By Julia Hollingsworth, Nectar Gan and CNN staff, CNN
In a meeting room decorated with a stylized hammer and sickle flag, Kelly Hu detailed her shortcomings.
Since childhood, the 20-year-old student had wanted to join the longest-running and largest communist party in the world, having grown up hearing “red tales” of its revolutionary past from her family.
In recent years, as she embarked on the long journey to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party, she had balanced hours of lectures on party ideology with course work for her biology degree, and spent 30 minutes a day on a nationalist app reading articles and watching videos.
Her latest challenge was to impress local party members.
Hu, along with 12 other young hopefuls, presented a report on her family background and how her thoughts, studies and life had improved since receiving party training. Next, she fielded questions on her respective shortcomings — for Hu, gaps in her knowledge of party history and being too strict with team members — before being sent out of the room so the members could vote on their fate.
All of them were accepted.
“When they announced that I had become a probationary party member, I was very happy, but the atmosphere was so solemn you couldn’t show your happiness,” said Hu, who is not using her real name as she is not authorized to speak to media, of the June meeting in southern China, where she studies. “You had to appear calm and couldn’t even clap.”
Hu will now spend a year as a probationary member, meaning she must perform the duties of a full member without the right to vote in party elections. At the end of the year, her local branch will decide whether to admit her to the party, which has grown from just 53 members when it was founded 100 years ago to more than 95 million.
In the past, Hu could have been a fairly silent member of the party, with little involvement in its politics. Many members simply joined because their families told them to, or because they wanted a leg up in China’s highly competitive job market, and might not be fervent believers in party ideology.
But that is changing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose real power derives from his position as the head of the ruling Communist Party, has placed more emphasis on quality over quantity. He has demanded absolute loyalty from party members, launched an ideology drive to shore up their faith, and unleashed a crackdown on internal dissent. Members are bound by more stringent rules — and millions of cadres have been investigated for violating them in the past nine years since Xi took control of the party.
They are also joining at a time when the party is facing increased scrutiny overseas. The Chinese government has faced international opprobrium over its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, crackdown on Hong Kong and military expansions in the South China Sea. Its foreign policy has grown increasingly assertive, straining already deteriorating relations with Western nations and some of its neighbors.
Those who still aspire to join face tighter rules and more requirements once they become members, as the party aims to weed out applicants joining for self-interested reasons, leaving only the most devoted members — like Hu.
What it takes to join
Hu’s journey to become a party member began in September 2019 with a five-page, handwritten letter.
In it, she detailed why she wanted to join the party and how her actions aligned with its ideology. When the local branch released a list of potential names for membership, giving the public a chance to raise objections, she was on it.
After passing that hurdle in April last year, Hu began attending party lectures, which she was required to submit handwritten notes to ensure she was paying attention. Each day she spent half an hour on the Xuexiqiangguo app, which teaches Xi’s ideology and translates literally to “study the powerful nation” or — as a word play — “study Xi to empower the nation,” a sign of Xi’s growing personality cult.
Xi’s doctrine was written into the party’s constitution in 2017, making him only the third Chinese leader to have his eponymous political philosophy enshrined in its theoretical pantheon.
Every few months, Hu handed in a handwritten self-reflection report on how she had served the people and improved herself. Meanwhile, local branch members vetted her through her teachers, classmates, and even people she didn’t know very well.
“Every layer of evaluation and selection is very strict,” she said. “For every evaluation, the party branch will go to the masses to learn about how you are in real life, instead of merely listening to your own reports.”
It’s tough to gain admittance — about 12% of applicants nationwide were accepted in 2019, according to party data.
Already, Hu says the process has changed her. She says she spends a lot of time attending activities organized by her local party cell, which range from watching patriotic movies to doing volunteer work, such as cleaning school laboratories and teaching kindergarten children.
Xiao Ya, 21, a probationary party member in the southern city of Guangzhou, said when she first applied, she didn’t think too much about it. Everyone around her was applying to join, so she submitted an application, too.
