The year 2021 not only marked the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), but also the third resolution on the party’s history, making Xi Jinping a leader on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Beginning with around 50 members in 1921, the PCC’s organization and mandate grew exponentially over its lifetime. Today, under Xi’s leadership, Marxism has once again taken center stage in the Chinese model, guiding China’s unparalleled rise. Strengthening the party organization is becoming increasingly important, as the party’s success in achieving results is closely linked to the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation. Under Xi’s leadership, CCP members are younger, better educated and better employed than their predecessors as the party apparatus have become integrated into all aspects of modern Chinese society. Close scrutiny of the party’s younger members sheds light on its future direction.
Historically, Chinese leaders have made conscious efforts to mold CCP membership to reflect party priorities and challenges. Four decades ago, China witnessed Deng Xiaoping’s rise to supreme leadership and ushered in a new era of economic reform and opening up. To implement these reforms, he wanted the Chinese Communist Party to become younger, intellectual, professional and revolutionary; a distinct turn from its original peasant makeup. This economic reform opened up a capitalist-communist paradox by making a business perspective essential to the party. Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, tried to solve this problem by stepping up the recruitment of ambitious and talented business leaders and young people to accelerate China’s productivity and development.
Today, CCP members with a college or university education or more constitute more than half of the 95 million members, three times more than the 15% of the total population with a university degree. Likewise, the party has begun to recruit young members more seriously: 12.5 million members are under 30 and three million are students.
By favoring the recruitment of the youngest and brightest, the CCP takes up the challenge of ensuring the loyalty and ideological commitment of new members. Interviews with young party members, including current university students and young professionals, reveal that, like admissions to a prestigious university or company, fit plays a large role in how the party judges its ambitious young aspirants. Whereas before, members could have decades of loyal service to assess, proving loyalty today is more difficult: party officials resort to extensive ideological examinations to determine mastery of Marxist doctrine, probe their reputation among other students and even assess the social interactions of applicants. with established party members who mentor them through the multi-year admissions process.
In recent years, the new emphasis on ideology has meant that the heightened surveillance does not fade once students become full party members. As one CCP student member explained, the belief group liaison activities within local units that were once optional have become strictly mandatory. The fast lanes through the admissions process have been closed, making displaying the best civic behaviors and ideological reflections a protracted process. New members also face increased pressure to embody the ideological virtues of the party.
Yet, despite all the ideological requirements of party membership, the self-selection component of the process should not be overlooked. The youth who are most nationalistic and proud of the party’s achievements are generally those who respond most enthusiastically to the party’s ideology and aspire to become party members. CCP members are found to be significantly more likely than their same-age counterparts to engage in civic activities such as voting or volunteering. While there may be very few people who absolutely agree ideologically with Xis Thoughts, for many aspirants, party membership is more than just a prestigious award. There are other reasons for joining the CCP at a young age, including sincere faith in the party’s leadership in China.
When discussing the future of China, it is important to learn about the next generation of leaders in their formative political years. Xi’s political legitimacy is intimately tied to his experience as a 17-year-old sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The party line is that Xi’s experience in an arid mountain village in Shaanxi Province shaped his worldview and brought him closer to the ordinary people of China.
It is highly likely that the next generation of leaders will emerge not from the countryside but rather from elite universities. As China seeks to become a fully innovative nation without sacrificing its adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles, those expecting to engage with China in the future should keep a close eye on how the party achieves this. balance now by recruiting and training its future leaders.
Zoe Leung is director of Track 2 Diplomacy at the George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations. Eric Yang is Vice President of the Harvard China College Forum and Junior Fellow at the George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.
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