As the Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrates its 90th anniversary, many Westerners must be marveling at its still expanding membership when political parties in the West have been struggling to retain their members and garner support, especially during elections.
By the end of 2010, the CPC had more than 80 million members after adding more than 2 million new members that year, or a growth rate of 3 percent.
The addition of more than 2 million new members, however, does not fully indicate the CPC's popularity. In fact, 20 million people had applied to join the CPC but about 10 percent were selected. Applicants for CPC membership need recommendations from existing members and their companies or work unit leaders to indicate their "good behavior" and loyalty to the CPC. They also need to submit essays expressing their support for the Party.
Though the CPC is the world's largest political party, senior citizens and people who have crossed the first half of their lives still dominate its membership. Only about 19.5 million members (that is, less than 25 percent) are under 35 years of age.
Interest in learning about the CPC remains strong. More than 1 million copies of the second volume of the History of the Communist Party of China were sold out within four months of its publication this year (it took 16 years to compile the major events of the CPC from 1949 to 1978).
Just over 10 years ago, Jiang Zemin propounded the importance of "The Three Represents" in understanding the CPC's success. He said: "The reason our Party enjoys the people's support is that throughout the historical periods of revolution, construction and reform, it has always represented the development trend of advanced productive forces, the orientation of advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people."
Care for the common people should definitely underpin the continued growth of CPC membership. But the motivation to seek membership may be quite different - for example, it can be aimed more at personal advancement and getting ahead of the common people. It is not known how successful the CPC has been in attracting the new generation of poorer people who it seeks to serve. It is not clear, either, how active the younger generation of members is. As one of my Chinese university students said: "Our generation is spiritually, not physically, engaged with the CPC".
But CPC members have come into their own during important events and challenges, something that was evident during the Beijing 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, and the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in 2009. The members' involvement was also evident in the rescue and relief operations after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. But how engaged are the members, especially the younger generation, in the causes of the Party? How many poor youth get membership in times of relative economic prosperity and peaceful development? After all, 29.77 million CPC members (or 37.1 percent of the total) have college or higher education diplomas.
To continue to attract a broad spectrum of youth, the CPC is rightly bringing anti-corruption policies to the fore and strictly enforcing the retirement age and terms for key leadership posts. Despite the tremendous economic progress in China over the past 30 years, imbalances exist and inequalities have grown, particularly in the urban-rural divide and in access to quality education, healthcare and other services. The CPC needs to reach out to members and potential members who will support those concerns and make them a "cause" for attention among the agile and active younger members.
Patriotism is perhaps an important vehicle for this. A member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee said last month that public education should focus on patriotism to encourage more people to participate in the country's socialistic construction.
Given the spirit of volunteerism, evident from the Sichuan earthquake to the Beijing 2008 Olympics and Shanghai 2010 World Expo, the 90th anniversary of the CPC should mark a new era in engaging China's youth in a modern version of this great Party.
Just as the Constitution of the CPC said:" The basic line of the Communist Party of China in the primary stage of socialism is to lead the people of all ethnic groups in a concerted, self-reliant and pioneering effort to turn China into a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious modern socialist country by making economic development the central task while upholding the Four Cardinal Principles and the reform and opening up policy."
That certainly is the basis of socialism with Chinese characteristics. And "develop greater equality of opportunity for all as part of this economic progress" should be one of the goals of the CPC's growing membership in the next 10 years.
The author is an economist and director of China Programs at CAPA International Education, a US-UK institute that cooperates with Capital Normal University and Shanghai International Studies University.