From Mao to Now: On Constructing a MOOC on Chinese Marxism

With the China Road conference over (turned out to be a great event, although it took me a few days to recover – more later), I am turning my attention to producing a MOOC on Chinese Marxism. My paper at the conference concerned precisely this, so I copy the paper below (minus the interviews):

Let me begin with a conversation from earlier this year. I was meeting with the head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle.

‘The Vice-Chancellor wants to know if are interested in doing something’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘She would like you to put together a MOOC on Chinese Marxism’, she said.

‘A MOOC?’ I asked. ‘Chinese Marxism?’ Both items were a little puzzling for me.

I had no idea what a MOOC is. I do know more about Chinese Marxism, but I was surprised the Vice-Chancellor had asked me to construct a MOOC on this topic.

And so began a steep learning curve, which I would like to discuss today.

Before I proceed, a question may have arisen in some of your minds: how can I speak at all on such a topic on which so many people know so much more than me? I may have a position in China (at Renmin University of China), where I spend 3-4 months a year, but still …

So let me quote from a Chinese poem, written by Su Shi (苏轼) from the Song Dynasty. It is actually called 题西林壁 ( Tí xīlín bì), or ‘Written on the wall of the West Forest temple’.  This was given to me by someone who is present at this conference. In Chinese, it reads (powerpoint):





Héng Kàn chéng lǐng cè chéng fēng,
Yuǎn jìn gāo dī gè bù tóng.
Bù zhī Lúshān zhēn miàn mù,
Zhǐ yuán shēn zài cǐ shān zhōng.

Sideways a mountain range, vertically a peak.
Far-near, soaring-crouching, never the same.
No way to know Lushan’s true face
When you’re in the middle of this mountain!

In other words, Lu Mountain may look different depending on the angle, light, distance, and so on. But you cannot see the whole of Lu Mountain if you are inside it.

Why a MOOC?

My first question concerns a MOOC itself. I tend to avoid such matters and keep myself at a distance from new developments. But I soon found out that MOOC means Massive Open Online Course, but this did not help me that much. Does not the university already record all of thousands of lectures? Why would I engage in producing yet another one to join the mix? I imagined huge amounts of background research, hunting down material, and then hour upon hour of lectures in front of a camera.

But no (and forgive me for covering material that some of you know), a MOOC if far from such a format. To begin with, the course is usually open to anyone and everyone to join. No fees apply to enrol. If a person enrolled does want a certificate for completing the course, then it may be possible to charge a small fee ($20-30).

So what are the purposes of such a MOOC? The purposes are mixed. It seeks to return to an old idea: education should be free for everyone. It should not be restricted by fees, entry examinations, and the many restrictions that seem to apply in our day. With this purpose, I can only agree, given my own social and political preferences. The only prerequisite for such a course should be curiosity and a desire to learn something new.

Another purpose concerns a relatively modern concept – branding. This is to provide a unique identity for a younger university that is making its mark on the world stage. In this case, knowledge becomes a commodity, if not the university itself, a situation I am not so keen on. Then again, as I have said from time to time, Marxism pays.

A third and related purpose is to publicise what the university does. How is the University of Newcastle different from every other university in Australia, let alone the world? Here the Vice-Chancellor was certainly onto something. Outside China, one would be hard put to find a research concentration on Marxism, let alone Chinese Marxism. But this is the case. Indeed, PhD students come from China (and indeed around the world) to study various types of Marxism at the University of Newcastle. Currently, we have students from Samoa, Egypt, Norway, Indonesia, and China, who are here doing exactly that. Yes, students of Marxism come from China to the University of Newcastle to undertake rigorous and sustained research on Marxism.

So a MOOC would be a good idea.

Constructing a MOOC

How does one go about constructing a MOOC? I soon found out that a MOOC involves 5-7 minute presentations rather than hour-long lectures. More like an online how-to video, I thought. I had consulted such videos when I doing some tiling a while back. In 5-7 minutes you can really make only one or two major points.

