July 12, 2010
By C. Custer
“I have no faith in the Party,” Ms. Liu1 told me. “I don’t believe in anything in the history textbooks. It’s all lies.”
This would hardly be remarkable, except that Ms. Liu is herself a Party member, and has been for several years. She is, in point of fact, the Party’s future: young, extremely bright, well-educated (Ms. Liu attended one of China’s top three universities and is now pursuing graduate study there), and politically-inclined (she has studied international relations extensively). But while she had good things to say about Marx and Engels — “good ideas,” she put it — she expressed little love for the Party, at least as it currently exists. Nor does she have any nostalgia for the CCP’s past. When our discussion moved to history, the first thing she mentioned was that she was disgusted by how Mao and other CCP leaders had allowed themselves extra rations in Yan’an because they were leaders.
Why even bother joining the Party, then? “Most people [today] join the Party because it will give you an edge in your future career,” Liu told me. “Few” believe in the Party ideals; Liu said that among young people in elite circles, the few who spouted dogma were often mocked and ostracized. Liu herself was forced to join by her mother, who felt it would be good for her career. “My mother wrote the whole application for me,” she said.
When I spoke with other young Party members at top ten universities, I heard similar stories. Ms. Zhang2, also a graduate student at an elite Chinese university and a Party member for two years, was nonplussed when I asked her if she believed in the Party ideology. “Actually, I’ve never thought about that before,” she said.
Ms. Zhang has more faith in the Party than Ms. Liu, but perhaps only because she is more optimistic. She does have faith, she said, “because the Party will be full of younger members like us, well-educated and more open-minded…if they join the Party, I believe the Party will get better, and more democratic.”
Ms. Zhang said that her social circle was very similar to Ms. Liu’s. “Almost everyone in my classes [is a Party member],” she said, but “actually we don’t have any kind of special feeling towards the Party. We’re not like the old generation who had passion about it. For us, [joining the Party] is more like a tradition. It doesn’t really change who we are.”
Why are young people joining the Party? To build connections and help get jobs: everyone I spoke with agreed on this. “Or to flow with the tide,” Ms. Zhang added. What is the future of a political party whose members aren’t interested in its politics? What is the future of a country controlled by such a party?
Ms. Zhang, for one, was optimistic about the future. In forty years when her generation is controlling the Party, she said, “It will be much better. More democratic, for sure.” And while she doesn’t see national elections or anything that drastic happening too soon, she did tell me that “more and more people I know are joining other parties. [The people I know joining other parties are] around 30 to 40 years old […] I think this happens because [some] people are more concerned with their political rights,” she said, “or because their own choice matters a lot.”
Of course, if you want to work within the government in any real capacity, you still need to be a Party member. Liu and Zhang both expressed the hopes that their membership would help them find positions in government if they chose that route (neither has decided on a career as of yet).
“Why we joined the Party is not important,” Zhang told me. “What matters is what we do after this. And that “what” is not something we learned from the Party, it comes from the whole educational system and our social influences.”
Note: In addition to changing the names of the people I quoted, I have also in some instances altered their words slightly to correct for grammar mistakes (as parts of both interviews were conducted in English).