On June 15, the Study Times, an official journal operated by the Chinese Commumnist Party’s Central Party School, ran a commentary that took up its entire front page. The article, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristic for a New Era is 21st Century Marxism,” was written by the school’s deputy head, He Yiting (何毅亭), one of the key political thinkers in Xi Jinping’s circle. It made the bold claim, as the headline suggests, that Xi Jinping’s signature political concept, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” is “21st Century Marxism.”

Here is how Mr. He laid out the Marxist lineage in his piece:

The thought of Marx and Engels can be called “19th century Marxism,” while Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and the socialism with Chinese characteristics of which Deng Xiaoping Theory was the original principle and chief content, can all be called “20th century Marxism.” Xi Jinping Though on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era can be called “21st century Marxism.”

As it happened, June 15 was also General Secretary Xi Jinping’s 67th birthday. There was some suggestion on social media and in the Hong Kong press that the publication of the flattering front-page piece in the Study Times was a “birthday gift” for Xi.

If this was indeed a gift, how was it delivered? And what does the gift mean?  

At around 10:30PM on June 14, He Yiting’s article was published on the website of the Central Party School. The next day, the piece enjoyed a peak of attention, shared principally through websites and public accounts on WeChat. Official CCP and government sites, public accounts and apps played an important role, the article appearing on the “Study Xi Strong Nation” (学习强国) app, at People’s Daily Online, at China.org.cn, at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ CSSN.cn, at the official website of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (and its WeChat public account), at the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and so on.

He Yiting’s piece did not appear in other print publications, judging from data through June 20. So far as CMP can ascertain, it appeared just once in print – on the front page of the Study Times on June 15, the morning after it appeared online. The table below logs appearances of the article from June 14 through June 20 on WeChat (green), on websites (light blue), in newspapers (yellow), in online forums (grey), in blogs (orange) and in news apps (dark blue).

While quite a number of various media did re-run the He Yiting article, it should be noted that there were no commentaries or responses to the article in other media.

Wearing the Marxism Crown

Marxism is written into the CCP Constitution as one of the core guides of conduct. Association with the legacy of Marxism is also regarded within the Party as a crucial to staking claim to legitimacy and influence. In the version of the CCP Constitution passed on October 2017, this is how Xi Jinping’s predecessors, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, are associated with Marxism:

Deng Xiaoping Theory is the product of combining the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism with contemporary Chinese practice and the characteristics of the times; it is a continuation and development of Mao Zedong Thought under new historical circumstances; it is a new stage of Marxism in Chinese development; it is Marxism for contemporary China; it is the crystallization of the collective wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party, guiding the forward progress of socialist modernization in our country.

The “Three Represents” is a continuation and development of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, reflecting the new requirements made on the work of the Party and the state as a result of developments in the present-day world and China; it is a strengthening and advancing of Party construction, a powerful theoretical weapon for promoting the self-improvement and development of our country’s socialism; it is the crystallization of the collective wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party; it is a guiding thought that must be adhered to by the Party over the long term.

The scientific view of development is a scientific theory in line with and extending with the times Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the important thought of the “Three Represents”; it is an embodiment of Marxism’s world view and methods concerning development; it is a major fruit of the Sinicization of Marxism; it is the crystallization of the collective wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party; it is a guiding thought that socialism with Chinese characteristics must adhere to over the long term.

Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is a continuation and development of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of the “Three Represents,” and the scientific view of development; it is the latest fruit in the Sinicization of Marxism; it is the crystallization of the experiences of all the entire Party and the entire people and the collective wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party; it is an integral part of the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics; it is the guide of action for the entire Party and the entire people in the struggle for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, and it must be adhered to and steadily developed over the long term.

While all four successive generations of leaders since Mao Zedong have sought to establish their close connection with Marxism, none have previously elevated and held up their own banner terms as “21st century Marxism,” giving them parity – at least in appearance – with the “original” Marxism of the 19th century.

