Eva Xiao (Agence France Presse)

Beijing ●
Thu 7 March 2019


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 about Karl Marx, but not so many in a format that young people can accept,” Zhuo Sina, one of the screenwriters behind the online series, told AFP.

“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 Wawayu Animation Studio but supported by China’s Central Propaganda Department and Marxism Research and Construction Program Office, the release of The leader comes as the Chinese Communist Party steps up its push 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 learning the theories of Marx and Lenin in college, and civil servants—even state media journalists—must take required 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.

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”.

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 university 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 harshly criticized – on the popular Chinese film and literature site Douban, users gave The leader a rating of two out of five stars.

Some criticized the narration as “clunky”, while others used more colorful language – one compared the experience of watching the show with feces “pushing” into your mouth.

Finishing touches: A staff member works on the online cartoon series (Agence France-Presse/-)

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 has seen several attempts by local police and school officials 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 labor rights movement in southern China, disappeared completely.

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

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.”

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 understoodwhere theorists, professors and students discuss Marxism.

In January, the official news agency Xinhua hailed the success of a children’s version of Marx’s seminal work, Das Capital — a 150-page illustrated book for children aged 8 to 14.

And while online reviews of The leader are lackluster, it’s “a first step on the road to where the government will find messages in a way that will really appeal to young people,” said Christina Xu, who researches and writes 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 manufacturers of The leader don’t plan to stop at cartoon series either. Zhuo said the team plans to create a standalone Marx animated film, although a release date has yet to be decided.