Nine decades ago, young Chinese students flocked in droves to join an underground organisation, driven by a sense of patriotism and swept up in the currents of a powerful political movement.
Founded on the support of passionate students and workers, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was, since its founding on July 1, 1921, a magnet for idealists and the marginalised.
But not any longer.
As the CPC marks its 90th anniversary this week, it is barely recognisable from the underground organisation that was set up by 50 young Chinese on a warm Shanghai night.
Now 80 million strong, it has transformed itself from an ideology-driven party of peasants and workers to a vast organisation tasked with managing the world’s second-biggest economy.
In this transformation, it has shed much of its politics with the changing times, now counting among its members China’s most successful and wealthiest businessmen and women, as well as the nation’s best and brightest.
"Today, being a Party member has little to do with ideology,” said Zhang Chen (25), who works for a State-run engineering company and was invited to join the party as a top-ranking high-school student. “It has become an elite group, especially considering that in every high school, only the very best students, the cream of the crop, are considered candidates for membership.”
Last year, the CPC received 21 million applications. It admitted only one in seven, the largest group being students.
Zhang said his motivations for applying were simple. “Being a Party member today,” he said, “means you get the best government job. Your promotions are faster, and your career prospects are far better if you work in the State sector.”
But the challenge for the party, its members say, is finding new ways to ideologically appeal to the youngest generation of its members, who often view the organisation more as a professional asset and identify little with its politics.
This challenge has been underscored in recent weeks, as the CPC marked its anniversary with a series of political events aimed at reviving “Red culture” from the days of Mao Zedong to strengthen its appeal.
The events included a blockbuster propaganda film, starring dozens of China’s biggest stars that told the story of the party’s founding.
Film popular but criticised
The film has been unpopular among college students, widely criticised on blogs and in chat-rooms. Sales had to be driven by organised screenings for government employees. The CPC has also encouraged college campuses to sing “Red songs”, popular among the older generation but strange to young Chinese.
“Among young Party members, there are two groups,” said Zhou Wen, a graduate from Beijing’s elite Peking University who will, this year, join a law school in the United States. “There is one group of smart people who want to keep the party as a club for elites. They are succeeding in achieving this. But they are also those who are focussed on ideology, but they don’t appeal to many.”
Among the latter is Wong Bian, who heads the Communist Party’s student branch in a Beijing university. Wong is charged with organising “Red activities” to celebrate July 1, including public readings of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
“We need Red songs to introduce history to our cadres,” Wong said. “Every party needs an ideology. Maybe we have to update our message, but I think the Party has been successful in doing so.”
Zhou disagreed. “We don’t need to hold on to ideology just for the sake of it,” she said. “I did not join the Communist Party because I am committed to Communism.”