People chat in front of a statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at Fuxing Park in Shanghai, China. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Look Who's Picking Up the Tab for Karl Marx's Birthday Bash

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(Bloomberg) -- Karl Marx’s home town is holding a party for the Communist Manifesto author’s bicentenary, and China is paying for the birthday gift.

Trier, in western Germany, is bracing for big crowds for the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth this weekend, with political speeches, competing demonstrations and the unveiling of a statue designed and funded by China. The extent of the outside interest has surprised the sleepy city on the Moselle river.

People in Trier, which was part of capitalist West Germany after World War II, “have long been a bit ashamed about Marx,” said city spokesman Michael Schmitz, who has played host to Chinese state television and six reporters from the state-run Xinhua News Agency. “We are aware of the fact that this is part of a larger Marx revival in China,” Schmitz said.

With celebrations starting Friday in Beijing, China is making the bicentennial part of a drive to reinvigorate its communist heritage, and underpin its growing global clout. Festivities include an official tribute at the Great Hall of the People and a documentary series by China’s state broadcaster titled “Marx Is Right.”

In Trier, visitors can marvel at an art installation of 500 Karl Marx gnome-like figurines -- in two shades of red -- at the city’s Roman gate, while sipping a Moselle wine named “Das Kapital” for the occasion.

Yet for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the anniversary is an opportunity to push a serious goal. Harking back to the German philosopher, who developed his theory of capitalism, labor and class conflict in 19th-century England, helps him fill a vacuum left by decades of market reforms, modernization and China’s growth to become the world’s second-biggest economy. China overtook the U.S. in terms of trade with Germany in 2016.

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Xi is seeking to hold together a “huge, unruly country” and take it forward while maintaining broad respect for the Communist Party, said Sidney Rittenberg, an American journalist who joined Mao Zedong’s revolution and served for years as his translator.

“Xi is depending on restoring the theoretical soul of the Chinese people,” Rittenberg, in his late 90s, said in an interview from his home in Arizona. “They built a better life and made money, but they lost their soul and I think he’s trying to restore that.”

The celebrations dovetail with Xi’s bid to expand the party’s influence as he pushes through sweeping changes in China’s political system, military, economy and education sector. Having cast off presidential term limits, he says “the party leads everything” and is trying to promote Marxism as a plank of foreign policy, notably in countries like Vietnam and Laos.

‘Grasp the Power’

China’s top officials need to “grasp the power of the truth of Marxism” and view the party as the heir of the “spirit of the Communist Manifesto,” Xi told a Politburo session on April 23. On Friday, he commemorated

Xi appears to view Marxism as a means to an end, “more of a methodology than an ideology,” said Trey McArver, co-founder of Trivium China, a consultancy. “It’s a process for solving problems more than a prescription for class struggle.”

In Marx’s birthplace, the bicentennial is more about history and hospitality. City leaders hope for a tourism boost after the 5.5 meter (18 foot)-high statue is unveiled on Saturday in the presence of German Justice Minister Katarina Barley (though not Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany).

“Marx isn’t responsible for all the atrocities carried out by his alleged heirs,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a speech opening the festivities on Friday. “He was for equal treatment, for not suppressing differences.”

Falun Gong

Trier’s city council voted to accept the Chinese gift last year after attaching a resolution stressing the importance of human rights. “We don’t have industry, so we don’t get much revenue from business taxes,” Schmitz said. Activists from Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China, still plan demonstrations.

Norbert Kaethler, head of Trier’s tourism agency, is happy about the present from Beijing: he figures the statue will boost the number of Chinese visitors to the town of 110,000. “Many Chinese think Trier must be an important German town because Marx was born here,” he said.

Yang Liu-Gerhards, who came to Trier as a student in 1998 and now teaches economics at a vocational school, credits Mao only with cherry-picking Marx’s ideas for his own political purposes when he established communist China.

“Still, my father was happy when he heard that I was going to Trier,” she said. “Not only because it was Germany, but also because it was the birthplace of Marx.”

The statue of Marx aims “to show our appreciation of the great German philosopher,” said Wang Yiwei, associate dean of a new institute for Xi Jinping thought at Beijing’s Renmin University.

“But Germans are not so proud of Marx,” he said. “They’re more proud of Goethe.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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