Would I just get in front of a camera and talk? Again, not really. A MOOC requires a clear topic, a useful prop (visual), key content, and activities. This I learnt from talking with some of the technical experts at the university.

[How to assess the work of a MOOC? It soon became apparent that old-fashioned written assignments would not work. What if 1,000 people enrol, or even 10,000? This would entail endless hours of reading through everything written. Clearly, not an option. It would require types of assessment that could be automated. Or those that made the most of newer approaches to knowledge, in which students contribute as much as the one delivering the course (wiki style). It would need discussion groups, which in turn require a moderator.]

All of these factors entailed a complete rethink as to how I might go about constructing a MOOC.

Where to begin?

I began by setting myself a target of 18 presentations of 5-7 minutes.

Next question: what should be the focus? Here endless possibilities presented themselves. I could focus on Mao Zedong and the early history of Chinese Marxism. I could focus on developments in Marxist philosophy in China (I have recently convened a conference on this topic in Beijing, in April this year). I could focus on the practice of socialism. Or I could focus on the situation in China today.

I decided on the last topic: Marxism in China today.


On more than one occasion, I have been asked: is China really Marxist or socialist today? Does anyone believe in Marxism in China today (strange question, for what does ‘believe’ mean)?

Above all, I have been struck by the lack of knowledge among people outside China concerning Marxism in China today. Many assume it ended with the death of Mao Zedong – if they know about it at all.

All of this raises the question of a potential audience. Who would be interested in such a course? Initially, the thought was that it may be students in China, who may be interested in the perspective of a foreigner. But my experience tells me that many more outside China would be interested, given the lack of knowledge about such matters (and, I would add, the woeful reporting on China in the media outside China). So I penned the following introduction to the course, which will be used in the course description:

‘From Mao to Now’ presents new and little known material on the current situation of Chinese Marxism. It covers 18 lessons in 6 weeks, dealing with current topics that anyone who wishes to engage with China should know.

Target audience: the prime reason for undertaking this course should be curiosity about China and Marxism today. Students inside China and internationally will find the material important and fascinating. Professionals who are working or plan to work in China may also be interested, since they will at some time or other need to deal with government officials, state-owned companies, or be able to understand conversations where these topics arise regularly.

Everyone in China knows about these issues, with many different opinions, so why shouldn’t you?

You may wonder how the title came to be: From Mao to Now. I was meeting with some of the technical wizards at the university. I explained that it was difficult indeed to find useful material on the situation in China since the death of Mao Zedong, so this would be my focus. One of them tossed out an idea: From Mao to Now.


I penned a few early drafts of the course outline with my ideas, and then found out that the course should cover 6 weeks, to be repeated on a regular basis. So I revised the course with the following topics:

Week 1: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

  1. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: What does it mean?
  2. What About Other ‘National’ Characteristics?
  3. Socialism Seeking Power versus Socialism in Power

Week 2: Contradiction

  1. Why is Contradiction Important and Beneficial?
  2. Contradictions in European and Russian Marxism
  3. Contradiction in Chinese Marxism
  4. Socialism and Capitalism in China

Weeks 3 and 4: The Socialist State

  1. What Was the Soviet Union and What Is China?
  2. Class is Primary!
  3. A Multinational State?
  4. An Anti-Colonial State
  5. A New Form of the State?

Week 5: Chinese Democracy

  1. There Is No Such Thing as ‘Democracy’!
  2. Varieties of Socialist Democracy
  3. Is China a Socialist Democracy?

Week 6: Mao Zedong Today

  1. Is Mao Relevant for China Today?
  2. Has Mao Been Betrayed or Reinterpreted?
  3. Mao and the New China (Visiting the Chairman)

An Example

For the final part of my talk, I would like to give some details on one the actual presentations. Or rather, I will provide some material on how the episode is shaping up, instead of the final version. It concerns the first topic, socialism with Chinese characteristics. What does it mean? What are the different opinions concerning this topic? How does one condense the huge amount of analysis of this topic in China, or indeed outside China, concerning socialism with Chinese characteristics? Indeed, how could I provide a reasonable assessment of the different perspectives presented at this conference on the subject? At one level, it is impossible, so how could I possibly go about it?

