September 28, 2012 9:12 pm

Welcome to the party!

‘Ordinary’ communists offer rare insights into life in one of the world’s most secretive political parties

When most westerners try to put a face to the Communist Party of China, the same mental image pops up: an elderly male with badly dyed hair and an ill-fitting suit. That is the public face of the CPC: nine identical Politburo standing committee members. The other 83 million party members – the young, the ethnic, the female, the radical, the businessman and the banker – might just as well be invisible.

The current Politburo standing committee©AP

The current Politburo standing committee

Now, as the CPC prepares for a once-in-a-decade political transition – which will mostly involve replacing one set of grey-faced leaders with another – the Financial Times has set out to assemble an Everyman gallery of party members. When the party meets for its 18th congress in Beijing next month, most of these people will not be making any headlines. But they offer rare insights into what life is like as a member of one of the world’s most secretive political parties.

Rupert Murdoch told the FT’s Richard McGregor in the late 1990s that he had never met a communist in China; if so, he must have tried very hard to avoid them. As of last year, the CPC had 83 million members out of a total population of 1.34 billion – and it added more than three million members in 2011 alone. If in doubt, assume that most of China’s really powerful people – from government officials to bankers, from industrialists to academics – run a high probability of having a party membership lurking somewhere on their résumé. That hardly makes them committed communists – but it does mean that many of the same Chinese who regularly interact most with foreigners may owe allegiance to the party, not just the profit motive.

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The CPC is the party of the establishment in China but is composed very differently from in the past, when the middle and upper classes were not welcome. According to figures from the organisation department of the CPC, nearly 40 per cent of party members these days have a junior college degree or above: the total number of workers and farmers – once the backbone of the party – is now about equal to the number of professionals, party staff and those who work in business and public institutions (32 million each). There are 15 million retirees and nearly three million students. Women make up a quarter, as do people under 35, and there are 5.5 million members of minority ethnic groups (of which China officially has 55).

But these stark statistics fail to capture the breadth of today’s CPC, as displayed in these pages: the Wall Street-trained, Morgan Stanley-backed Chinese banker who defends the relevance of communism in a China apparently enamoured of capitalism; the UK-educated trade union official at Mercedes-Benz, who has a lot to say for one-party rule; the Olympic gold medallist who learnt to read Chinese characters by perusing party propaganda; the ageing Maoist who thinks economic reform has destroyed the moral fabric of Chinese society; the overworked paediatrician who believes that, just like saving lives, his duty is to serve the party; the Korean war veteran who still hates America after all these years; the ethnic minority woman who is effusively grateful to the CPC for helping lift her people out of poverty; the migrant worker turned village official who thinks the party will lead his home town to greater and greater prosperity; and the Young Pioneer who believes the CPC can build a better world to live in.

After years of indoctrination, many party members – including some interviewed here – fall back on stock phrases and propaganda slogans to express great love for and pure belief in the party. There is an element of fear involved, as publicly criticising the CPC or the political system in China can get individuals into very serious trouble – and in extreme cases lead to time served in a labour camp or imprisonment. The majority of party members approached to be interviewed for this article refused point blank because of the “sensitivity” of the subject and the possibility of repercussions.

But beyond the stilted rhetoric and excessively ardent declarations of loyalty, it is clear that many members do have a genuine affection and respect for the party and what it is meant to stand for.

How exactly do these 83 million people interact with the party on a daily basis, and it with them? The cold war image which still shapes most western stereotypes includes a relationship between party and people that was deep and intimate: Chinese citizens (not just party members) used to be told by the CPC where to live, work and study, when to marry and how many children to have, and even how far apart their births should be. The CPC had a hand in everything, cradle to grave, school to workplace; and after work the party was there, organising political denunciations and reporting on trifles such as who failed to clean up their dog mess.

Today’s party members are organised by workplace or neighbourhood. The party sets up a branch where there are at least three members in a company, neighbourhood or public institution such as a hospital. In most cases, ordinary people do not know whether or not their co-workers are members, and there seems little social tension over the issue. Joining the party is a difficult process that only a minority manage to complete successfully.