“I merely followed the crowd,” said Xiao Ya, who is also using a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Soon, the party was taking up a large chunk of her life. She volunteered for marathons, and went to a remote, mountainous part of Guizhou province to teach in an ethnic minority village. Although the school had concrete floors and old desks, it had advanced projectors and computers which the principal told her were paid for by the country’s poverty alleviation policy. She felt the government had helped rural communities a lot.
“I feel like I should learn from the party and improve myself to better serve the people,” she said.
Both Xiao Ya and Hu have been subject to Xi’s tougher requirements on new recruits, which were introduced in 2014.
Although being admitted to the party has always involved a rigorous selection process, there are now even more demands. The hope is raising the barrier will keep people who aren’t serious out.
A decade ago, a rank-and-file party member would have only minimal requirements, such as attending one meeting a year and paying dues. Now, under Xi, there are more meetings and volunteer work expectations, said Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and an expert on the Chinese Communist Party. According to Dickson, one of his friends, who is a party member, says they have to study every new speech Xi gives.
“There are more demands — especially on people’s time — than there have been before,” Dickson said. “If you’re not going to be willing to step up for the party, then (Xi) doesn’t really want you in it.”
Over the past five years, fewer people have been admitted to the party, perhaps because there’s less interest in joining or a higher level of scrutiny on potential applicants, said Dickson.
Nis Grünberg, a senior analyst from the Mercator Institute for China Studies who researches state-party governance, echoed that statement. He said the party wanted “true believers” and was “trying to kind of weed out all those who use it to access networks and power.”
Xi wants a powerful party that he can quickly mobilize when needed. Since rising to power, he has reasserted the party to the center of Chinese life, doubled down on strengthening party building, and revitalized once-dormant grassroots party cells in companies and local communities.
Why people join the party
Julian Li, who is in his late 20s, grew up in a military compound, where a portrait of Mao Zedong hung in his house. During the Cultural Revolution, his grandfather worked for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), escorting persecuted people to the countryside. His father worked for the government in Beijing, and hoped Li would follow his lead.
His party membership was almost a foregone conclusion.
At 18, Li, who asked not to use his real name to protect his family, joined the party — not because he was especially interested in being a member or working for the government, but to please his father. He didn’t even write his own application letter — his father’s secretary prepared the materials for him.
Li’s parents hoped party membership would help his career — a reasonably common rationale for joining, according to Dickson.
When the party was founded 100 years ago, its members were urban intellectuals — blue-collar workers didn’t read much Karl Marx, the German theorist whose ideology helped shaped that of the early party, Dickson said.
Under Mao, the founding father of the party and the People’s Republic of China, however, peasants were recruited. Membership soared from 4 million when he created the communist nation in 1949, to 35 million in 1977, shortly after his death.
After Jiang Zemin took over the party and presidency in 1989, he brought in a political doctrine that welcomed private business owners and the middle class into the fold.
As China’s economy boomed, recruitment shifted back to the urban elites, best-placed to help the country grow. Each year, the best and brightest are recruited. Of the 4.7 million new members accepted between January 1, 2020, and June 5 this year, 1.9 million — or 40% — were students, according to party data.
For some, that has allowed the party to double as an excellent networking club for the country’s most amibitious young professionals.
A master’s student in his 20s in Beijing — who asked not to be named for privacy reasons — said he was recruited in his senior year of high school. The headteacher of his class thought he was qualified because he was the vice class monitor, a student with additional responsibilities. “I regarded it as the mark of an excellent student,” he said.
In state-owned companies, party members typically hold positions of authority — and even in private firms, there’s a notion party members are well educated and “don’t have skeletons in the closet,” Dickson said.
“Almost in any sector you’re in, there’s a glass ceiling if you’re not a party member,” he added. There are exceptions to this — although Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma is a party member, neither Pony Ma, founder and CEO of Tencent, nor Baidu co-founder Robin Li are members.
Using party membership simply as a way to get ahead is something Xi wants to stop. Instead, he wants cadres to believe in his doctrine.
“He’s clearly made a big emphasis that party members have to be loyal to the party above all else,” Dickson said.
