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China's 100-Year-Old Communist Party Has More Members Than Most Countries Have People

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

China's ruling Communist Party celebrates its centenary all this month. And it marks a milestone for one of the biggest political parties in the world, more than 95 million members. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch takes a look at how this party became so huge and what China's leader is doing about it.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The party traces its roots back to a small, secretive meeting in Shanghai that started on July 23, 1921. There were just 15 people in the room.

TONY SAICH: They were all intellectuals.

RUWITCH: Tony Saich is an expert on Chinese politics at Harvard University and author of a new book about the party's rise.

SAICH: None of them were workers, even though they were supposedly putting forward the dictatorship of the proletariat.

RUWITCH: Among the attendees were professors, students and a librarian's assistant named Mao Zedong. China was run by a foundering republican government after the Qing dynasty collapsed a decade earlier. The country was broke and weak. Everyone seemed to have ideas about how to fix China, including the Communists, who drew inspiration from the newly formed Soviet Union. In the early and mid-'20s, they focused on cities, organized strikes and recruited aggressively.

SAICH: The number of workers going into the party increased dramatically.

RUWITCH: Forced into the countryside near the end of the '20s, Mao developed the idea of a peasant revolution.

SAICH: And again, you see a reframing of membership, much higher numbers of people who are drawn from rural environments.

RUWITCH: And there was another reframing when the party consolidated its hold on the country in 1949. This time, it was bureaucrats and apparatchiks to help run the country. After economic reforms of the '80s and '90s, the party wooed more educated members of society, the better to drive the economy. By the year 2000, party membership had snowballed to around 64 million members. That's when former party scholar Cai Xia worked on a two-month project to better understand the party's membership. They found it needed revitalization.

CAI XIA: (Through interpreter) First, you have to have people joining and people leaving. Those who want to leave the party should be able to leave the party. It doesn't fit with the party's so-called advanced nature.

RUWITCH: In other words, the party was carrying a lot of dead weight.

CAI: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: "How can a party so big have everyone on the same page," she asks, "working toward the same goals?" She answers the question herself.

CAI: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: "It's impossible," she says.

Cai taught the party's top training academy for 15 years. She was kicked out of the party last year for criticizing it and current leader Xi Jinping. She now lives in exile in the United States. She says the party has lost its way. It attracts a lot of people not because they're fervent believers but because membership can be a ticket to better jobs, better benefits, better networking opportunities.

To try to understand this dynamic, NPR spoke with a woman named Sabrina. She's 37 and teaches at a college in western China. She asked that we don't use her Chinese name because she's afraid of the consequences of speaking frankly about the party.

SABRINA: (Through interpreter) The reason I joined is because my mom said it'd be easier to find work. But actually, it doesn't seem like it made much difference.

RUWITCH: There are untold numbers like Sabrina in the party. She joined halfheartedly, pays her dues and goes to meetings occasionally. Almost all of her colleagues are party members, but she says the party itself is hardly central to her life.

SABRINA: (Through interpreter) There's no special benefit from being a party member. Just when there's danger, you need to be a model member.

RUWITCH: But she says she hasn't really felt any need to step up, either.

SABRINA: (Through interpreter) It's not that there hasn't been opportunity. I just don't want to show off. Why should I go out and show off? I'm fine just being me.

TIMOTHY CHEEK: This is what Xi Jinping hates. This is the struggle that Xi Jinping's working with now.

RUWITCH: Timothy Cheek is a historian of Chinese politics at the University of British Columbia.

CHEEK: He's trying to do - I call it Xi Jinping's counter-reformation to revivify ideological governance where there's a doctrine, a leader and a cadre of transformational bureaucrats who are going to make China better.

RUWITCH: The party calls it the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. And to make it happen, the party wants members who are all in. Xi launched a sweeping anti-corruption drive as soon as he took power, which burnished the party's image. And he made it harder to join the party. He also hasn't missed an opportunity to remind party members of the burden that they bear, like the time a few years ago when he and other top leaders visited the site of the first party congress in Shanghai, now a museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: There, Xi led them in a public renewal of the oaths they made when they became party members, pledging to be loyal and prepared to sacrifice for it. Even if there are some members who have no intention of sacrificing anything, there are some advantages to having a party this big. China's huge, and it takes a lot of people to govern it. Most officials are party members. The party under Xi has also made a point of reaching deep into every corner of society for greater control. Xi spoke about this at the last party congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XI: (Through interpreter) Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west - the party leads them all.

RUWITCH: But Tony Saich of Harvard says there's a problem with having a party that's so big. You can never really have unanimity.

SAICH: And you can be unified as long as things are going well. If they stop going well, you know, maybe people become disillusioned.

RUWITCH: And for a party that sees unity and loyalty as critical to its grip on power, that's something it wants to avoid. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.