China's Communist Party Wants a Few True Believers

China’s Xi Jinping wants more rigorous screening of applicants

Photo Illustration by Braulio Amado; Photos: Getty Images (12)

Zeng Fanyue is a 24-year-old political science graduate student at Shanghai’s Fudan University. Politically speaking, she’s redder than red. “As a Communist Party member, I have additional social responsibilities. I should help people and do things for others,” she says, telling how she choked up with emotion during a ceremony in which she renewed her oath of loyalty to the party.

The government of President Xi Jinping, who’s also chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC), says it wants more true believers like Zeng. At the same time, it wants to weed out the party’s corrupt members. Last year the number of Chinese joining the party dropped 25 percent as young people saw little to gain from joining an organization in convulsions over the prosecutions of party notables such as ex-Chongqing boss Bo Xilai and former Security Minister Zhou Yongkang. In just the first five months of this year, authorities investigated 26,523 officials, including seven at the ministerial level, for crimes related to their jobs, reported the official Xinhua News Agency on July 3. The CPC—now 87 million strong—is facing “severe dangers,” particularly from corruption, Xi warned in a June 30 speech.

Three weeks before Xi’s speech, the party had issued new recruitment rules, the first major revision in 24 years, that aim to further slow the growth of the world’s largest political organization. Only people likely to be so dedicated to party doctrine that they won’t succumb to the temptations of graft will be welcomed.

Ding Xueliang, professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, says Xi and other top leaders became convinced China needed a smaller, purer party after close study of the collapse of Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. “The major problem they identified about the Soviet Communist Party was: No. 1, the senior cadres didn’t believe in party principles, didn’t believe in communism or socialism, and only believed in their own self-interest,” Ding says. “No. 2, within the cadre system—amongst the higher- and middle-level officials—there were extensive networks of corruption.”

The emphasis on finding solid recruits may also place less importance on former President Jiang Zemin’s push to sign up more entrepreneurs. Instead there will be stepped-up recruitment of migrant workers, whom the party hopes can be more easily molded, according to Willy Lam, an expert on the CPC and the Chinese leadership at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The basic requirements for membership remain unchanged—applicants must be at least 18 years old, promise to abide by the party constitution and carry out party decisions, and agree to pay annual dues of 0.5 percent to 2 percent of their salary. Deeper background checks of ideology, character, and academic performance are now mandatory. Party personnel must interview potential members within one month of their application. In recent years recruiters often delayed interviews with applicants, and when they did meet, it was often perfunctory. Recruiters must now speak to previous employers, not just the applicant’s current boss. China’s 4 million-plus local party organizations—the cells of party members in every enterprise, school, research institute, and community—have to get clearance from higher-level officials before they let applicants into the party or promote junior cadres.

The universities are prime hunting grounds. As has been the case for decades, teachers who are party members tap students they think will be of most value to the CPC—usually those who do best in classes, particularly Marxist theory, still a required course for all college students. The applicant must write an essay stating why she wants to join the party and demonstrating her loyalty. New members must be firm believers in Marxism and communism and “practice socialist core values,” the Xinhua News Agency reports.

“It’s the traditional Confucian approach. Emphasis is put on discovering the right, morally motivated individuals and then training and grooming them,” says Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s not the Western approach of getting institutions and checks and balances in place.”

Many idealistic Chinese, eager to see their country achieve greater global status, would still like to join the party. And Xi is tremendously popular: His affectionate nickname among many young Chinese is Xi Dada, which roughly translates as “Uncle Xi.” A government job almost always requires party membership. And for members, they’re not that hard to get and offer a good pension, health care, and security far beyond anything the private sector or a foreign company can provide.

It’s hard to know whether Xi can create a disciplined, honest party. Hong Kong University’s Ding says ambitious efforts to remake the party are likely to fail without some form of outside monitoring. That could include a free press, judiciary supervision, local watchdogs, or an independent national congress. “Otherwise,” Ding says, “even with a perfect recruitment procedure, you can’t guarantee that once you put them in positions of power, officials will not be corrupted.” So far in his term, Xi has clamped down on journalists, crusading lawyers, and nonprofits not associated with the party.


    The bottom line: China’s Communist Party has 87 million members, but that number will shrink as recruiters grow more discriminating.

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