Communist Party Membership Is Still the Ultimate Resume Booster

How China maintains interest in its ruling party, even as communism itself fades away.

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Delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after the closing session of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on November 14, 2012. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Zhang Xi'en, professor from the School of Politics and Public Administration at Shandong University, recently suggested that the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) should limit the number of its incumbent party members to 30 million and maintain a "moderate scale" of 51 million members in the future. Professor Zhang deemed this necessary because:

Various people, speculators included, have attempted to make personal gains in the name of being a ruling party member. They swarm into the Party, rapidly expanding its scale, and bringing tremendous danger to the Party.

The CCP, the largest political party in the world, had over 82 million party members as of 2011, 2.33 million more than in the previous year. It takes up around 6% of the total population of mainland China, and the total number is increasing by an average of one million people each year.

Despite a complex application process, some Chinese are quite eager to join the CCP. In large part, it is not because they believe in communist tenets, which China's period of economic liberalization has largely abandoned. It's not even because they have faith in the CCP itself, which seeks to project an image of technocratic competence but is often beset with corruption scandals. Instead, they join because becoming a Party member is a resume booster that can get a Chinese citizen promoted more rapidly, especially within government or state-owned-enterprises.

It is therefore no wonder that Mr. Zhang is not alone in his calls. As its people's faith in the Party declines, China's reformists have gone so far as to question the correctness of Maoism, the foundational dogma of the CCP. In response, conservatives have stood up to remind Party members to maintain the "purity" and "quality" of the CCP.

Liu Yazhou, who sits on the political committee at the National Defense University of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, is a well-known supporter of communist orthodoxy who has also appealed for holding fast to the scared "Party spirit":

We must admit that starting in 1990, the term 'Party spirit' has been used more and more frequently by some people, but the quality of these two words has been steadily deteriorating...The Party spirit to its members should be what God is to Christians.

The system, still very much alive

The CCP does have its bulwarks against a widespread erosion of Party faith: a top-to-bottom superstructure to cultivate potential members, often casually referred to as a "brainwashing" system. The bond between a Chinese person and the CPP happens long before one even realizes it, often starting in primary school.

Most Chinese children aged six to fourteen are members of the Young Pioneers of China, which is run by the Communist Youth League. On joining the Young Pioneers, children are asked to vow:

I love the Communist Party of China, the motherland, and the people; I will study well and keep myself fit, preparing to contribute my efforts to the cause of communism.

This seems like classic "brainwashing," but its ability to transform children into young communists is limited. Most of those "pioneers" do not understand precisely what they have joined; they only know they must wear a hong ling jin (red scarf) once they become a young pioneer. Many of them strive for membership only out of a sense of pride and fear of being left apart from the crowd.

Upon reaching the age of 14, Young Pioneer members automatically exit that organization and then have the opportunity to join the Youth League, a more mature and important organization. All Chinese between 14 and 28 years of age can apply for membership, and in practice, almost all high school graduates are Youth League members. As of 2008, the number of Youth League members takes up 45.4% of China's total population.

As they begin to ascend within the Youth League hierarchy, some members start to become aware of the latent benefits and implications of joining. After all, the Youth League is a prerequisite to entering the CCP. But it is much easier to join the Youth League than to become a Party member, and for most Chinese, their personal affiliation with the CCP stops at the Youth League level.

Generally speaking, those deemed active in helping classmates or colleagues will be elected as a League branch secretary. Thereafter, for an ordinary League member - that is, one born with no political background - rising within the organization will require a mix of personal charm (without seeming too self-promoting, of course), capacity for work, strong guanxi(personal connections), and luck.

Gaining a high position within the Youth League often grants the member easier access both to the Party and to future promotions. It's thus unsurprising that the Youth League has served as a starting point for the ascension of many of China's current top leaders, such as incumbent Premier Li Keqiang and former President Hu Jintao. The list of heavy-hitting Youth League alums is practically endless.

To Mr. Zhang and other supporters of communist orthodoxy, this might be the exact source of their concern. The CCP's youth-recruitment superstructure may have succeeded in sustaining the Party's reach, but it fails at maintaining the Party's ideological purity. Instead, "speculators" flock into these organizations out of self-interest, not belief.

But to the broader CCP leadership, the motivations behind joining the Party matter far less than loyalty to the CCP. In fact, the CCP itself contains tremendous diversity of opinion, even at the highest levels, and reformists within the CCP apparatus may in fact prefer that only some admitted to the Party are actually die-hard communists.

Viewed from this angle, the quasi-compulsory system is a success story. While it may fail to inculcate belief, it does instill loyalty. After all, the language of the Young Pioneer vow lists "love for the CCP" before "love for the country" and "love for the people." It also subtly links love for country with love for the ruling Party, making opposition to the CCP's leadership seem like treason in the eyes of many Chinese.

Perhaps the next time Professor Zhang calls for Party purity, he should take a close look at the CCP's grassroots operations. There, the CCP's sustaining combination of self-interest, patriotism, and habit is first inculcated. That admixture has proven effective, even if -- or perhaps because -- true belief is harder and harder to find.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.