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    Party People: What Kind of Students Join the CCP?

    Surveys indicate that over half of China’s college students apply for Communist Party membership — but not for the reasons you might think.

    This is the second article in a series on the political attitudes of Chinese college students. The first article can be found here.

    The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always attached great importance to seeking, cultivating, and recruiting new members from the country’s student population, especially since 2000, when the Party proclaimed itself representative of “the development trends of advanced productive forces.” Consequently, the CCP has witnessed rapid growth in the number of collegiate Party members. In 2010, university students accounted for up to 40 percent of new Party members. Although the CCP enacted new initiatives in 2013 to limit the number of incoming members and emphasize higher “quality” among applicants, university student recruitment remains high: About one-third of all new Party members each year are drawn from college campuses.

    Since its inception, the CCP has evaluated prospective members by a number of different criteria. During “revolutionary” periods — such as before the Communists seized power from the Nationalists in 1949, and during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s — potential new members were scrutinized for their supposed political backgrounds and loyalties. Often, these considerations centered on family origin: Those from “red” backgrounds — such as the children of workers, farmers, and revolutionary cadres — were viewed more favorably by Party organizations. The children of landlords, rich peasants, perceived counterrevolutionaries, capitalists, and other “black” backgrounds, meanwhile, had almost no hope of being admitted.

    Since the beginning of the reform and opening-up era in 1978, the Chinese government has emphasized economic and social development with the aim of becoming a “modern” state. Although Party organizations continue to examine the political backgrounds of applicants, new candidates’ education and skills are now more important considerations during the selection process. As such, this gives university students and skilled professionals far more opportunities to join.

    To gain admission to the CCP, Chinese university students must first apply for membership to a local Party branch. This organization will then select those it deems suitable for larger roles. But what type of students apply to join the Party, and who gets admitted? Together with Xie Guihua, an associate professor of sociology at Renmin University of China, I tried to answer these questions with data taken from the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSPS), carried out from 2009 to 2013.

    We found that around 75 percent of university students had applied for Party membership at some point in their college career. The vast majority — 85 percent of all applicants — did so during their freshman year, and about 39 percent were successful.

    Applicants who expressed sympathy toward the poor and who supported the reallocation of social resources to help them were more likely to apply to become Party members. However, these attitudes did not seem to figure into the criteria used to determine membership: Successful applicants were no more likely than the average student to show either of these tendencies.

    Much of the scholarly research on Party admissions centers around whether university students apply to the Party for pragmatic reasons, such as access to better job opportunities or higher future salaries. Several researchers have suggested that Communist Party members in the former USSR displayed higher levels of pragmatism and opportunism than the general population.

    It is true that certain career paths in China favor Party members: In 2016, nearly 60 percent of available civil service jobs listed Party membership as a prerequisite for applying and testing, for instance. Another study, published in 2014, concluded that the younger the applicant, the more likely they were to apply to the Party out of self-interest. (Even so, the majority of them still listed a desire to serve the people as one of their motivations for applying.)

    Our study also sought to find whether students who apply to the Party are generally more pragmatic. We judged applicants as “pragmatic” according to a behavioral trait exhibited during their university careers: If they said they skipped the compulsory classes unrelated to their major more frequently than they did their major classes, we classified them as pragmatic. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that students who said they never skipped class were more likely to apply to the CCP than our more pragmatic group.

    Naturally, the above metric for determining which students are motivated by pragmatic considerations may leave something to be desired. Still, it must be said that other studies have also been unable to find a clear connection between pragmatism and a desire to join the Party. Most researchers directly ask Party members why they joined or how they view the motivations of new or prospective members. Although such studies have been able to identify pragmatism as one motive for joining the Party, they do not prove that applicants are more pragmatic than the wider population.

    On occasions where Party branch organizations give instructions to their subordinates that deviate from the “central spirit” of the CCP — a flexible concept that changes depending on the prevailing political ideologies of the Party’s top brass — we found that applicants to the Party were no more likely than the general population to uphold the tenets of the core; neither were Party organizations capable of sifting out those who stick to the central spirit.

    On the other hand, we also found that those who said they would refuse the instructions of their Party branch on the grounds of personal principles were less likely to both apply to the Party and gain admittance to it. In this sense, although the Party organization did not intentionally select those it believed were more willing to stick to the central spirit, it did effectively filter out those who were more inclined to disobey rules and instructions from the Party branch.

    An individual’s socio-economic status and family background — including their parents’ education backgrounds and careers — play almost no role in deciding whether they apply or gain admittance to the Party. Compared with past policies, these days, Party organizations barely look at an individual’s family. In fact, university students from working-class backgrounds are less likely to gain membership than those from other groups. Although students with parents in the Party are more likely to apply for Party membership, this doesn’t give them the upper hand when it comes to a final decision.

    One factor that is important in deciding admission to the Party is the university a student attends. Indeed, compared with students at lower-ranking schools, students at the country’s better universities are around 20 percent less likely to apply for Party membership — with that figure jumping to 57 percent for students at elite universities like Peking and Tsinghua. However, the students from better schools who do apply for Party membership have a far higher chance of being admitted. Although this phenomenon might lead some to conclude that students at China’s best universities regard CCP membership as unnecessary, we believe that more research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.

    In a study of Communist Party membership in the former USSR, the American sociologist Theodore P. Gerber noted that Party members had certain “unobserved attributes.” They were ambitious, career-minded, highly organized, and willing to sacrifice their time, energy, and principles to attain success. These factors not only contributed to their decision to apply for Party membership, but also helped them gain admittance. But our study shows that this model does not apply to Chinese university students, who generally exhibit these traits only as much as the rest of the population.

    University students remain a source of fresh blood for the CCP, and their willingness to apply and chances of acceptance continue to be influenced by a handful of traits. Traditionally “good” students — those with high test scores, leadership experience, and strong interpersonal relationships — continue to make up the majority of student Party members, and it is they who can be expected to play the leading roles going forward — within both the Party and China’s government more broadly.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: University students swear an oath before the Chinese Communist Party flag in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, Jan. 3, 2007. Liu Nianhai/VCG)