I’ll admit that one of the most nerdy, but interesting parts of this class has been trying to figure out the relationship of these students, and of the history education they’ve had thus far, with Marxism. It doesn’t take long here to figure out that, despite the near complete abandonment of economic planning in favored of feverish, unfettered capitalistic economic growth, socialism is still very much a part of the government’s official lexicon. The official celebration last fall for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was communist pageantry at its best, with legions of trained university students parading in lockstep past Tiananmen Square in hammer-and-sickle formations, and other participants trained to hold up colored cards to spell out slogans like 社会主义好! (Socialism is good!), or to form mosaics of Mao’s head in profile alongside Marx, Engels, and Lenin. For a good four months after, even a ride on the subway would give you a quick dose of red fervor; the video monitors in all of the cars cycled through a series of patriotic music videos, in which the singer belted out her ardor for the PRC in front of a billowing backdrop of red hammer-and-sickle flags, or in which rows of police, soldiers, and public servants watched a shining golden hammer-and-sickle float across the sky and salute vigorously as it passed. Socialism is still very much a part of the image that the government cultivates for itself, and uses to sustain its legitimacy, despite the visible reminders all around that socialist economic policies have been all but abandoned.
What I have been trying to get a handle on, though, is the way that students of this generation envision Marxism, and the answer has been fairly inconsistent. As far as I can tell, Marxism still plays a paradigmatic role in the education that most Chinese children get in high school, but there is very little direct indoctrination in Marxism or socialism any more. In college, almost every Chinese student, at any university, is required to take a few key classes which are meant to provide the foundation for their participation in a socialist society. There is a required Marxism/Leninism philosophy class, a Mao Zedong Thought 毛泽东思想 class, and lessons on the philosophy behind the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms of the 1980’s, which I think is sometimes offered as a separate class and is sometimes combined with the Maoism class. These classes, along with a “morality” class, are standard across almost every program at every Chinese university. My understanding, furthermore, is that they are soul-crushingly boring. The “politics” department (most Chinese universities, or at least Beida and Tsinghua, don’t have any sort of actual government or poly sci major, they only have the special department that offers these classes) seems to be full of teachers chosen for their party compatibility rather than any teaching ability, and I’ve been told that a majority of students either sleep through these required classes or do other homework in them. So Marxism, when it is directly taught to the students, is not presented in any sort of engaging way. What I thought was even more interesting, though, is that college is the first time that students are given any sort of direct, straightforward education in Marxism. I discovered this a few weeks ago when I braved teaching The Communist Manifesto to my class as part of our study of 19th-century European socialist movements. I was afraid before giving the lecture that it would be horribly awkward for someone from a cesspool of capitalism to get up and try to teach Marx to Chinese students. It turned, out, however, that none of them had read it before or had any exposure to the document at all—not that most American students get exposed to Marx before college, but I was sure that there would be some introduction to Marxism in the high school curriculum here. Instead, I discovered that I was to have the honor of being their first formal introduction to Marxism, a thought which gave me an odd feeling of power.
Once again, I’ve proved unable to write something that conforms to what I have been told is an appropriate length for a blog, so stay tuned for the shocking conclusion!