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At the neighbourhood level, the party is trying to replace the hated middle-aged busybodies around since the cold war era with college-educated social workers trained in dispute resolution. These days, neighbourhood committees do a fair bit of welfare benefit distribution, marriage counselling and petty crime prevention – along with their spying.

Except in the case of those identified as potential security threats – whose every move may be monitored if not controlled by the party – the CPC has largely stepped right out of the micromanagement of human lives. “These days the party does not interfere in most decisions that people make – with the exception of the birth policy [which limits most Chinese to one or sometimes two children],” says Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. “Although people don’t have political freedom, they have a lot of personal freedom.”

Chen Guo, lecturer in the morals and ethics of communism at Shanghai’s Fudan University, says party members are still meant to do “self-criticism” on a regular basis – which, she says, “can be compared with Christians going to confession in church”. But most party members seem to take that responsibility lightly these days.

So, the CPC gets in people’s way a lot less than it used to, but how exactly does it help them? If tens of millions of Chinese have found it worthwhile to join, and party membership over the past decade has got more popular, there must be a reason.

Most political analysts, Chinese and western, agree that for many, the question is less “why join?” than “why not?” “If you don’t have a principled objection, it is hard to see what the downside is,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “People are hedging their bets in China,” adds Gallagher; with one hand they write up a party membership application, and with the other they write the cheque to send their child overseas to study.

The potential gains are huge: “The party is the largest patronage organisation in human history,” says Lieberthal. “In urban China, every significant position of authority, not only in the government but in state-owned enterprises, schools, hospitals, think-tanks, the media, you name it, is filled by a decision of the party and for a significant number of those positions, membership is a requirement.”

Even some professions that, in the west, are supposed to be above politics – such as the law, for example – owe allegiance first to the party in China. Chinese lawyers are required to take an oath of loyalty to the CPC, which begs the question of protecting the interests of justice, not to mention their clients. And most Chinese law firms have a party committee that can be more powerful even than the most senior partner.

“In the west, your decision on what [group] to join would depend on what your career path is; doctors don’t join the same associations as lawyers,” says Lieberthal. “But in China, it’s all one organisation. No matter what the career path, there is one body that determines the path to leadership.”

Do they believe in communism? In most cases, probably not. But they do believe in the power of the world’s largest political party to deliver everything from wealth to power to prestige to even a kind of spiritual fulfilment that in other societies would be provided by religion. These nine people will be far from the limelight during the once-in-a-decade political theatre that is about to begin. But they are doing their bit to ensure that the party of Mao Zedong is around to direct Chinese political dramas for many more decades to come.

Introduction by Patti Waldmeir, with additional reporting by Yan Zhang

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The official: Wang Hong, Guizhou

Wang Hong©Algirdas Bakas

Wang Hong

Membership in the Communist party has transformed Wang Hong, 32, from an elementary schoolteacher into an influential government propaganda official in the space of just a few years.

Her audience has changed, but her message remains the same as she extols the virtues of China’s ruling party. “Everyone in China adores the party and young people who are qualified to join are extremely proud and honoured,” she says. “We all know from a very young age that without the Communist party there would be no new China and there would be no situation like today, where things get better and better.” There is no room for ambiguity in Wang’s line of work.

The poor, rural county in south-west China’s Guizhou province, where she is responsible for “external propaganda”, is officially designated an “autonomous region” because of the large proportion of people from China’s ethnic minority groups that live there. China has 56 officially recognised ethnic groups, but 92 per cent of the country’s 1.34 billion people are from the ethnic Han majority.

Wang is from the Yi minority, but her husband is Han Chinese and her link to her culture mostly revolves around wearing ethnic dress on special occasions and singing and dancing to old songs. She and her husband have a five-year-old son who is officially designated as Han.

