More Money for Marxism in China’s Social Science Research 

Economic structures determine social values, at least according to Marxist theory. That’s why the Chinese Communist Party, whose embrace of capitalism has also created problems of corruption and inequality, is increasingly funding academic research that supports its political and ideological goals. 

Beijing has long encouraged pro-Party scholarship under the banner of philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics. But now we have data on this policy. Under Xi Jinping, the Party has put its money where its mouth is, particularly in the National Social Science Fund (NSSF). This investment forms part of Xi’s broader effort to bolster the Party’s Marxist claim to legitimacy and to strengthen its intellectualdiscourse power” through “new theories. 

Founded in 1986, the NSSF is the flagship vehicle by which the Party awards competitive grants to social scientists in universities and state institutions. The fund is run by the National Office for Philosophy and Social Sciences (NOPSS), which falls under an eponymous leading small group that is chaired by the Party’s propaganda head Huang Kunming 

Based on MacroPolo’s dataset on NSSF projects from 1993-2020 (full data here), three findings emerge: 1) The Party is boosting support for social science research; 2) more funding is going to ideological disciplines; and 3) more grants now elevate Xi’s ideas than did for previous leaders. 

More Problems, More Money 

Xi has rapidly increased spending on social science research. NOPSS spending on NSSF grants jumped 44.3% from 1.8 billion yuan ($257.6 million) in 2015 to 2.6 billion yuan ($371.9 million) in 2019 (see Figure 1). Grants can reach 800,000 yuan ($116,000) but currently average about 470,000 yuan ($68,000). 

Figure 1. More Spending on Social Science Research under Xi (in billion yuan) Note: Data show NOPSS’ annual “project expenditures” (xiangmu zhichu). 
Source: NOPSS. 

With soaring budgets, the number of projects has risen ten-fold, from 503 in 1993 to 5,463 in 2020. Under Hu Jintao, projects averaged 15.3% annual growth from a low base. But even with slower growth of about 4% under Xi, that translates into 1,400 more projects annually.  

For context, Washington spends almost three times more money on social science research than the NSSF (about $1.1 billion in 2017), but the growth of Beijing’s spending means that gap is closing. Moreover, Chinese researchers can also seek funding from other central sources like the Ministry of Education and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  

More Money, More Marxism 

More significant than how much China spends is where this money is going. Since Xi took office in November 2012, of the 23 social science disciplines the NSSF funds, the three that saw the biggest percentage increases are 1) Marxism & Scientific Socialism; 2) Ethnic Studies; and 3) Party History & Party Building (see Figure 2). This shift in funding came at the expense of other disciplines, with economics, law, literature, and philosophy suffering the steepest declines.  

Figure 2. Marxism Rising in Social Science Funding under Xi Jinping (% of projects) Note: Percentages are of NSSF projects with a recorded category, which exclude “major projects” (zhongda xiangmu) after 2004 and “western region projects” (xibu xiangmu) before 2016. 
Source: NOPSS; Fan and Feng (2006); Jiang (2010). 

The surge in funding for Marxism & Scientific Socialism shows that Xi’s aim of tighter Party control in the ideological sphere is reshaping the allocation of academic resources. This trend could well incentivize more Chinese scholars to build careers around the work of formulating theoretical justifications for Party rule.  

Record support for Ethnic Studies (minzu xue) likely reflects Xi’s desire for a stronger intellectual rationale to underpin hisnew generation” of assimilationist ethnic policies. Xi’s revival of Party History & Party Building resonates with his overarching political strategy to improve the organizational structure and social legitimacy of the Party. 

More Marxism, More Xi 

Finally, NSSF funding also focuses to an unprecedented degree on Xi specifically, helping to consolidate his political legitimacy. A look at projects with a title that includes the name or signature ideology of a Party leader reveals that far more work is being done to embed Xi’s authority in intellectual discourse than was done for his predecessors (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Unprecedented Funding for Research Tied To Xi Jinping (# of projects) Note: Data show number of NSSF projects with leader’s name and/or signature ideology in the project title: “Mao Zedong” (inc. “Mao Zedong Thought”); “Deng Xiaoping” (inc. “Deng Xiaoping Theory”); “Jiang Zemin” and/or “Three Represents”; “Hu Jintao” and/or “Scientific Development Concept”; “Xi Jinping” and/or “New Era”. 
Source: NSSF; NOPSS. 

Following his political triumph at the 19th Party Congress, projects tied directly to Xi Jinping peaked at a whopping ~8% of all NSSF grants in 2018, before falling to 4.7% in 2019 and 3.2% in 2020. Projects on Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping still appear occasionally, but none have focused on Hu Jintao since 2013 or Jiang Zemin since 2009. 

The data above suggest that the Party has mobilized resources to produce more significant bodies of social science research that can help to persuade more Chinese, and more of its cadres, to support the “path, theory, and system” of Party rule. Increasing funding of ideological disciplines, as well as more focus on Xi Jinping Thought, show how the Party can use the NSSF to exert considerable influence on the contours of China’s intellectual sphere. 

Neil Thomas is a Senior Research Associate at MacroPolo. You can follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work on politics, political economy, and US-China relations here. The author would like to thank Yimin Li for excellent research assistance. 

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