Three recruits CNN spoke to for this story said they joined for ideological reasons. In today’s China, publicly voicing other reasons would be controversial and potentially jeopardize their membership.
Party member Xiao Ya says she didn’t join for career purposes. Although she thinks members may be more likely to get promoted at work, she believes membership alone is not that useful for finding a job — but it could be for those wanting to work in public service.
As for the master’s student, he says there are many people who believe in communism in the party — but there’s a range of motivations, and so long as people aren’t motivated purely for selfish reasons, that’s fine, he said. “Different people with different motives can join the party and we don’t exclude you for having other ideas,” he said. “We accept multiple motives and don’t require everyone to be 100% pure and noble.”
The effect of joining the party
Now working in finance in London, Julian Li says his party membership has little impact on his career or life, apart from making his move to the United Kingdom slightly more difficult.
When he applied for a UK visa, he said he needed to declare he was a party member and whether he had handled any confidential information in China.
“I found that very troublesome,” he said, adding he was annoyed he had to take another step for holding a membership he didn’t want in the first place.
Overseas, party membership often carries stigma. When public figures are revealed to be members, that’s seen as a cause for concern. When the United States introduced immigration rules last year to curtail travel for party members, US authorities said they were imposing travel restrictions “to protect our nation from the party’s malign influence.” These concerns have been heightened by recent accusations of espionage connected to Chinese officials and researchers linked to the Chinese military.
In the past, the way some Western media and politicians have portrayed party membership has been unfair, says Grünberg, the senior analyst.
Many members were simply patriots — and it wasn’t appropriate to suspect every one of being a Chinese agent. “It’s exaggerated if you portray all party members as just one monolithic big group of people who try to influence when they’re abroad,” Grünberg said.
Dickson also sees that as a “misreading” of what membership implies. “Of the almost 95 million people who are in the party, less than 10% actually have official positions,” he said.
“Just being a party member doesn’t make you a cheerleader for the regime.”
But Xi’s demand for the absolute loyalty of party members has also made them a target of suspicion, as they’re required — at least officially — to always toe the party line and serve its interests.
For Julian Li, or others tired of the increasing demands and problems overseas, quitting isn’t really an option.
Some people are kicked out — and the growing push to stamp out bad apples means punishments are exacted more often.
“The system is really looking more carefully, and in more detail at what people do and how they behave,” Grünberg said.
But if someone wanted to leave the party of their own accord, it’s unclear how they might do that and what kind of consequences they might face. Although there was talk early in Xi’s presidency about cleaning out inactive members, that idea was dropped after it became clear how many people might quit, Dickson said.
“Once they realize how many people might take them up on that opportunity, and once they realize how much the party might shrink as a consequence, they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble,” he said.
That means the party must strike a balance between having the best-educated elite, and still being broadly representative of the general population, so it doesn’t become out of touch, Grünberg said.
“You don’t want too many in the club,” he said. “I think they firmly believe that they have found a good mix of both trying to get elites and the most capable people, but also staying a little in touch with the reality that is different around China.”
What party membership will mean in the future
While Xi’s tightening of rules raises the possibility that party membership will mean more, experts say the obligations of members will need to not outweigh the benefits if the party wants to keep attracting talent. In 2013, the party set an annual growth target of about 1.5% over the next 10 years, according to Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post.
If members have to spend a couple of hours a week in study sessions, it seems like an “anachronism” that harks back to a different era when people lived simpler lives, Dickson said, adding that some people may decide it’s not worth the trouble.
“It’s just eating up more of their time, which is frustrating,” he said.
It’s also possible that Xi’s tough rules both for being accepted, and for current members, won’t continue and were merely in place in the lead-up to the party’s centenary, which fell on July 1.
“It just seems so out of step with the current situation,” Dickson said. “Xi is trying to make loyal party members out of all party members, and it’s not clear it’s going to have that much success because people are leading busy lives.”
If people are force-fed a routine, “it doesn’t build loyalty, it builds resentment. So it could very easily backfire,” he added. “If the best and brightest don’t want to join the party, they may have to reassess this emphasis on loyalty.”
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