Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Party's over for some

The Communist Party of China is one of the largest political parties in the world. It seems to be growing more slowly in recent years.

China’s Communist Party is becoming choosier about new members
At the end of 2016 China’s Communist Party boasted nearly 90m members, or around one in 12 adult Chinese. (Only the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of India, an outfit with much less stringent entry criteria, can claim deeper ranks.) The party has doubled in size since 1985, according to a recent analysis by Lea Shih of the Mercator Institute in Germany; in the past decade alone its ranks have swelled by nearly a quarter. Yet under Xi Jinping, who became the general secretary (leader) of the party in 2012, officials are closing the floodgates (see chart). Last year’s growth of 0.8% was the lowest in decades.

The party has good reasons to nurture a multimillion-strong membership. Sheer numbers lend it a helpful lustre of legitimacy. Party cells provide eyes and ears in all corners of the country, and inside myriad firms. Under Jiang Zemin, a former general secretary, the party sought to appear more modern and inclusive, not least by encouraging private businesspeople to join.

Mr Xi, by comparison, has spent a large part of his first five years rooting out corruption at the top of the party and renewing ideological fervour at its base. His government worries that a surfeit of half-hearted party members is a strain on resources, a risk to its reputation and an invitation to graft.

The decision to slow the growth in membership is popular among existing members, who are made less special by an influx of novices…

The party’s new quotas appear to squeeze all categories of applicants but are particularly affecting students, who had been the main beneficiaries of the more open entry policies pursued by Mr Xi’s predecessors…

Research suggests that many of these youngsters see membership not as a vocation but as a shortcut to stable employment (many jobs in public service and government-linked companies are reserved for party members), or simply as one more way of proving their superiority over classmates. In 2015 a survey at one middling university found that only one-sixth of those applying to the party were doing so to “serve the people”, and that only a quarter could say that they had a “very strong” desire to be accepted.

These applicants have tended to calculate—mostly correctly—that the demands of party membership are somewhat lower than publicly advertised. High achievers know that they can treat the application process as a formality because recruiters have been ordered to snap up the brightest sparks. Members are supposed to pay up to 2% of their salary in fees and attend regular study sessions, but in practice the obligations vary widely, depending on the enthusiasm and resources of their local branch… One young professional says that party membership has “no costs, only benefits”.

A more disciplined membership would doubtless improve the party’s image among ordinary Chinese. Yet it may not do much to quash corruption, which results less from ideological impurity than from the party’s unchecked grip on power. Moreover, throttling entry also risks impeding efforts to make the party more youthful and diverse. Although about 40% of new recruits are female, women are still only about a quarter of all members and hold only a fraction of senior jobs…

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