90 Years of the Chinese Communist Party

The largest political party in the world celebrates its anniversary. But can its dominance last until its 100th?


They're now the same size: The Central Organization Department of the Communist Party recently announced that the ranks of the party have swelled to 80.3 million in 2010, on par with the population of Germany (82 million). It is appropriate and perhaps deliberate that the revelation of the party's numbers came so soon before today, when China celebrates the 90th anniversary of the founding of the CCP in 1921. (For a timeline of CCP development, see here for an official, though sanitized, version.) The Xinhua News Agency has the full details:

The Party grew from only about 50 members at its birth to nearly 4.5 million when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

Last year, 3.075 million people joined the CPC, the world's largest political Party -- a net increase of 2.274 million taking into account members who died or left the party.

The two leading groups in new members were college students and people at the frontline of production or work, such as industrial workers, farmers, herders, and migrant workers, both accounting for more than 40 percent of the total new Party members.

The CPC received 21.017 million membership applications last year, a year-on-year increase of 861,000.

From 50 members to 80 million, that's roughly 9 million members added per decade since 1921, or just under 1 million a year. An interesting data point is that college students constituted 40 percent of the 3.1 million new party members added in 2010, up 94,000 from the a year ago. So that means of the estimated 6 million university graduates in 2009, perhaps 20 percent opted to join the CCP.

That the CCP has grown tremendously is understandable, since it is the only political game in town. But some may find it surprising that so many college students eagerly join its ranks. It shouldn't be. The CCP has increasingly evolved into an elite establishment political machine, attracting the highly educated and ambitious. It is often viewed as something of a "career insurance" for newly minted college graduates. After all, belonging to an elite network can help with career advancement in any country, but with varying degrees of success. I recall attending a session at People's University in 2006, where I was a foreign visiting student, that involved senior students voting on whether the starry-eyed freshman or sophomore should make it into the party. Having spoken to some students over the years, I never got the impression that they were signing up for any ideologically driven purpose. To them, it felt more along the lines of entering into the realm of one of those exclusive and elite clubs at an Ivy League university.

Except for the small fact that the CCP runs the entire country and has, since its inception, aimed to monopolize its power and prevent any organized opposition. As Richard McGregor's The Party capably demonstrates, the CCP's tentacles still infiltrate numerous economic and social organizations in China. Such reality is known to anyone who has dealt with Chinese state companies or spoken with those affiliated with state apparatuses. The party's reach is not because it now enlists 80 million, as only a very small fraction of those millions actually engage in any meaningful political work and operations. The CCP has proven itself to be highly organized and rather disciplined as a political entity, adapting as much as it can to accommodate the realities and exigencies of governing a complex country that is swimming in the tide of globalization. Not to mention having to navigate in an environment where its traditional tools of propaganda and information suppression are challenged by unprecedented information flows and open new media.

Much of the organization's prowess resides in the Organization Department of the Central Committee, colloquially known as the "human resources" department of the party. It is a particularly powerful institution because it holds all the files of its members and vets all major personnel appointments in the bureaucracy, state firms, and provinces. If Google is known for maintaining a formidable army of servers, I wonder how many the Organization Department houses. The department head -- currently Li Yuanchao, a known Hu Jintao protege -- is undoubtedly a powerful figure in the top echelon of the CCP, even as he is largely kept out of the public's view. In fact, Li sits on the 25-member Politburo and is on the short list of securing a standing committee seat come 2012.

Having fought its way into the dominant political organization in modern China, can the nonagenarian CCP hit the century mark? Anyone proclaiming a definitive answer on this front should be met with skepticism. So far, China has defied regime collapse predictions from the likes of Gordon Chang for about a decade now. But that is far from declaring victory. In fact, domestic problems are mushrooming, and the party appear adrift in how precisely to remedy the socioeconomic illnesses that could prove corrosive if left untreated. It has taken on the peculiar dual psychology of having secured establishment status but perpetually distraught over the illusory permanence of that status. Clearly, the CCP is no longer a revolutionary party. But can it sustain governance without falling prey to internal sclerosis and systemic corruption? On the eve of CCP's 90th anniversary, having a convincing answer to that question might be more important and necessary than it has been in decades.          

Image Credit: Shi Tou / Reuters