Relations between the Han and other ethnic groups in places such as Tibet and Muslim-dominated Xinjiang are often fraught, and the Communist party’s policies towards those it deems to be ethnic “separatists” are exceedingly harsh. But groups such as the Yi minority are almost indistinguishable from Han, and tension between them is a lot rarer.

“I cherish the way minorities are treated by the party,” Wang says. “The party really cares about the livelihoods and development of minorities.”

In many areas, the party has established preferential policies, including employment and education quotas, for non-Han ethnic groups. The region where Wang works is one of China’s poorest, but the large proportion of minorities allows it to receive extra subsidies from the central government.

This affirmative action has helped Wang get ahead and made her a more than willing proselytiser. With the same simplistic tone and moral certainty she probably used to teach, she explains what she thinks lies ahead: “Such a strong, continuously developing party that serves the people so full-heartedly will certainly have a bright future!”

Jamil Anderlini, with additional reporting by Gu Yu

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The banker: Tang Ning, Beijing

Tang Ning©Ben McMillan

Tang Ning

Karl Marx argued that profits were derived from exploiting the proletariat. Tang Ning, a financier in Beijing who shuns ties for open collars, argues that profit is perfectly consistent with communism, so long as it is fair.

Though far from Marxist orthodoxy, Tang’s view sits smack in the middle of what Deng Xiaoping defined as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” three decades ago. That phrase, so easily mocked for its malleability, is precisely what has given space to entrepreneurs like Tang to flourish while working inside the Communist party system.

Starting from scratch in 2006, Tang built a peer-to-peer lending company, CreditEase, that has more than 100,000 borrowers and 10,000 employees and has attracted investment from Morgan Stanley. He has also attracted attention from the Communist party – he was selected in June as an outstanding member for his work in alleviating poverty through microfinance.

Tang’s odyssey with the party began when he was invited to join in 1993 on entering Peking University. “Only top students who had demonstrated leadership or a passion to turn China into a modern country had this opportunity,” he says. “We did a mini version of the (revolutionary) Long March. We covered really poor, rural places. That was actually my first time witnessing how poor the country was, because I was born in the city in a middle-class family.”

Tang completed his education in the US and worked on Wall Street for two years before heading home in 2000. China’s boom was just beginning and it was still rare for citizens with good jobs abroad to return. “There were favourable policies for returnees,” he says.

The Communist party is sometimes described today as the world’s biggest chamber of commerce – a club that anyone with business ambitions must be in. Tang says that it is more accurate to view it as part, but not the be-all-and-end-all, of his personal network. Within his company, he has seen a big benefit from encouraging employees to join the party. “Most of our party members are above-average team members. They’re more diligent, more passionate, more eager to learn,” he says.

Every now and again, they meet with party chapters from other companies. To hear it from Tang, it is anything but ideological. “During those sessions, people understand better what’s going on with the macroeconomy, national policy and the world situation,” he says. “It’s a different way of training. It’s not so much sitting and reading academic stuff. It’s quite an engaging process.”

Simon Rabinovitch

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The Olympian: Chen Ying, Beijing

Chen Ying©Jasper James

Chen Ying

When Chen Ying, 34, was a student there were two things she dreamt of: winning gold medals for her country and joining the Communist party. Both of those dreams eventually came true. She was accepted into the party in 2001 and won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in the women’s 25m pistol.

“Ever since I was small I felt that joining the party was a matter of great glory and if the opportunity could come to me then it would be really beautiful – it was my fantasy,” Chen told the FT soon after returning from the London Olympics, where she took silver in the women’s 25m pistol. “But when the time came to try to join, I realised it’s not an easy thing. You need to be better, more excellent than other people and spend a lot of time and energy on it so the party will notice you and foster you.”

When she was a little girl, Chen’s grandfather would bring home propaganda material. “I learnt to read by looking at those documents,” she says. Chen, who is married with an infant daughter, lodged her first party application in 1994. Becoming a top athlete in China does not require party membership and it wasn’t until she won her first shooting medals in 2001 that she was permitted to join.

