Xi is using the CPC to control China like never before

One of the important aspects of China historically has been the role of the Communist Party of China (CPC). As the CPC is central to the very existence of China as a nation, its membership contributes significantly to the activities of the Party and in ensuring internal stability. Notably, the Party appears to have enhanced its membership even during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to official figures the CPC witnessed an increase of 3.4 million members from the end of 2020 to 96.7 million members in December 2021. This 3.7 per cent increase indicates that China was busy taking on members even though the country was amidst a pandemic and severe lockdown. The release of Party membership figures is usually an annual event, but this year holds special significance because of the forthcoming Party Congress where President Xi is expected to seek a third term.

Can anyone assume that the increase in the Party’s membership during the worst period of the pandemic implies that Chinese citizens fully backed the CPC in its policies to tackle Covid, including lockdowns and intense food shortages? There is another subtler message underlying the latest statistics. The core signal is that membership of the Party has increased most after President Xi came to power in 2012, showing his popularity. A note on the issue published in Xinhua states that 119,000 people joined the party before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, while 14.2 million joined between 1949 and 1978. The note further states that an additional 60.8 million joined between 1979 and before 2011, the year before Xi officially came to power. Yet in the short span between 2012 and 2021, the CPC grew by an astounding 21 million members.

At the core of the current drive to recruit more people into the Party is Xi Jinping’s effort to assert the CPC’s dominance and get members to reaffirm their commitment to the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” With the Party Congress fast approaching, President Xi is likely to remain paranoid, and focused on ensuring that the entire party, supports his bid for another term. This means all 96.7 million party members must assert their loyalty to him. Disloyalty has been sternly dealt with and at all levels. Monitoring of China’s citizens also includes all Party members, and the deep state keeps track of all activities and conversations. Despite total control over the CPC machinery, President Xi still occasionally gets pangs of insecurity, as is evidenced by ever harsher and ubiquitous measures of control, exploitation, and oppression.

As an institution, then, as historian Jerome Ch’en said in the 1950s, it is like a ‘state within a state.’ With 96 million members today, its population places it as the sixteenth largest in the world between Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pertinently, the People’s Liberation Army is the armed wing of the CPC, not the State. The CPC is the only institution that extends itself across the whole country, and down to the most local levels of governance. The State Constitution provides for five levels of administration

from the centre down to townships. It is the Party and its Committees that effectively run rural China at the village level. Notably, one in every 15 people in China today is a member of the CPC. There are almost five million local- level party organisations, also known as party cells, pervading every aspect of Chinese society, from villages, schools and neighbourhoods to private companies and institutes. This means that the CPC is literally everywhere in China. It thus offers employment and gives the Party leadership the wherewithal to control the country.

Membership of the CPC constitutes a significant proportion of China’s total population. The rank and file of the Party are ordinary citizens of China, of which only 6.5 million members are skilled workers. Around 26 million members are farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, and over 15 million members are retirees. Anyone familiar with the CPC and China’s political economy would know that most people in China, whether in government service or in the private sector, are members of the Party. It is not just the ordinary citizen but wellknown business leaders like Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi, China Evergrande’s Xu Jiayin and Jack Ma Yun, founder of e-commerce giant and the South China Morning Post’s parent company Alibaba Group Holding who are Party members. Ren Zhengfei, founder of the Shenzhen-based telecoms equipment provider Huawei Technologies Co., is also a party member, who once served in the People’s Liberation Army.

Among CPC members, there is an issue of “dual” loyalty, loyalty to the Party and loyalty to President Xi himself; the two do not always overlap. President Xi knows that the principle of “privilege-for-loyalty” has worked ever since the early days of the CPC. He is also aware that while this strategy is effective, it has also bred corruption within the Party. In a sense, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has hinged on rooting out corruption, while signalling the need to pledge loyalty to Xi personally. At the end of the day, President Xi is more concerned about the party’s loyalty to him. That is why Party members have been asked to pledge personal loyalty to him, reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Recently, researchers at China’s Comprehensive National Science Center claimed to have developed “mind-reading” artificial intelligence capable of measuring citizens’ loyalty to the CPC. The results can then be used to “further solidify” their obedience to the party. There is no doubt the CPC will exploit this technology to purge dissent within the party. Under President Xi, China has become almost indistinguishable from the mass surveillance state depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian classic, “1984.”

The extent of the CPC’s institutional reach within China, and the extraordinary encompassing of almost all political and public life as well as business enterprise by the Xi model means that Jerome Ch’en’s notion of ‘a state within a state’ is perhaps too modest. That is why Kerry Brown asserts (1 July 2021, Engelsberg Ideas) that the CPC, in fact, looks more like a world within a world. Despite the scale of its operations, the CPC remains a dark void for most observers and understanding its inner workings is a challenge. This has become even more so today under President Xi. Merely seeing the CPC as a self-serving, self-promoting enterprise under Xi, cannot convey the deep imprint the Party has left on China. This is the crucial lesson to be learnt from new statistics about the increase in the Party’s membership.