because China's political goals are to achieve a continuous increase in people’s living standards and bring about a shared prosperity."
Mr. Hua, twenty-six, is struggling to remember the Party mantras he dutifully recited in high school. A security guard at Renmin University who aspires to be inside the classroom rather than outside protecting it, his only exposure to political philosophy or considerations of the government’s role in society is from centrally mandated politics courses. He has yet to sit for his first college semester of zhengzhike (“Politics Course”)—a 4–7 semester-long series of classes required of every Chinese college student that covers Marxism’s fundamental principles, the theories of Deng Xiaoping (originally called socialist political economy), and the guiding principles of modern Chinese history (originally called Mao’s main ideas)—but Hua can still dust off some Party dogma.
“I’ll try to answer, but I don’t know too much about this,” he wavers. “Capitalism, in general, exploits the lowest rung of people in society. The property or material property, the vast majority of which is owned by a small number of capitalists, is not in the hands of the working people. So wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people and most laborers are working for this money, but instead their wealth only occupies a small portion. The power of the capitalist system is occupied by a small number of capitalists, and its politics, such as a president’s policy decisions or a leader’s policy decisions, often only consider the capitalists’ wishes,” he manages to retell.
Ge stands outside an entrance to an on-campus apartment building at Renmin University.
“Ordinary people in contemporary China are so common that they definitely don’t understand Marxism. They’re very simple,” Pei states plainly. He is likely referencing common folk such as Hua, but if Hua were to join the Party, Pei concedes his cursory understanding of Marxism wouldn’t be atypical among young party members. Pei laments those individuals without faith in the larger “political idea” who join the party not for “politics, political ideology, or personal beliefs,” but because of professional bonuses.
“In every respect, a party membership is an advantage with which many people use as leverage for more advantages. What is the Communist Party? What is the pursuit of the Communist Party? What should the Communist Party do? No one considers these issues,” he fumes.
And Pei’s observation about younger Party entrants may have a larger application than just to those within the Party. “Compared to a few decades ago, I think the footprint Marxism now leaves may not be as significant, and in the future, there will be a more diverse set of voices,” Ge concludes about Marxism’s place in modern society. However, to identify the present political reality, Ge feels compelled to say that “Marxism is still the mainstream ideology of China, which the government advocates,” even though among his generation, he can only recall meeting one true Marxist: “these people are becoming fewer and farther between, whereas three or four decades ago this type of thought or idea was a bit more abundant.”
Pei, a staunch supporter of his Party but a byproduct of the free market economic surge of his formative years, reluctantly agrees. He believes the way the Party is currently implementing its vestigial ideology of Marxism isn’t working. “I feel it may have some problems,” he confesses, but that these issues arose when it was “implemented in the form of political ideology.” What he sees now is different from the Marxism he reads in the library. In fact, it “has been vulgarized and misinterpreted.”
While Pei struggles to toe the party line and also relate to China’s current circumstances, a twenty-six-year-old Uyghur man who works for the national government gives Marxism a more blunt diagnosis: “It doesn’t have realistic content.”
An observer of the world around him, Hua notes that Marxism may not be as widely respected as some people think. “Some ordinary Chinese people don’t have the time or are uninterested, so it has never taken root and sprouted among them. It’s probably only kind of popular in a few CPC cadres,” he perceives on second thought.
Hua with his OFO of the moment. OFO is one of several bike sharing companies who have become overnight household names in China’s rapidly growing economy.
With all of these doubts about the system of thought that has united China and been the central organizing principle for generations, Pei grows uneasy.
“Did you know that the Chinese people don’t actually have a self- or national identity now that can achieve a smooth and steady condition for the country,” he exclaims. Although Hua isn’t mourning the tertiary importance Marxism now occupies in society, he also notices the seismic moral change within his age cohort. He’s discouraged that all relationships are now “based on personal profit, and everyone thinks about money.” As his generation’s political interest in Marxism withers, a flurry of Western attitudes grows over it. In order to repel these harmful foreign influences, Pei suggests China take “40–50 years” to “re-recognize Chinese culture and politics as its own” in order to reassure itself, “mollify its own problems, and become as stable a country as it can be.”
