BEIJING — From China, with love. Or something more insidious?
For weeks, Chinese have been debating the meaning of a superhero-size statue of Karl Marx headed to Trier, the German town where the political philosopher was born. An attempt to spread Communist revolution back to democratic Germany? A joke?
The 18-foot work by the sculptor Wu Weishan is a gift from the Chinese government and is to be unveiled next May as part of wider commemorations for the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. Marx is officially revered in China, the last major Communist state after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This noble-looking Marx gazing into the future expresses “the confidence of today’s China in its own theories, path, system and culture,” Mr. Wu wrote in People’s Daily, the party newspaper, in January describing a visit he made to Trier last year to conceptualize the work.
Mr. Wu’s vision prompted controversy in Germany after a model was unveiled in Trier in March. Historians and politicians asked whether it was appropriate to honor so uncritically a man whose ideas led to dictatorship, including in the former East Germany. In April, Trier’s City Council gave final approval to the gift but whittled down its size by more than two feet.
In China, “there are two completely different voices in the debate” over the statue, said Zhu Dake, a cultural commentator and professor at Tongji University in Shanghai.
“One is that Germany is now a wholly capitalist state that has abandoned Marxism. Sending the statue is tantamount to sending his ideas back to try to reignite the spark of revolution,” he said in an interview.
“The other is that Marx’s theory of class struggle had a very negative effect on China,” he said. “Sending the statue is symbolically returning defective goods.”
Much of the discussion in China is taking place in private, given the sensitivity of commenting publicly on a project overseen by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. But Zhihu.com, a question-and-answer service, provides glimpses of those views.
“The International will certainly succeed!” wrote a user identified as Wang Dongyang, referring to the Communist International, founded in 1919 to advance world Communism
“Am I the only one who thinks this looks like Mao in ‘Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan’?” asked another commenter, referring to a famous propaganda painting from the Cultural Revolution.
“At midnight on day two a South China Sword team” — a special forces unit of the People’s Liberation Army — “will leap out of the statue,” wrote a person with the handle Ning Andong, comparing it to a Trojan horse.
“What China means is: We’re sending it back to you. We don’t believe in it,” the user Wu Jia said.
Millions died in Communist political campaigns after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and in a famine precipitated by an effort to collectivize agriculture in the late 1950s. Still, the government insists the party remains essential to China’s prosperity and stability, pointing to recent decades of high economic growth.
In that time, trade with Europe has also prospered, raising for some questions of how democratic nations should deal with an economically powerful state that rejects democracy and has a poor human rights record. Last year, China became Germany’s leading trading partner with two-way trade of $180 billion, overtaking the United States for the first time.
“Haha, Germans have to kowtow to the renminbi. They no longer care about political ideology when the money pours in from rich Chinese,” a user identified as Guo Xiaomeng wrote on Zhihu.com.
To Chang Ping, a Chinese journalist who has lived in exile in Germany since 2011, the Marx statue represents a challenge most Germans fail to understand.
“This is not just a question of commemorating a historical figure. It’s also a question of how to deal with the Chinese government’s ambition to shine on the world stage,” Mr. Chang said by email.
“I think that I can see better than ordinary Germans the hideous grin behind the statue that is to be erected in Trier, and the threat it represents to the civilized political cultures of the world,” he said.
The mayor of the city, Wolfram Leibe, finds such concerns overblown.
“It was a gesture of friendship and has nothing to do with ideology,” Mr. Leibe said in a telephone interview in April, shortly after returning from China, where he met with Mr. Wu, the sculptor.
“Maybe a certain naïveté is not always bad if it prevents over-interpretation, so you don’t always dissect things in detail and suspect everything,” he said.
Mr. Wu declined three requests for an interview, saying that the statue was a state affair and that he did not want to interrupt his creative flow.
Well known in China for his monuments to historical and cultural figures, as well as his flowing mane of hair and cravats, Mr. Wu, 55, is the director of the National Museum of China and holds a seat in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a government advisory body.
He has produced other sculptures of Marx, notably one that shows him with his collaborator Friedrich Engels, at the party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in Beijing. In 2011, an enormous statue of Confucius he created briefly stood near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, before being removed under circumstances that have never been fully explained.
He is known internationally, too, having won the 2003 Pangolin Prize of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, sculpted a bust of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and presented a sculpture to the International Olympic Committee.
Mr. Wu’s grandiose vision for the statue in Trier overturned a more approachable concept proposed by residents who wanted Marx depicted as a child, seated on a bench in a small square, where people could sit beside him.
“Mr. Wu came to Trier and said, ‘This square is too small and cramped. Karl Marx was a great man and we can’t put him in a small square,’” Mr. Leibe said.
To Geremie Barmé, a founder of the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinologyin New Zealand, the sculpture is an expression of party power.
“The Germans’ suggestion was for an early, humane, humanist Marx, a source for change in China — not the heroic, sclerotic, formalized Marx used for party purposes that Wu offered,” Mr. Barmé said by telephone.
China’s message is, he said, “Since we’re the only one that’s been successful and adapted Marxism to state leadership, we’ll tell you what it’s about.”