x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Party membership still the golden path in China

Less ideological than Mao's party, the CCP is now seen as a career boost.

BEIJING // Li Jing grew up hearing stories from her parents and grandparents about the revolutionaries who turned China communist.

These tales from the country's turbulent 20th century history certainly had an effect on Ms Li, 25, a university student in Beijing.

"When I read about these wars and [the communists'] promises and their mission and what they did for the people, how they fought in the wars, how they protected the other Chinese people and even how many of them died, I really admire these heroes," she said.

Given her revolutionary fervour, it is no surprise Ms Li is a member of the Communist Party of China (CCP), following in the footsteps of her parents and grandfathers.

She joined two years ago, one among the hundreds of thousands of young people who each year sign up with the 80.2 million-strong organisation, the world's largest political party.

"Up to now, I continue to believe the mission of the party is to bring freedom to us all and promote equity," she said.

Becoming a member is a long road. Children join the Young Pioneers at about age 7, typically transferring to the Communist Youth League of China in their early teens.

It is often at university that they face a crucial choice: whether to apply to join the party itself, a process that can take a year and involves coming under the wing of a mentor, attending lectures and setting personal goals.

While some like Ms Li, who is studying English at Beijing Foreign Studies University, are motivated by youthful idealism, others have practical motives. They believe membership will improve their career prospects.

"Joining the party is about your future," said a 21-year-old student studying a European language at the same university who wants to become a full-time party official. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"If you are a member of the party, you can benefit more, maybe have a house and a car."

Now less ideological than the organisation Mao Zedong led to revolutionary victory over the nationalists in 1949, the Communist Party focuses on economic growth, "social stability" and keeping a firm grip on the levers of power.

Indeed, according to a 22-year-old female student keen to avoid becoming a member unless her intended career as an academic seems likely to suffer otherwise, most join because they "believe in the prospects of the party continuing to run the government".

Membership is said to be more important for career advancement for those in government jobs, while in the private sector benefits are more limited.

As well as lengthy, the application process is also prone to failure: in 2010, according to reports citing a Communist party organisation, just 14 per cent of the 21 million applicants were successful.

The success rate for students at Beijing Foreign Studies University is likely to be much higher. The party is keen for "only the best students" to join, according to Ting Wai, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, so those attending elite institutions are priority targets.

"It's a way for the rulers to co-opt the better people into the establishment so they will not fight against the system," he said.

"The CCP has evolved a lot and it wants to maintain its power."

It is a far cry from the peasant revolutionaries who took power intent upon destroying privileges and entrenched interests. Now, said Mr Ting, it is party members, who make up about 6 per cent of the country's population, who are considered elite and "have a lot of vested interests".

Even enthusiastic party members such as Li Jing admit to sometimes being torn between what they have been taught by the party and what they read elsewhere.

"I am used to browsing the overseas internet to get more complete information," she said. "Sometimes, when I see diverse opinions and information, I can't decide which one is right.

"But that's where the faith matters, and I believe the people in the communist government are smarter than I am."