Hardly coincidental, his proposal for national introspection sounds familiar to Xi’s own rhetorical creation, the Chinese Dream. In many ways, the Chinese Dream symbolizes China’s recent and rampant appropriation of Western customs. The pursuit of wealth accumulation, unflagging self-reliance, and large-scale consumerism have become so normalized and glorified in Chinese society that it felt only natural to resurrect the American Dream in China. But Pei does not mention these uncomfortable origins in his talking points. To him, the Chinese Dream simply embodies “the prosperity of our nation.” He theorizes that Xi gave it “a very commonplace formulation,” which does “not deal with a number of theories” so that it could be universally understood and accepted. A suitably amorphous ideology for a politically disengaged young adult class.
“The Chinese Dream more likely originated from the reality of modern China, which seems to have features of both capitalism and Marxism. There are some capitalist aspects of things in the market economy, and there are some pieces of Marxism as well,” Ge points out. As a hybrid of both systems, the Chinese Dream dodges controversy. Unlike Marxism, it isn’t associated with all too recent mass famines, and unlike capitalism, it isn’t an imported “exploitative” product.
“It’s just a series of pursuits towards future development after we’ve already begun to use all of our efforts to rejuvenate the country,” Ms. Dong, a twenty-four-year-old law student, states happily.
And as economic optimism and a tolerant, if not wholehearted, embrace of the free market has energized young Chinese people, Western ideals seem to have reached her generation as well.
“Theoretically, it’s certainly correct that every person should have the right to protest,” Pei affirms.
“I hope [the Chinese government] is able to be a kind of coaching or service-focused government that does good things. It shouldn’t think that it needs to take care of everything. Let ordinary people play their own role,” Ge imagines of his ideal government.
“China should see freedom as somewhat more important [than security,]” Hua decides.
A statue of Wu Yuzhang, a longtime Communist revolutionary and 17-year RUC President, shrouded behind the campus’s main conference hall, where American economists John Nash and Joseph Stiglitz once received honorary doctorate degrees.
Yet, while the sentiments shared above seem markedly different from what an outsider would expect in a Marxist country, many of these personal opinions borrow heavily from the stated, current priorities of the Party. Preoccupied with the demands of their prosperous economy, young people have little time to dwell on the functions of the Party or the role of Marxism in China. As a result of this apathy, the mandatory seven-semester “Politics Course” that many of these college or graduate students take continues to insert itself into their political beliefs and has effectively blurred the line between their personal opinions, Party explanations, and Party rhetoric.
As one may have guessed by the opening assumption of “theoretically,” Pei goes on to qualify his viewpoint by suggesting “someone must be rational” and possess “all of the information” on the topic they wish to protest in order to deserve this “right.” He then presumes that everyone will naturally “think they’re rational” before they protest, and that this is especially true in China due to the tumultuous democratic transition at the end of the Qing Dynasty when “the people’s mood became more intense and their opinions became biased.” Ultimately, he concludes it is best for the Party to make the decision for the people and “consider in what kind of condition we will allow protests” with a hope of one day allowing some to “be organized in a government-led fashion.”
Although not a member of the Party himself, Ge’s hope for a government that lets “ordinary people play their own role” is a variation on a popular slogan in Party rhetoric primarily used to explain how the Party leaders deliver instructions to the people, and certainly does not imply advocacy for a more devolved political system. As Hua explained when he claimed China already has a democratic system, “The leader fully considers everyone's views, and we should all remember to express our needs using positive speech. Finally, he assembles all the opinions together. Then, the main Central leaders decide how to implement them, and it’s pushed to the masses to adopt and carry forward.” Within this framework, Ge wants more emphasis on the “carry forward” step. Nevertheless, regardless of how far capitalism spreads in China, if he and his generation can only use the Party’s set phrases to describe their personal beliefs, the Party’s hold over political thought has only grown stronger.