When we search through the People’s Daily, we find that the phrase “Marxism oriented toward the 21st century” (面向21世纪的马克思主义) appears after 2000. But before 2015, the third year of Xi Jinping’s first term, the phrase appears only rarely – in a total of just 10 articles over the fifteen-year period.

After Hu Jintao came to office, the “Three Represents” banner term of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was on a number of occasions praised as “Marxism oriented toward the 21st century.” On September 30, 2003, the People’s Daily published an article that quoted Li Yuanchao (李源潮), then the CCP secretary of Jiangsu province, as saying:

Raising up a new tide of study and exercise of the important thought of the “Three Represents” is a major strategic deployment made by the 16th National Congress of the CCP, and it is the principal political task of the moment for CCP organizations at various levels. Comrade Hu Jintao has many times provided specialized and systematic elaboration [stating that] from the standpoint of unifying the legacy and development of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory, it is expounded that the important thought of the “Three Represents” is Marxism oriented towards the 21st century.

At the National People’s Congress in 2004, the “Three Represents” was entered into China’s Constitution. On March 12 that year, the People’s Daily ran an article called, “Entry of the Important Thought of the ‘Three Represents’ Into the Constitution Accords with the Popular Will.” The piece quoted Zhao Yong (赵勇), a member of the standing committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, as saying that “the ‘Three Represents’ is Marxism oriented towards the 21st century.”

Adulator-in-Chief

He Yiting’s earliest published works include the 2006 book New Developments in the Creation and Practice of Theory (实践上的新创造和理论上的新发展), and the 2007 book On the Significance of the 17th National Congress of the CCP (论十七大的重大意义). These are works devoted unmistakably and committedly to the praise and elevation of the supposed achievements of the Chinese Communist Party at the 16th and 17th national congresses in 2002 and 2007 respectively.

In each political cycle, He Yiting has been generous with his praise. In 2016, just four days after Xi Jinping’s status as the “core” was established at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, he penned an article that appeared anonymously on the front page of Study Times called, “The Solemn Choice of the Chinese Communist Party: On the Designation of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Core Status at the Sixth Plenum” (中国共产党的郑重选择——论六中全会明确习近平总书记的核心地位). The article was complimented in the People’s Daily, which said it “drew widespread attention in China and overseas.”

“The most important thing for us in enhancing the ‘four consciousnesses,’ is to unite more closely around the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” He wrote, “to more firmly maintain the authority of the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, and to maintain a high level of consistency with the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core in terms of our ideological and political consciousness.”

It was after his “core” article earned the praise of the People’s Daily that He Yiting began using the phrase “21st century Marxism” to praise Xi Jinping. On May 18, 2018, also on the front page of Study Times, He wrote an article on precisely this topic, this time clearly identifying himself as “director of the Research Center on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era at the Central Party School.” This corresponded with the bicentennial of Marx’s birth on May 5, 1818.

On January 16, 2019, the People’s Daily published an address given by He Yiting to a research conference held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening policy. In the speech, He said:

In sum, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is the guiding principle, banner, and soul that leads socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, and evinces the truth and glory of contemporary Chinese Marxism and 21st century Marxism.

In March 2020, He Yiting published a new collection of writings called New Era, New Ideas (新时代·新思想), which also deals at some length with the question 21st century Marxism. On May 15, the People’s Daily promoted He’s new book with a piece written by He’s colleague at the Central Party School, Han Qingxiang (韩庆祥).

With the formal removal of term limits for Xi Jinping at the National People’s Congress in 2018, in the wake of the CCP’s 19th National Congress (and the elevation of Xi’s banner term), it is now possible that Xi’s rule will extend further into the 21st century. To designate Xi’s “thought” as “21st century Marxism” just one-fifth the way into the still very new century is to wish boundless longevity for Xi, his leadership and his legacy.

An appropriate birthday gift, indeed, from one of China’s most prominent adulators.