This year, Chen is one of a group of Olympic champions chosen from the “grassroots” to serve as delegates to the 18th party congress. For the ordinary party member, this is an incredible honour that will allow them to rub shoulders with the most senior political leaders in China.

“I am very confident that under the leadership of the Communist party our socialist country can construct a more spectacular and beautiful tomorrow and the happiness of our Chinese people will far exceed that of the rest of the world,” she says.

JA/GY

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The farmer: Jiang Wenhai, Guizhou

Jiang Wenhai©Algirdas Bakas

Jiang Wenhai

Jiang Wenhai has spent nearly half his 40 years away from his home in Silver Dragon Village, first as a sergeant in the People’s Liberation Army and later as a migrant worker in some of China’s biggest cities.

But a few years ago he decided to return to the remote village in an area of Guizhou province, south-west China, that has the dubious distinction of being the poorest in the country. Today, he is the Communist party secretary for the village, responsible for improving the lives of its population of 2,285.

“After I left the army, I worked as a salesman in Kunming [in south-west China] a security guard in Beijing and as a cook in Xi’an [in northern China], making western food like steak, pizza and pasta,” Jiang says. “Eventually I came home to help my village; I have better knowledge and more experience than the villagers here, so I decided to come back to make a contribution.”

Unlike officials at higher levels, village leaders in China are chosen through direct elections, although the party often still plays a powerful role in the selection of candidates and has oversight of their activities.

Jiang, one of just 18 Communist party members in the village, was elected to his current three-year term in 2010. He says he never campaigned openly and his neighbours chose him because he was the most worldly and capable.

Although he is not yet married, his new status as the village leader has him thinking that it might be time to start a family.

“The village has changed a lot from when I was a child. Today, people have clothes and enough food and there is no serious problem in getting the basic necessities,” Jiang says. “This is thanks to the Communist party’s policies and because the party is always good, it cares about people and serves the people wholeheartedly.”

When asked if he can think of any mistakes the party might have made in the past, Jiang hesitates and then says he can’t.

What about Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, whose misguided economic policies in the late 1950s caused the deaths of tens of millions and whose political campaigns such as the Cultural Revolution ruined the lives of many more?

Even the Communist party itself decided, after Mao was safely dead, that there had been some mistakes. But Jiang has never heard of this: “I worship Chairman Mao; he was great and wise,” he says.

JA/GY

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The graduate: Sun Tiantian, Beijing

Peter Sun©Ben McMillan

Peter Sun

Sun Tiantian, 27, or Peter Sun as he likes to be called, joined the Communist party for much the same reason someone in the west might join the Freemasons. “All my classmates at university in Beijing wanted to join the party because it gives you better job opportunities and more chances of promotion,” he says.

Sun had to submit monthly handwritten self-criticisms and “thought reports” to the party on his political, personal and professional development for almost four years before he was finally accepted in 2007.

But the effort was worth it, and today he has a great job as a trade union official at Beijing Benz Automotive Company, Mercedes-Benz’s joint venture in the Chinese capital.

“It was quite difficult and rigorous, but considering the reward it was actually not that bad – [membership] really gives you a leg up,” Sun says.

Sun has a bachelor’s degree from the Communication University of China and a master's degree in international political communication from Sheffield university in the UK, but the first thing he was asked in the interview for his current job was whether he was a party member.

His membership also didn’t hurt when he was hired by Fujian TV, a regional Chinese TV station in south-east China, where he worked as a television news anchorman for three years after graduation.

In his excellent English, Sun emphasises the importance of the 18th Communist party congress, which will see a new generation of leaders take charge of the party for the next decade.

Like many well-educated middle class Chinese, Sun is more than willing to acknowledge the party’s historical mistakes and some of the problems that go along with authoritarian rule, but he remains a believer in the current system.

“Most people in China, deep in their hearts, they still recognise the party as the only legitimate ruler and they don’t want to see dramatic upheaval in their lives,” he says.

Unlike many of his compatriots he is in a position to compare China’s system with western liberal democracy.

