It’s not easy to join the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the US, if you want to become a Democrat or join the Dr. Fauci Fan Club, all you have to do is sign up. But to become a Party member in China, you need to take courses and tests, get recommendations, pass a screening process that looks not just at your background, but also at your parents, serve a probationary period, take an oath, and fulfill duties for the rest of your life.
Less than 10% of those who apply are accepted. Even Xi Jinping, now the leader of China, was rejected at first. As a fascinating New Yorker profile notes, when “Xi [applied] to join the Communist Party’s Youth League… his application was rejected seven times.” The problem was that although Xi’s father was a leading Communist official who had fought with Mao, the father had also lost several power struggles and been purged. As a teenager, Xi himself was sent to the rural countryside and lived in a cave where he “learned from workers and farmers.” (During the Cultural Revolution, about 17 million “privileged youth” like Xi were sent to rural areas in the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.”) But Xi persisted in applying, and on his eighth try he was accepted.
The CCP has about 90 million members, about 7% of the Chinese population. They are motivated by both idealism and ambition. As the BBC has noted “loyal membership [in the Communist Party] is essential for anyone who wants to climb the career ladder.” This applies not just in politics and government, but in every area of life. Even the richest person in China belongs (Jack Ma, with a net worth of about $39 billion). So does Fan Bingbing, one of the most famous actresses in Asia, best known to Western audiences for her role in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
According to the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, members must “Adhere to the principle that the interests of the Party and the people come before all else” (p. 11). In addition, Party leaders such as representatives to the National Party Congress are pre-screened for such qualities as “‘unshakable belief,’ ‘correct political stance’ and ‘good moral quality’…”
The constitution also states that the goal of the Chinese communist party is to “lead the people in building a harmonious socialist society.. that is prosperous, strong… culturally advanced… and beautiful.” In the real world, according to Karl Minzner in The End of an Era (p. 18), “Since 1989, Beijing has firmly adhered to one core principle: uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party at all costs.”
And they have achieved that goal. As a recent BBC news report summed it up, “The Communist Party of China is in complete control of the country, from government to police to military.” It is embedded in, and intertwined with, not just government positions but every part of the economy.
As Xi Jinping himself said at the most recent meeting of the National Party Congress “Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the Party is the leader of all.” (See Xi Jinping: The backlash, Kindle loc 67.)
At the heart of the Party’s power is the “Organization Department” which controls the assignments of Party members, and maintains secret files on all 90 million members. According to a brief article published by the official China News Service, the Organization Department “always wears a mysterious veil in public,” so little is known about its operations, outside or inside China.
However, as noted in the first post in this blog, it is known that the department oversees virtually every important appointment in government, business, TV networks, newspapers, universities and think tanks. According to Richard McGregor in The Party (p. 74), the department “maintains files on top level officials in the public sector, to keep tabs on their political reliability and past job performance, making it indispensable to the Party’s control of the country” (p. 73).
When I went to a Catholic elementary school many years ago, the nuns used to threaten us that if we misbehaved, a big black mark would “go in your permanent file.” For China’s 90 million Communists, there really is a “permanent file” and the Organization Department has it.
Along with your record, advancement is often based on who you know. (It’s a good thing institutions don’t work that way in the US. Oh wait…) In China, building and maintaining business relationships requires attending frequent elaborate business banquets. A traditional Chinese banquet includes eight to ten courses, and many many “bottoms up” toasts (or ganbei in Mandarin). After each, you are expected to hold your glass up to show that it is empty.
Drinking alcohol is such a critical part of building relationships that one educational guide to travel includes a section on drinking culture which notes that in China “You can have friends, be rich and drink …. or don’t drink and be lonely and poor.” Another observer described advancement in the Party this way “If you didn’t have a liver of steel to cope with all the hard-liquor toasts, you were in the wrong line of work” (p. 21).
(As a result of Xi Jinping’s reforms, Communist Party business banquets are now “limited by edict to four dishes and a soup.” (p. 243). I am not aware of any limits on drinking.)
Once you belong to the Party, you’d better follow the rules. Fan Bingbing, the X-Men actress mentioned at the start, learned that the hard way when she suddenly disappeared from public view in 2018. According to the New York Times, at the time this “fueled a flurry of rumors of personal rivalries and political intrigue… though few concrete facts.”
Imagine what it would be like if Meryl Streep suddenly disappeared and no one knew where she was. The ratings for Entertainment Tonight would skyrocket, and tabloid reporters and paparazzi would swarm every possible location where she might appear. The Chinese media was more subdued. After a few months, Fan simply reappeared, publicly described her house arrest for tax evasion and noted “that she would have been nothing ‘without the party and the state’s good policies.’” Sounds like she learned her lesson.
What does the Party’s control mean for relations between China and the rest of the world? According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “The Chinese Communist Party wants ‘international domination’ and has embarked on a ‘global campaign’ to sway countries to their side… we want to see a liberalized China that allows the genius of its people to flourish.”
From the Chinese perspective, Pompeo’s problem is expecting Chinese “people to flourish” on our terms, through Western liberalization.
In 2013, a dissident leaked an extremely influential internal memo entitled Document 9 which describes the need for China’s “complicated intense struggle” with seven “false ideological trends.” According to the New York Times, the secret memo “bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping.”
Number one on its list of seven false and dangerous trends was “Promoting Western constitutional democracy.” Number two was “espousing ‘universal values’ to claim that the West’s value system… transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity.” Number five was “Promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.” And so on.
So it seems quite clear that the Chinese Communist Party is not aiming to imitate or accept the Western way of life. In the US, the question for wise politicians is not can we beat China. It is instead, how can the two superpowers learn to live together?
An well-run, disciplined, focused organization of 90 million members – wow! The only somewhat comparable organizations are world religions like Islam and Catholicism.
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