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China Table of Contents


Communist Party Membership

Every unit in China, from the villages through the armed forces, is run by the party, which has a monopoly on political power (see Membership , ch. 10). Party members are in a sense the heirs of the traditional gentry. They are a power-holding elite, dispersed over the whole country, and serve as intermediaries between their own communities or units and the nation. They are recruited from the population at large on universalistic grounds of "merit," and they claim authority by their mastery of an ideology that focuses on government and public order. The ideology is contained in books, and party members are expected to be familiar with the basic texts, to continue studying them throughout their careers, and to apply them in concrete situations.

The differences between the traditional elite and the party are obvious. Party members are supposed to be revolutionaries, be devoted to changing society rather than restoring it, come from and represent the peasants and workers, and be willing to submit themselves totally and unreservedly to the party. On the whole, party members are distinctly less bookish and more militaryoriented and outwardly egalitarian than traditional elites. Party members have been preferentially recruited from the poor peasantry of the interior, from the army, and from the ranks of industrial workers; intellectuals have usually found it difficult to enter the party. The party is represented in every village and every large or medium-sized enterprise in the country. The scope of its actions and concerns is much greater than that of its traditional predecessors.

Relatively speaking, there are more party members than there were traditional gentry. In 1986 the Chinese Communist Party had 44 million members in 2.6 million local party branches. This meant that about 8 percent of China's adult population belonged to the party. Not all party members hold state jobs: some hold village and township-level positions, and many armed forces enlisted personnel join the party during their service. (Indeed, a chance to join the party has been one of the major attractions of military service for peasant youth.)

Party members direct all enterprises and institutions and dominate public life and discussion. Anyone with ambitions to do more than his or her daily job or work in a narrow professional specialty must join the party. Membership is selective, and candidates must demonstrate their zeal, devotion to party principles, and willingness to make a total commitment to the party. Ideally, membership is a complete way of life, not a job, and selection for membership depends more on assessment of an individual's total personality and "moral" character than on specific qualifications or technical skills. While this could probably be said of all communist parties, Chinese Communist Party members certainly mirror China's traditional mandarins, who were political generalists rather than technical specialists. Party members are the intermediaries who link enterprises and communities with high-level structures, and they can belong to more than one organization, such as a factory and a municipal party body. Party membership is virtually a requirement for upward mobility or for opportunities to leave one's original work unit.

Data as of July 1987