At a symposium on cultural heritage development on June 2, 2023 Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of “combining Marxist theory with China’s outstanding traditional culture” (把马克思主义基本原理同中华优秀传统文化相结合). According to Xi, this marriage is necessary to realize his grandiose vision of a new “modern Chinese civilization” (中华民族现代文明) grounded in his own theory, which we explore in-depth in “China’s ‘Xivilizing’ Mission.”
Together with the need to adapt Marxism to China’s material conditions (把马克思主义基本原理同中国具体实际相结合), a prerogative established by the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1978, the formulation has become known as the “Two Combines” (两个结合). It’s a political phrase or tifa (提法) that was first put forward by Xi in July 2021, but which has seen a renewed publicity push since Xi made related remarks during a speech on June 2, 2023. In one memorable flourish, the China Confucius Foundation even at the time called the combines a “magical talisman” that has always guided China’s development.
Magical properties aside, the Confucians are right to point out that the idea of molding Marxism around specific conditions in China — a process known as Sinicization (中国化) — is far from new. It was first formally introduced by Mao Zedong from the caves of Yan’an in 1938, after he and his vision of a distinctly Chinese, peasant-led revolution triumphed over the Soviet-educated “Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks” who had dominated the CCP prior to the Long March out of Jiangxi Soviet (for more on this history, read “CCP or CPC: A China Watchers’ Rorschach”).
However, the idea has not always been in vogue since that time. Mao’s insistence that Marxism should be applied through national forms (通过民族形式的马克思主义) and with Chinese characteristics (中国特色) was denounced by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as “nationalist” (搞民族主义) and was not openly used in the official documents during the 1960s. It was only after the Cultural Revolution, as China entered the era of Reform and Opening-up, that a second wave of “Sinicization” was proposed by Deng Xiaoping then followed up by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Second-wave Sinicization, ironically, was used in service not of communism but capitalism, rationalizing and justifying market reform in China’s post-socialist stage. The consistency with which “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义) was used to describe this stage saw the modifier “with Chinese characteristics” take on new, parodical meaning as a disavowal of whatever concept preceded it.
Xi’s addition of the second combine is “an important original assertion,” according to a piece in cpcnews.cn, the Communist Party’s official news site. Taken together, it says, the two are “the inherent requirement and inevitable logic of the Sinicization of Marxism. The entire history of the Chinese Communist Party, writes the author, a professor of Marxism, is the history of the Sinicization of Marxism. Only when Marxism is fully Sinicized will it decisively “take root in the hearts of the people.”
This approach reframes the historical failings of the Communist Party in an original manner. By this logic, past problems had to do not with an excess of violence and dogmatism, or with over-concentration of power. Rather, they arose because Marxism as applied in China was simply not Chinese enough.
Most saliently, the “Two Combines” concept reinforces how Xi has used the idea of Chinese culture or civilization to legitimize his own tightening grip on power. Throughout his rule, invocations of the greatness of Chinese civilization have been coupled with claims to be its inheritor and protector. As another Two Combines commentary on cpcnews.cn puts it, “our Party’s historical and cultural self-confidence has reached a new height, and […] our Party’s efforts to inherit the excellent Chinese tradition have reached a new level.”