By Jenifer Chiodo
For Chinese college students, joining the party does not translate into a game of beer pong.
Rather, it means gaining entrance to an elite club that is largely Communist in name only. The party’s legitimacy rests on two pillars, neither of which have anything to do with Mao’s legacy: the ability to provide ever rising prosperity and social peace, which most Chinese highly value after nearly 200 years of nearly endless war in the 20th Century.
Today, The Communist Party in China is not unlike an fraternity and not an especially elite one at that. Gaining entry is more tedious than arduous, requiring a test of one’s ability to stick to a political ly correct line than any true test of skill or allegience.
What is the party line? Today it can be hard to say for sure. It is fractured between different factions: One that wants China to become more like the West and open its economy up to more private enterprise and competition; another wants to revert back to the days of Mao. These differences are represented among student members and recruits alike.
But membership can be valuable, whatever your political point of view. It eases the way to the most lucrative and respectable top positions in government, state companies and public universities. It functions much like a good old boys club in which members look out after one another – and keep outsiders on the sidelines.
Despite these advantages, there are many Chinese – including students, workers and farmers who have no interest in joining an organization they consider brutal, unfair, morally bankrupt and an engine of corruption. There are protests every week somewhere in the country against the party, its policies or officials.
While there are a reputedly 60 million members (nobody knows for sure, because the party doesn’t release independently verifiable numbers), entry into the party is not easy. It requires many tests and trials over years. Still, many students compete to join.
I got my first taste of the party’s reach and appeal while staying at Hebei University in Baoding. My study abroad group, which Baoding crowned “Stony Brook Delegates,” were treated to nothing less than the finest in Chinese hospitality. I learned that much of this royal treatment was due to local party officials, who wanted to ensure we left with the best possible impression of Hebei and Baoding.
For each daily adventure, we Americans were accompanied by Chinese journalism students and administrators from the university. One administrative woman in particular was always dressed in the highest professional fashion.
I later learned that this woman’s name was Liang Wei, and that her official title was Associate Secretary of the Party Committee of the School of Journalism. Her purpose was twofold: to be our host, and ensure that no political incorrect subjects were discussed while our study abroad group were experiencing the wonders of China. We were lucky in having Wei assigned to our group. She was opened minded and a member of the party’s liberal wing, which made her very open to the West and Western ideas.
Wei’s presence was the first piece of the puzzle to my understanding of the party’s role in China’s educational system. As an American, I felt both comfortable but unsure of how I should take Wei’s frequent presence. On one hand, we wanted to discuss the political and social differences of our two countries with Chinese students. On the other, we knew that the discussions might be one-sided as long as Wei was around. To an American journalism student, Wei’s presence stood for censorship, something that is not kosher to the American press under any circumstance.
“Liang Wei is like our teacher and our government,” one student told me over lunch at the university. “Every major department in the university has someone like her to monitor and teach us about the party. She is a very kind and warm hearted.”
Indeed, she would come over and pat her students on the shoulder for being good hosts to our group. When she was far across the room, I decided to finally brave asking students about the party. In a series of awkward interviews with Hebei students, I learned that Wei was just one facet of the party’s presence in China’s education system.
Some of the students I spoke to had a family member in the party. One student said that her mother joined the party in her college years but regretted doing so later in life. Her mother came to disagree with the party’s politics.
But once in it is hard to exit. For one, leaving the party means a loss of face that disgraces a whole family in communal China. It is also seen as unpatriotic ‚Äì a blasphemous act for those wishing to raise China’s international standing.
“I wouldn’t publish something criticizing the party,” Sure, a journalism student at Hebei University. “Even if there’s stuff we don’t like, we want to complete it to make China better. I have faith that the party will remain intact for at least 50 years.”
Unlike most Americans, who see their government and country as secure, many Chinese see the future as anything but certain. That’s why some young people such as Sure view joining the party as a ticket to upward mobility and a way to secure the country’s future.
Winning party membership is not that hard, usually taking a year or so. The process is tedious, if nothing else. For starters, a student must be in the top of her class. She also needs a sponsor to support her application to join the party. At Hebei University, Wei is in charge of who gets approved to start the application process. With her approval, a student enters a process that requires taking classes and passing multiple tests.
But accepted the benefits are huge. For one, membership is for life, unless your drummed out for crossing the wrong powerbroker or speaking out against the ever changing party line. And it costs only one yuan a year to maintain your membership, although you have to attend occasional meetings and are called on to perform special duties.
Becky’s experience is representative. A junior at Hebei University, she sees winning party membership as an honor that will improve her future prospects and raise the status of her poor, rural family. “Joining the Party symbolizes the meaning of a good student,” said Becky. “People trust the party because it serves the public. I want to serve the public.”
Becky is at the middle of stage two of the process, which involves a series of tests. “There are three courses that students choose once they graduate ‚Äì find a job, apply for a higher education, or work in a government office,” Becky explained. “In order to work for any company that is government owned, you have to apply with party membership.”
Not all students share Becky’s enthusiasm for the party. They fear a loss privacy, for one. “Handing in so many charts of confidential information about my family and I makes me uncomfortable,” said one student, though her father was also a businessman and a member.