Why do so many people join the Communist Party in China?

Jane Cai and Qin Chen in Beijing, South China Morning Post

Posted at May 20 2021 12:30 PM

China’s ruling Communist Party had only 50 members when it was founded in 1921 by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao.

Both Chen and Li studied Marxism in Japan, and were among the Chinese intellectuals with communist ideas that were influential in the 1919 student protests known as the May Fourth Movement.

The party they founded has since grown to become the second-largest in the world – after the Bharatiya Janata Party, one of India’s two major political parties – with almost 92 million members.

After the party won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, membership grew to 22 million in the next two decades and continued to rise.

In this century, membership rose at an average of 2.4 per cent annually under Hu Jintao, who served as the party’s general secretary from 2002 to 2012 before growth slowed markedly to about 1 per cent a year in the past decade, according to official data.

In 2013, the party’s organisation department set an annual growth target for membership of “about 1.5 per cent” over the next 10 years, as President Xi Jinping – who also serves as party general secretary – ordered it to “control numbers” and “improve the quality” of members.

Today, one in every 15 people in China is a Communist Party member. There are almost 5 million local-level party organisations, also known as party cells, pervading every aspect of Chinese society, from villages, schools and neighbourhoods to private companies and institutes.

Who are the people joining the Communist Party?

While the party used to represent mainly the three revolutionary classes – workers, farmers and soldiers – it has attracted more intellectuals, professionals and entrepreneurs since the beginning of this century.

From 2007 to 2019, the share of blue-collar and rural workers in the party fell from 41.5 per cent to 34.8 per cent, while the proportion of managers and professionals increased from 22.4 per cent to 26.7 per cent, according to the organisation department.

An education ministry survey conducted at 140 universities in 15 provinces in 2011 found that 80 per cent of 250,000 students polled wanted to join the party.

Part of this was ideological alignment with the party’s values: the poll found more than 90 per cent of students agreed with the concept of a socialist core-value system that consisted of Marxism, socialism with Chinese characteristics, patriotism and the spirit of reform and innovation.

But Communist Party membership can also be a career boost. While official data shows only 8.4 per cent of members worked for party and government organs as of 2019, anyone who holds a position of authority is almost certainly a party member. That includes not just party and government bureaucracies, but also the military, state-owned enterprises, universities and schools and hospitals.

Some government jobs explicitly require a party membership. Support staff for the party, for example, have to be members as a rule.

In the private sector, companies including internet giants Baidu and Didi Chuxing have advertised high-paying roles requiring Communist Party membership to take charge of “party-building” activities.

In the absence of market-supporting institutions, entrepreneurs have found that connections to the Communist Party help their firms secure favourable regulatory or tax conditions and obtain access to resources such as bank loans, according to a paper written by Chinese University of Hong Kong scholars led by Hongbin Li.

Party members include well-known business leaders such as Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi, China Evergrande’s Xu Jiayin and Jack Ma Yun, founder of e-commerce giant and the South China Morning Post’s parent company Alibaba Group Holding.

Ren Zhengfei, founder of the Shenzhen-based telecoms equipment provider Huawei Technologies Co., is also a party member who once served in the People’s Liberation Army. His ties with Chinese military and the party have been cited by the US government and other Western countries as a security concern in granting it contracts to provide 5G equipment.

However, Ren told the Post in a 2019 interview that he did not see close connections between his personal political beliefs and Huawei’s actions as a business. In the interview, he said that while he supported the Communist Party, he would “never do anything to harm any other nation”.

What is the process for joining the party?
Joining the party is usually an arduous process that can take two to three years.

Potential members must apply to their local party organisations, initiating a multi-year process with more than 20 steps to determine their qualification, including submitting a formal application, meeting with the local party organisers and attending party study sessions.

Candidates also need a party member to act as a guide and mentor, who they often find through party organisations at their work and schools.

After about a year of study, applicants need to pass written tests. They must also pass background checks – those with criminal records or whose family members have such records may fail these.

If they pass all of these steps, applicants still have to go through a probation period of at least a year before the party branch decides whether to admit them.

What about “secret” party members?
Not everyone goes through the standard process to gain party membership. The party constitution allows the Central Committee or provincial party committees to admit new members directly “under special circumstances”.

Members who join under this process are usually those with high social status, including influential elites, social organisation leaders and capitalists who have connections with the upper class.

Usually they only keep contact with high-level cadres and their identities are concealed even within the party to facilitate their activities in “special regions and special sectors”, including helping the party win support or wield influence in areas where it has little control, according to CPCnews.cn, a party knowledge website which is part of the official newspaper People’s Daily.

The most notable example was Rong Yiren, China’s vice-president from 1993 to 1998, whose membership was only revealed after his death in 2005.

Rong was among the first entrepreneurs to hand over their flour and cotton milling businesses to the state in the private company nationalisation campaign in the 1950s.

In the late 1970s, Rong was made an adviser to China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on the sweeping economic opening-up and reform. In 1978, he set up China International Trust and Investment Corp which became a sprawling state-owned conglomerate and a vehicle for massive foreign investment.

When Rong became China’s vice-president in 1993, overseas observers widely took the appointment of the “non-party member” as a positive signal of the party’s determination to open up and attract talent.

According to Rong’s official obituary, he joined the party in 1985, more than a decade before the party welcomed members from the business community.

Another secret member was Luo Haocai, former vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Luo was also chairman of the Zhi Gong (Public Interest) Party, which was founded in San Francisco in 1925 and consists of scholars with overseas ties. It is one of eight officially recognised political parties in China, in addition to the Communist Party.

Luo’s membership was only formally recognised in the obituary released by Xinhua after he died in Beijing in 2018, aged 83.

Can members disagree with party leaders?
Members are expected to adhere to party leadership. Should there be any differences among members, the minority are expected to obey the majority, while junior members must follow senior ones.

In January, the Communist Party released a new rule book on access to information and how to handle internal complaints, which was described by state media as “boosting democracy within the party”.

The revised guidelines say, for example, that cadres can report misconduct by their superiors but are prohibited from airing them in public.

Members who openly criticised the party have been expelled in the past.
Ren Zhiqiang, former president of state-affiliated property developer Huayuan Group, was put on a year’s probation in the party after he openly challenged Xi’s view that government media should toe the party line in 2016.

In another article circulating online since March 2020, Ren criticised the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, just as Beijing was promoting its success in containing the pandemic under the party’s leadership.

Ren was expelled last July for “serious violations of law and discipline”. Two months later, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges and fined 4.2 million yuan (US$620,000).

Cai Xia, a retired professor from the Communist Party’s Central Party School, was also expelled from the party and lost her pension for speeches “that damaged the reputation of the country” in August last year.

Can members choose to leave the party?
According to its constitution, members are free to leave the party. The relevant party branches discuss withdrawal applications at their general membership meetings before removing the members’ names from their lists and reporting the withdrawals to the higher party organisations to update central records.

It is unknown how many members have left the party. Wang Qinfeng, deputy head of the organisation department, said in 2011 that 32,000 people were expelled or withdrew from the Communist Party of China in 2010, without giving a breakdown of this number.

Most of the former members were forced out to “ensure the advanced nature and purity” of the party, he said.