Lastly, Hua’s advocacy for greater freedom appears to be the most permissive of Western values, but his words should read more like shallow encouragement than a heartfelt prescription. Instead, the timeworn Chinese concept of security and stability in one’s place in society has resonated with the young generation. “If people are not safe, and they are only free, then this cannot work. If they are only safe and not free, then society will be inflexible and lethargic," Hua continues. By first stating that neither absolute is ideal, Hua can logically conclude that each term carries equivalent implications and any ratio between the two would be roughly the same. And when freedom and security receive equal theoretical importance, the conservative tendency for stability typically prevails. On this issue, Hua almost precisely parroted one of the most common rhetorical ploys of the Party.
“If there is no security, then there is no freedom,” Ms. Fan, a twenty-year-old management major, deduces.
“If you don’t have security, then, as a matter of fact, you still won’t have freedom,” Ge seconds.
“If you are in an unsafe situation, you may lose things such as your property or your life. In this case, you may be free, but if you are deprived of your life, then you certainly won’t have any freedom,” Ms. Xu, a twenty-year-old graphic design major, declares assuredly.
Chinese young people are more than willing to accept the premise that stability and security are necessities for freedom. Whether this is their honest opinion or not, the Party has managed to exploit this generational risk-averse inclination with great success, increasing roadside investigations, eliminating VPNs, and kidnapping book publishers with little public reaction.
Now five years into his authoritarian tenure as leader,
President Xi, more than any of his predecessors, has revived the policies,
persona, image, and stature of Chairman Mao.
“I’m so disappointed,” Ms. Sui, a sixty-year-old educator now living in the United States, sighs after learning of these conversations. “They’re supposed to be the best of society—college students, graduate students, and PhDs—but they haven’t taken the time to seriously consider their society and their future. They’re so much worse than my generation. It’s so sad to hear,” she adds, thinking back to her inquisitive college days shortly after China’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution. “Because we came through the Cultural Revolution, we thought more about the political and economic system and the relationship between the individual and the government,” she describes emphatically, “But the situation in China is better now. Their lives are much better than their parents’ generation.” Now, most of China’s youth only has distant memories of misfortune from which to compare.
In Red China, there are few devout Marxists left. Pei may claim that for the Party “to give up Marxism” would be “to abandon the ruling position,” but Marxism is no longer necessary to justify Party rule. Like many in her generation, Ms. Bai, a twenty-year-old finance major, may insist that modern China “has continued to be stable” using the force of Marxism, but Pei knows that “Chinese politics’ biggest task for the past four decades” has been opening up the economy, not developing its central ideology. Too much focus on politics often alienates or disturbs young people, but a developing economy is something anyone can support.
“China is actually being very realistic. In the past four decades, the largest part of the government’s political legitimacy comes from the economy. You cannot let hundreds of millions of people not have food to eat or not let them reach a certain standard of living. There would be a raucous revolution,” Pei states pragmatically.
As a result, lacking any substantive political ideology to present to young people, the only attribute twenty-somethings can associate with the Communist Party is, by definition, Marxism. But even Marx’s principle economic theory lacks definition in modern China. When the Party and political system are only accessible through these self-evident yet nebulous facts, they become whatever young people imagine them to be, if they even happen to think about them at all. Formulated from their own mistaken beliefs, desire to appear more liberal, and willingness to accept a party at its word that has only ever economically taken care of them, Chinese millennials like Ms. Dong often end up aligning their own perceived theoretical ideals with Party sophistry that, when combined, expresses itself in assumptions like: “We already belong to a democracy, don’t we?"
With little awareness and certainly not opposition to its goals, the CPC has taken advantage of the lapse between generations and begun to enact a far more oppressive agenda that many young people may not even notice as the economy continues to climb. Only when the freedoms the economy won yesterday begin to disappear today may they decide Marxism demands clarification in today’s society.
But it may already be too late.
“The current direction of the Communist Party is like a car going in reverse; it’s somewhat retrogressive," Ms. Xu reflects. With a disengaged generation lulled into a trance by the economic successes of the CPC, and without a change of direction from within the party itself, Ms. Xu says she’s “rather worried that North Korea might be our future.”
Brett Barbin is a fourth-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. This summer, he worked in the investigative division of the Public Defender Service for DC and previously served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election campaign. On campus, Brett is the president of College Republicans, the vice president of the Political Union, and a College Council representative. He enjoys walking Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.