Characters from the online cartoon series “The Leader”. AFP

The Chinese Communist Party is trying a new way to appeal to young people, commissioning an animated series whose hero is clean-shaven, thin and a hopeless romantic – Karl Marx.

Called “The Leader,” the online cartoon series is designed to make Marx more palatable to China’s younger generation, who typically encounter the bearded German philosopher through thick textbooks and lectures.

“There are a lot of literary works on Karl Marx, but not so many in a format that young people can accept,” said Zhuo Sina, one of the screenwriters behind the online series.

“We wanted to fill that void,” she added. “We hope that more people can have a more positive understanding and interest in Marx and his biography.”

Created by the Wawayu animation studio but backed by China’s Central Propaganda Department and the Office of the Marxism Research and Construction Program, the release of “The Leader” comes as the Chinese Communist Party intensifies its pressure for ideological rigor – especially in classrooms and on college campuses.

With its Ferrari-driving elites enjoying an economic boom that has revolutionized China since the economy opened up to market forces in 1978, Beijing’s allegiance to Marx may seem like an anomaly.

But the Communist Party is still faithful to its ideological ancestor, rejecting the apparent contradiction and framing its evolution through the prism of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Students begin to learn the theories of Marx and Lenin in college, and civil servants – even state media journalists – must take compulsory courses in Marxist theory to gain promotions.

Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping also urged party members to cultivate the habit of reading Marxist classics and consider it a “way of life” and a “spiritual pursuit”.

It also means the writers of “The Leader” had to compromise some aspects of the storytelling for accuracy, Zhuo said.

“You can’t just write anything,” she stressed, explaining that Marxist scholars were involved in the entire scriptwriting process.

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staff members having a meeting at Wawayu animation studio. AFP

She said the Marx story should not pander to the demands of the entertainment industry, where there is “no way to make very careful and precise or very accurate descriptions”.

SUBVERSIVE COMMENTS

After debuting in late January on Bilibili, a video streaming platform popular among young anime, comics and game fans in China, the online series has been streamed over five million times.

“The Leader” begins with Marx’s college years where shots of the young philosopher — dressed in a dapper beige blazer — feverishly studying Hegel’s work intertwine between tender moments with Jenny von Westphalen, his wife.

But the masses were harsh critics – on popular Chinese film and literature site Douban, users gave “The Leader” a two out of five star rating.

Some criticized the narration as “clumsy”, while others used more colorful language – one compared the experience of watching the series with feces “pushing” into one’s mouth.

Jeroen de Kloet, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who has researched Chinese youth culture and media, said there was too much discussion in the series and not enough scenes that “humanize ” Marx.

“It’s the government lecturing young people about what Marxism is,” he said.

Yet despite its penchant for propaganda, the TV series has opened up a surprising space for discussion of Marxism and even labor rights in China.

Among the many comments that scroll across the screen as each episode plays – a popular feature in China known as “bulletin” comments – some users commented on religious freedom and labor rights.

In a comment, a user wrote about the forced closure of a social media account that tracks union activism.

Others mentioned the Peking University Marxist Society, which saw several attempts by local police and school authorities to silence and suppress the activities of the student-led group.

Last year, recent Peking University graduates, namely those affiliated with the Jasic Solidarity Group, a workers’ rights movement in southern China, disappeared completely.

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staff member working on the online cartoon series “The Leader” at the Wawayu Animation Studio. AFP

“That’s why propaganda is interesting, because you can also read it against the grain,” de Kloet said.

With its wealthy businessmen and capitalist culture, modern China contrasts sharply with the cartoon, which champions workers and the proletariat, he said.

“You walk out your door in Beijing and you see a completely different reality. So there’s a tension there.”

SWEET POWER

“The Leader” is not the Chinese Communist Party’s first attempt to make Marxism more mainstream.

Last year, like the cartoon, which was commissioned in commemoration of Marx’s 200th birthday, China’s central propaganda bureau released a television talk show titled “Marx Got It Right,” where experts in theory, professors and university students discuss Marxism.

And though the online ratings for “The Leader” are lackluster, it’s a “first step on the road to getting the government to find messages in a way that will really appeal to young people,” said Christina Xu, who makes researching and writing about Chinese Internet culture. .

The Marx anime is also “part of the push towards soft power”, she added, noting the importance of “guo chuang” or locally produced animations on Bilibili, which also airs shows from the channel. CCTV public television.

The creators of “The Leader” also do not plan to stop at cartoon series. Zhuo said the team plans to create a standalone Marx animated film, although a release date has yet to be decided.

France Media Agency