I decided the begin this one with some sound-bite interviews. Over the last couple of days, I have interviewed random people at the conference, who agreed that I could use the interviews for this presentation (the MOOC will of course require proper permission for use on the internet and I promise not to use any of these for the MOOC itself). I give a few of them here (and I apologise if I have not used them all). I should say that the answers are meant to represent a range of opinions and do not necessarily reflect the actual opinions of the people recorded (I had to prompt a couple for the answers I wanted!).

[Interviews appear here]

Let us see what they have said. When I began I assumed that ‘socialism’ and ‘Chinese characteristics’ are two distinct items and that we are seeking the relationship between them.

  1. The first hints at a common idea: that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is simply a screen or a code for unbridled capitalism. This is a common position among quite a number of people internationally. For example, I have heard it from some involved in the international Left. It is a common position among those involved in the Historical Materialism conferences, in both Australia and elsewhere, where they use the term ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics).
  2. The second emphasises the ‘Chinese characteristics’. (Please note that I was not able to find anyone who would take this position thus far.) Sometimes, this is translated into a form of Chinese nationalism, rather than anything that might be remotely socialist.
  3. The third answer stresses socialism itself, in terms of public ownership and the distribution according to work (or ‘from each according to ability, to each according to work’). I could say much more about this one, but I am unable to do so at this time.
  4. The fourth answer is a little different: socialism with Chinese characteristics means China’s modernisation process. Here the special characteristic is actually socialism itself, which has enabled China’s significant return to economic and political power.
  5. The fifth answer, I suggest, stresses both terms – socialism and Chinese characteristics. It is both socialism (however we understand the term, since this is also open to debate) and a concern with the specific cultural and social histories that profoundly influence what socialism means.

Let us backtrack for a moment. What is the origin of the idea of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’?

This of course alludes to the statement by Deng Xiaoping:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (1982).

But the first form of this statement actually comes from Mao Zedong (and ultimately Lenin), as many of you will know:

There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used … Consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (1938).


So what is socialism with Chinese characteristics? That is for the students of the course to offer their own answers. But I would like to make the following points (apart from issues of history and culture):

  1. It is one thing to position oneself before the revolution. It is entirely another thing to win the revolution and have power. As Lenin and Mao said repeatedly: winning power in a revolution is relatively easy; wielding power is infinitely more complex. Once you have power, everything changes.
  2. Most people seem to assume they know what socialism is and then judge accordingly. But what if we do not yet know and need to develop it as we go along?
  3. One crucial aspect of a Chinese approach is a different way of dealing with contradictions. Instead of qualitative differences (one or the other), the contradictions must learn to live with one another. It is this very presence of contradictions and differences that constitutes unity. Is it possible that this one aspect of socialism with Chinese characteristics?



6 thoughts on “From Mao to Now: On Constructing a MOOC on Chinese Marxism

  1. How exciting!

    I’ve had the pleasure of taking several wonderful MOOCS (and some less so) over the last few years including an amazing one on The French Revolution taught by Peter McPhee at the University of Melbourne via Coursera.

    I look forward very much to seeing your MOOC project on Chinese Marxism come to fruition!

  2. “What if 1,000 people enrol, or even 10,000? This would entail endless hours of reading through everything written. Clearly, not an option.”

    Some of the better MOOCs that I have taken on subjects like history and philosophy that naturally lend themselves to essays and discussion opt to use peer feedback rather than try to force an evaluation through multiple-choice.

    In one class, the MOOC system randomly assigned five students to each student and then with a professor supplied rubric, students were required to grade and give feedback to those students assigned to them. As a student, I really felt that this greatly enhances the learning process because you get to engage with other students and think critically about their ideas and your own. The danger of course is that sometimes students have differing ideas on how to apply the rubric and given the wide range of international learners (both in backgrounds, course language fluency, and aptitude) some students simply aren’t able to properly evaluate the papers that others have written.

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