“When I lived in the UK I saw many weaknesses in the western political system – from overly generous state welfare to inefficient endless politicking and confrontational party manoeuvring that never got anything done,” he says. “When I got back to China I also recognised some of the weaknesses of the one-party system, such as corruption and the problem of self-policing, but I believe the party still has a lot to offer the country and the people.”

JA/GY

The doctor: Justin Shen, Shanghai

Justin Shen©Algirdis Bakas

Justin Shen

Dr Justin Shen uses the word “spiritual” to describe his membership of the Communist Party of China.

“The party’s role is to lead me to goodness, to teach me to be a better person, a more excellent worker, to do my job and not expect material rewards,” says the 34-year-old doctor, who is a paediatric urologist at one of the world’s busiest children’s hospitals. Like working lots of overtime in a high-pressure job with low remuneration, and not complaining, says his wife (who is not a party member).

Does he believe in communism? “Yes,” he says, though he is quick to add a caveat: “Although it cannot be realised right away – it serves as a lighthouse to guide ships, but as a distant goal.” Does he think the party has made mistakes in its history? Dr Shen dodges that one with a reply commonly given by party members, along the lines of “everyone makes mistakes”. “But the general direction is right,” he concludes.

The young doctor insists that becoming a party member has nothing to do with career-building: at his hospital, many heads of department are not members, and he is sure his membership had nothing to do with him getting his job. He points out, though, that being a party member is a kind of “shorthand for being an excellent person”.

Like other top students at China’s leading universities, Dr Shen felt that joining the party was just “the natural thing to do”. And like many of his political fellows, he describes party membership in terms that involve far more duty than benefit. Party members are expected to serve as model citizens.

And so what are the benefits? None at all that he can think of – “except that I get to know other excellent people”.

Patti Waldmeir, with additional reporting by Yan Zhang

The teenager: Cai Xiaojun, Shanghai

Cai Xiaojun©Daniele Mattioli

Cai Xiaojun

Cai Xiaojun, 14, says he made up his mind to join the Communist party mostly by watching television. But in truth, this fresh-faced, enthusiastic middle-schooler with a buzz cut has been on track to join the party for years.

Like almost every primary school student in China, he joined the Young Pioneers – an organisation of 130 million children that comes under the aegis of the CPC, but operates more like a cross between the Boy Scouts, the milk monitors and the student council. Like the Boy Scouts, the Young Pioneer motto is “be prepared” – but prepared to “struggle for the cause of communism”.

Cai will graduate from the Young Pioneers later this year, and expects to join the Communist Youth League and the party itself after that. Speaking in the airy flat that he shares with his parents on the outskirts of Shanghai, Cai makes it quite clear that he considers party membership both a duty and a pleasure.

As wenyu weiyuan (“recreational commissary”) of his school’s Young Pioneers, he waxes lyrical about group social activities. Becoming a full party member will be more about work and less about fun. “It will help me to understand society better and thus help me to get a better job,” he says, disclosing his ambition to become an actor or singer. Working in the performing arts will not require him to be a party member, he says, but it will help.

Asked whether he is aware that the party has not always lived up to the highest ideals, he says everyone makes mistakes. “But if you are a party member, you must be able to correct those mistakes quickly. To correct the fault is more important.”

What about the party’s role in the Cultural Revolution, which he says he learnt about in school and on TV? “I can’t say whether the role of the Communist party was a good one or a bad one. Their ideas were manipulated.”

Asked if he knows what happened in 1989 at Tiananmen Square, he says he is not quite sure.

Being a party member means being “more responsible and having more duties” – such as making sure that able-bodied people do not sit in seats saved for the disabled or elderly on public transport. “If I can … give seats to those who need them, the society can be better off. The party doesn’t need to care only about the very big things that are vital to the lives of people – these tiny things are also important to their lives.”

PW/YZ

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The leftist: Li Yuhai, Hebei

Li Yuhai©Ben McMillan

Li Yuhai

Li Yuhai is the ideal Communist party member, but he lives in the wrong era.

“Communism is a force for good, but the Communist party of China has veered away from its own teachings,” says the 55-year-old steelworker, his large, expressive eyes wrinkled into a sad smile.

Li is a Maoist. Mao Zedong, the man who led the Communist party to power in China in 1949, is everything to him. “Chairman Mao is infallible, and humankind will have to wait for a long time until another man as great as him will be born,” he says.

But the party no longer shares that view. Deng Xiaoping, the man who overturned almost everything the late dictator had done with the country, resolved that Mao was “70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad”.

Shortly after Li was born in 1957, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, a campaign intended to catapult China to the status of an industrial powerhouse, but which instead drove it into the worst famine in history.

But to Li, those are infamous lies. What he recalls from the Mao era is a Communist heaven – a society with jobs, food, free schooling and medical care for all, without greed and corruption and with national dignity.

Born into a poor peasant family in northern China, Li says his parents, although not party members, taught him from early childhood to respect Mao’s enormous achievements.

“Before Chairman Mao, we had no industry. Every finished good was called ‘foreign’ because we couldn’t make anything ourselves,” he says.

As a junior high school student, Li experienced the Cultural Revolution, which most Chinese today look back on in horror as an era of murderous chaos.

However, Li dismisses that as well, stressing instead the frugality and asceticism of party cadres in those times.

After finishing high school, Li worked as a film projectionist at a propaganda troupe touring the countryside between 1975 and 1977. Later he trained as a steelworker at Baotou Steel Institute in Inner Mongolia.

Ever since 1981, he has been working at a state-owned steel machinery plant in Xingtai, 400km south of Beijing.

But it was not until 1991, after his promotion to head a machinery unit, that he joined the party.

“I didn’t want to after what they did to the students in ’89,” he says, referring to the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. “I had lost all faith in the party, but they told me it was more appropriate for me to be a member in that job.”

Now, that status is worth very little. As his employer is struggling, Li expects to be sent into early retirement after the 18th party congress.

“I’ll get no more than Rmb600 (£59) or Rmb700 (£68) a month,” he says. “Chairman Mao would never have let that happen.”

Kathrin Hille

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The veteran: Chen Kaiming, Guizhou

Chen Kaiming©Algirdis Bakas

Chen Kaiming

The Korean war that broke out in 1950 is known in China as the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”, and for Chen Kaiming it was a traumatic and formative experience.

Born into a peasant family in a dirt-poor region in southern China in 1930, Chen was 20 years old when he volunteered for the People’s Liberation Army. He was sent to North Korea, where he joined the Communist party in a hasty ceremony on the battlefield in 1952.

“In the old society before Liberation [the 1949 Communist victory over the Nationalists that ended a bloody civil war in China], the ordinary folk were oppressed and exploited, we had no good clothes and not much food, and young men in the villages were always being forcibly conscripted into the Nationalist army,” Chen says in his thick regional accent.

“But after 1949 the whole society was turned upside down; I joined the Communist army voluntarily because I wanted to make a contribution to building the new China.”

He found himself leading a 30-man platoon at the 1952 Battle of Triangle Hill, one of the bloodiest of the entire war, where more than half of his men were killed by American and United Nations soldiers.

He says that was a pretty good outcome compared to most of the other Chinese units that fought there and suffered even higher casualty rates.

After the ceasefire was signed in 1953, Chen stayed on in North Korea as a soldier until 1957, when he returned to his village a war hero and a Communist party official with a powerful job in the local bureaucracy.

To this day, he has still not forgiven America – and for some reason he is particularly scathing when talking about the Democratic party.

“[US secretary of state] Hillary [Clinton] is the most vicious one, but [US President] Obama is vicious too; he’s a bad egg and his administration supports Taiwan [the self-ruled island that China claims as a renegade province] much more than the [George W.] Bush administration did; Obama is much worse than little Bush,” Chen says, with obvious passion.

As a retired cadre and war veteran, Chen still follows current events and has access to internal party documents.

Two of his five children are policemen and party officials, and he hopes many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will carry on the tradition and join the party as well.

JA/GY

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