Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's youngest comrades: Communists at college

By Jonathan Levine, for CNN
May 1, 2013 -- Updated 0259 GMT (1059 HKT)
File image from 2012 shows students graduating in Anhui Province -- many students are targeted for recruitment by the party.
File image from 2012 shows students graduating in Anhui Province -- many students are targeted for recruitment by the party.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China's Communist Party has become an exclusive club for the country's elite
  • Around 7% of China's population currently form its ranks, the party says
  • Many young Chinese graduates see party membership as useful for their career
  • Discrimination illegal under Chinese law, but membership is needed for government jobs

Beijing (CNN) -- Allan Yang would be a success story in any country.

Originally from China's impoverished interior, he was the first member of his family to leave his native Anhui province and is now pursuing an MBA at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.

At 24, Yang is the face of new China: erudite, sophisticated and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

"It's just like applying for university in the United States," he said of the party. "You give an application letter and submit some reports that test your knowledge of Communist history."

In fact the process is a bit more complicated. Unlike applying to college, a successful application for membership in the Chinese Communist Party typically takes years. Arduous "observational periods" are required when prospective members are expected to read the classics of Socialism, become steeped in the party ideology and submit an unending series of essays that are little more than long paeans to the party's greatness.

Pomp, party politics for Xi Jinping
China in transition
How to join China's Communist party

Though Yang admits few take this process seriously.

"There are lots of things to download from the Internet, we just copy and paste," he chuckled.

Far more serious is the question of China's future, a future that -- for better or worse -- will likely be dominated by the Communist Party and eventually people like Yang.

In China today, the party has become an exclusive club for the country's elite. According to the parties own internal statistics, less than 90,000,000 people, or around 7% of China's population, currently form its ranks.

The general view of Chinese these days is that recruitment is most heavy among university students and the moneyed population, while most of the worker/peasants that constituted the party's historical support appear no longer welcome.

It is an irony not lost on Aaron Zhang.

"When they say, 'I care about China,' my first instinct is not to believe them."

Zhang, a 25-year-old Aeronautical Engineering student at Beihang University in Beijing is not in the party, a fact he noted with more than a sparkle of pride. He claimed that far from fulfilling the party's original mission of lifting up the poor, the modern party has mutated into an oligarchy, and its youngest members are motivated by nothing more than naked careerism.

"For lots of jobs, membership in the party is necessary," said Zhang. "My relatives wanted me to join, they knew it would be good for my career, but I do not believe in Communism, and I just didn't want to lie."

Yang, by contrast, is personally unapologetic. "90% of my motivation was career," he admitted.

Some students want it for idealistic reasons, there are people who want it for a stable job, people who want it for connections.
Jonathan Banfil, Tsinghua University

A number of other students conceded that while career did play a major role in their decision, social responsibility was also a critical element of the party and influenced their desire to join. "Party members are expected to be better," chimed one earnestly.

"It's probably a combination of things," said Jonathan Banfill, a lecturer at Tsinghua University's Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. Banfill, who has seen a lot of eager Communists come and go over the years, noted China's long history of scholar-bureaucrats and the traditional respect and job security that came with government service. Today, however, he stressed that young Chinese had no single motive for joining the party.

"Some students want it for idealistic reasons, there are people who want it for a stable job, people who want it for connections and then there are people who join because their mothers told them to," he said.

The party loomed large for their parents, most of who were born during the Cultural Revolution and came of age amidst the tumult of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. For them the party today is a safe refuge for their children against the economic uncertainties that plague a developing nation.

Membership in the party is almost never explicitly required for any job and open discrimination is forbidden under Chinese law, however, for those that want an interview after graduation, the facts on the ground are indisputable.

Party membership is almost always a must for any form of government service and is strongly preferred for employment in China's vast state-owned enterprises. According to the Ministry of Education, the country graduated 6.8 million students in 2012, thus ensuring that competition for jobs will be fierce.

Despite China's impressive market reforms, their 2012 statistical yearbook calculated that state enterprises employ 67.04 million people, which accounts for 30% of all Chinese economic activity. This amounts to a major institutional disadvantage for China's non-party citizens. A young employee at China Central Television (CCTV), who is not in the party and requested anonymity, admitted he was the exception that proved the rule. He noted that promotion for him would be almost impossible without becoming a party member.

It is still too soon to say what these rising Communists will do with the China they inherit. The party's Confucian aversion to youthful leadership ensures that several decades will pass before any of them approach the reins of power -- which might be a good thing.

The young Communists I spoke too generally struggled with any ideas for how to improve the country or the party. Several suggested "reform" only to be unable (or unwilling) to provide any specific examples. What is certain is that as the 21st century seems increasingly Asian, China's future leaders will leave their mark not just on their own country, but the world.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0812 GMT (1612 HKT)
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT