Marx might struggle to recognise his heirs among the billionaires, skyscrapers and stock exchanges of modern China.
But as the country’s ruling Communist Party meets for its twice-a-decade congress, it boasts an 89 million-strong membership that still attracts people motivated by ideology — and self-interest.
“When I was younger, in the 1960s, we were told in school that being in the party signified being someone good,” 53-year-old Liu Shimin, a former employee at a state-owned enterprise and long-standing party member, told AFP.
“At the time, you would join it to stand up for socialism.”
“Today, the ideological side of it is a little beyond me. Communism is so vague, no one can say if it will come true.”
The Chinese Communist Party was clandestinely founded in 1921 by about a dozen revolutionaries in Shanghai.
Since coming to power in 1949, the CCP has survived near-destruction during the decade of the Cultural Revolution — which regime founder Mao Zedong launched against his own cadres — and sweeping pro-market economic reforms.
Throughout, Chinese people have continued to join the CCP in great numbers, with today’s membership making it one of the largest political organisations in the world, alongside India’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Communist Party’s membership comprises 6.5 percent of China’s population of almost 1.4 billion people.
But young recruits do not hide their intentions. They join the party not only to participate in national development, but also out of their own self-interest.
Joining the ‘elite’
“At first, I never imagined joining the CCP. I only started thinking about it after university, when I had to find a job,” said Xiao Wei, a 30-year-old Beijinger.
Xiao is employed by the CCP in a residential area. Her work includes relaying instructions; organising public campaigns on fire safety, the environment and health matters; and putting party slogans on display.
“To be a civil servant or work in a state enterprise, it’s almost obligatory to be in the party,” Xiao said. “It’s like a diploma. It opens doors.”
Not just anyone can join: candidates must apply or be recommended, most often by a university professor or their company’s party cell.
Then, a long selection process begins: courses, dissertations, exams, interviews and a probationary period.
At the end, the CCP chooses candidates based on their high education level, political reliability, or ability to bring something extra to the table.
Some are flattered to have received an invitation to join — recognition that they belong to the “elite”.
“Today, some join the party to enter the civil service, to have a better job or to gain respectability. There’s no doubt about it,” prominent pundit Sima Nan told AFP in front of a portrait of Mao hung in his spacious Beijing apartment.
For all that has changed, the Party today still dominates politics, society and the economy, ruling without opposition and with no tolerance for dissent.
“The benefit of the party is its ability to unite the forces of all these people, to mobilise it, to move the country forward and maintain order,” said Sima. “Without the CCP, all this would be very difficult.”
Sima, 61, became a party member in 1980. He saw the first economic reforms and the country’s opening up as “a way to reach communism more quickly”.
Although he believes that that objective is now “very distant”, he is glad to have personally benefited from the party’s accomplishments.
“My family was very poor,” he said. “If the Communist Party had not been in power, I would never have been able to get a scholarship and enroll in university.”
“I am eternally grateful to it.”