Want to know what happens these days within a Chinese Communist Party cell?
Party members at the Jinxin Garden apartments get together once a month to discuss their volunteer projects, like raising money for earthquake victims and preventing neighborhood robberies. Or they plan excursions, such as a trip last week from their southern Beijing suburb to the Olympic stadium for a concert honoring the party’s 90th anniversary.
If it sounds as exotic as the Rotary Club, that’s precisely the problem. The 90-year milestone, celebrated Friday, prompts the question of how an ideology born out of the class struggles of 19th century Europe can remain relevant in the 21st century. By surviving to the age of 90, is the party a testament to endurance or is it merely old and in the way?
“Marxism? Mao? We never talk about that at party meetings, only practical matters,” said Wan Xiaofeng, 56, a retired human resources manager for the Railways Ministry.
Last weekend, Wan was hosting fellow party members for a lunch of dumplings at his apartment. Even as they prepared for the anniversary celebration — a voice from a DVD playing on a large-screen TV in his living room barked out instructions on how to wave a red fan — the cadres discussed their hesitancy about the future of the party to which they have devoted much of their adult lives.
In recent months, the Chinese Communist Party has been unnerved by the pro-democracy movement sweeping the Middle East and by an embarrassing series of corruption scandals. Last month, a report leaked out of the Chinese central bank saying that since the mid-1990s as many as 18,000 party cadres had fled the country with $123.6 billion.
On Friday, in a televised anniversary address to 6,000 senior party members gathered in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, President Hu Jintao acknowledged, “The party is soberly aware of the gravity and danger of corruption that has emerged under the conditions of the party being long in power.”
At this point, there are 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party, about one in 12 adults. Long made up of genuinely downtrodden peasants and blue-collar workers, the party nowadays recruits university students with top grades.
New members tend toward the clean-cut and square: In an American context, think young Republican. Yet from the standpoint of the new recruits, party membership is a stepping stone to a secure civil service position: Now think of the jobs doled out by Democratic ward politicians in Chicago.
“The party used to take only the best people,” boasted Zhao Xiaoming, who spent most of her career as a dancer in a military propaganda troupe. “Now the young people join the party so they can find an easier job in a state-owned company. It is about privilege. For us, it was about sacrifice.”
Zhao, 59, who has wavy henna-dyed hair and expressively drawn eyebrows, recalls that as a young woman she had no doubts about joining the party, marrying a fellow member and devoting her life to spreading the word.
One of the happiest days of her life was when, at the age of 23, she raised her right fist with other inductees and took the oath to “sacrifice myself at any time and dedicate my life to the complete liberation of mankind.”
Standards for party members were strict. They were expected to work overtime without pay. Dating was restricted and they could be kicked out of the party for having premarital sex or disobeying an order.
Zhao was serious about her commitment, so much so that her friends called her a real Bolshevik. When she became pregnant with her second child, her military unit wouldn’t give her time off to have an abortion; after the baby was born, she was penalized for violating the party’s one-child policy. As a result, she quit her job.
But though she remains active in the party three decades later, neither of her two sons, now adults, have joined, nor did she encourage them.
“Times have changed,” she said with a shrug.
The lunching long-timers all complained about the attitude of their younger counterparts.
“Old party members used to sacrifice for the country. If something happened, they’d be the first to go to the front line,” said Ma Jianmin, 56, a manager at a state-owned enterprise. “Now they’re the first to run away.”
Ma had been reluctant to join the party. He declined his first invitation in 1972, but accepted the second time, in 1978, because he thought it was an opportunity to get ahead.
He remains ambivalent, though. When his danwei, or work unit, was invited recently to visit the grave of Li Dazhao, one of the party’s founders, he didn’t join in.
“A lot of people pretend to be loyal to the party but are just corrupt,” Ma said.
None of the party members attending the luncheon was an outright malcontent. In fact, all praised the party’s governance of China.
“We have no wars, no famine. The Chinese people are very satisfied,” said Wan, the host, as his fellow party members nodded. “But where is the party going? That is not so clear.”
Wan said he was following closely the calls from Premier Wen Jiabao last year, who raised eyebrows by saying there was a need for more democracy in China.
“I agree with Wen,” said Wan. “The party needs more democracy. We need more parties to go forward and develop.”
Wan, with salt-and-pepper hair and aviator glasses, has a reputation as the most devout Communist of the bunch. He actively recruits and trains young party members.
“I always thought that being a party member was better than making money,” he said.
Wan spent 10 years applying before he was accepted into the party because of a problematic class background: His father was an intellectual, his grandfather a landlord.
As a child, he joined all the right clubs: the Young Pioneers, the Red Guards, the Communist Youth League.
At 15, with his own savings, he bought a portrait of Mao Tse-tung for his high school classroom.
Years later, he found the same portrait — Mao as a young man wearing a cap with a red star — on sale at an antique market. He paid 100 times as much for it as he had as a child.
It hung in his living room above the sofa until 2008, when he started hearing complaints. His son’s piano teacher said it reminded him of his persecution during the Cultural Revolution. His wife, also a party member, nagged that the only people who had Mao portraits on their walls were the elderly.
He eventually took it down, though the outline of where it hung is still visible on the wall.
The Mao portrait now hangs in the storage basement with the spare bicycle and old suitcases, curling under the wooden frame from the damp.