Demystifying foreign views about CPC

By Su Li Source:Global Times Published: 2014-7-7 19:13:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Among many topics about China that fascinate foreign observers, Party membership is one that triggers constant curiosity. One reason is that, except for those like Sidney Rittenberg - known in China as Li Dunbai, who joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the 1940s - only a few foreigners have had a chance to observe the CPC functioning from within. This is also why in recent years, interviews with, and a documentary about, Rittenberg, who now serves as an advisor for a long list of companies seeking opportunities in China, have become increasingly popular.

In The Revolutionary, Rittenberg is asked a sensitive question - whether the CPC still exists today. "Not by any definition I know of," he replies. This question is related to a cluster of queries that many foreigners have when they talk about Party membership. After the CPC's gigantic transformation from a revolutionary party to a ruling one, why do so many people, especially youngsters, still choose to join the Party nowadays?

In the West, there are statistical studies about the national Party-building process in China. Since the mid-1990s, the recruitment of Party members has soared dramatically to about 86 million. This makes the CPC the biggest political party in the world.

It is impossible for such a large group to stay homogeneous. People from different social levels and backgrounds join, with different thoughts. Just a few days back, after a seminar, one of my friends, who defended China during the Q&A session, was asked later by a European whether he is a Party member in China. "No. Why?" he said. "Because your questions sound like you are," the European replied.

Among China observers, there is still a tendency, or even an obsession, to stereotype CPC members. The Party has actually grown large enough that its members are ubiquitous, not just in China, but living, studying and working across the world. And it is diversified enough that fierce debates over a wide range of topics are definitely not something new within the group. There are basic principles that CPC members embrace, much like the membership commitment in any other political party. But criticism and debates within the Party can be far beyond external imagination.

As there is wide social agreement in China that radical revolution cannot become the way for the country to realize structural transformation nowadays, revolutionary ideals that early CPC members held last century have inevitably faded. Just like the pragmatic, down-to-earth attitude the Party adopts in leading national reforms, its members seek personal success in their own fields, which, combined together, make the country become a better place.

Being pragmatic is different from being opportunist. To many young Party members, joining the Party is just a mainstream path to follow. It is not an easy task to consolidate cohesion within the Party in this diverse era. This partly explains why the central authorities recently issued a document to call on Party branches at various levels to impose stricter membership standards. This has been interpreted by some domestic experts as a way to "filter" opportunists and consolidate the "pillar forces" within the Party.

With 86 million members, the Party is tangible in all kinds of organizations, both public and private. The activities that Party members participate in regularly are also in accordance with their actual needs.

There are criticisms and self-reflection among many Chinese that Party organizations, especially at the grassroots level, may look increasingly like a human-resources service organization, which poses the risk that the Party may fall into a "socialist cartel-type political party," which means using the resources of the state to maintain its position.

Many China observers abroad also take an entertaining look at all kinds of team-building activities, such as "red" trips to old revolutionary sites, or even white-collar speed dating organized by Party branches. But this is just a small side, which can be exaggerated by external observers. Among Party organizations across the country, there are regular meetings held over much more serious issues, including anti-corruption, ideology and mutual criticism.

According to a recent Xinhua report, the growth rate of new Party membership recruitment in 2013 dropped for the first time in the past decade.

This, while seen as a result of the Party's enlisting new members in a more balanced and prudent way, became an opportunity for experts to discuss "exit" mechanisms for Party members. For an incredibly large political party, a certain ebb and flow of membership is actually needed for continued vigor.

Foreign researchers, despite their criticism toward the CPC, also agree that polls and surveys in China show that the Party still enjoys a high level of support. The public generally has confidence in the national path. This general confidence provides political room for the Party to make its internal structure and culture richer and more flexible. This in turn will help demystify views toward CPC members that are deep rooted among China observers at the moment.

The author is a Beijing-based journalist.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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