Membership in China’s Communist party is anything but easy.
The entire process from initiation to acceptance spans nearly 6 months. From the moment one applies, they are ‘studied’ and their background is thoroughly scrubbed to ensure that they are worthy of the distinction of being a communist party member in China.
The process for selection has not changed, but the acceptance criterion has.
In the turbulent 50’s and 60’s, being the heir of a landowner, the monied class, was a death knell for one’s application.
It was a time when capitalist roots led to recrimination, humiliation and often-times death. It is alleged that upwards of twenty million people died in Chairman Mao’s purges.
The Benefit of Being a Communist in China?
But times have changed now, and the wealthy and the poor alike are allowed to apply, if not always partake in the party and benefits it confers. Although the salary of communist functionaries is nothing of note, the ‘other’ perks are not without their allure.
While living in China, I have had the chance to meet and dine with party members on occasion, and can attest to the fact that their lives are, if nothing else, atypical.
In the West, a pejorative to call one a communist or red was actually a thing of pride throughout China. While the West feared the rise of Communism and red’ness, these two images were at the heart of China’ness and the new China.
Although the Chinese government is as ‘red’ as ever, it now understands the fear of the west, and placates it when they can.
To this day, the Chinese are careful in their use of the term ‘Communist’ when dealing with West, and if the term need be used, they defer to the more benign use of ‘party member’.
The Dichotomy of Chinese Communists
Hu Jintao exemplifies this dichotomy well.
Hu Jintao owns two titles, one being the General Secretary of China’s communist party. This title is not addressed as such while visiting the West. When Mr. Hu is traveling abroad, he is usually referred to as China’s leader or President, but rarely by his powerful party title, which is saved for his visits to North Korea and Cuba. (1)
But the lives of Communist party members in China and the paths they chose to get there are as numerous as party members themselves. This is the tale of two Communist party members in China.
While both of my friends that you will be introduced to are proud to be Communist party members, they are also aware of its consequences outside of China, but contend that minor problems with obtaining visas are a small price to pay for the power the party brings.
The Two Communists
Summer, a direct translation of her Chinese name, is an attractive and extremely bright woman of 27.
Born to a family of low wage workers, she parlayed her intelligence into a degree in IT from a strong Chinese University. Lured into the promise of a fat payoff after an IPO, she joined a Chinese startup where she toiled away for nearly U$200 a month for two years.
When it appeared that the promised IPO was more likely to flop then succeed, she leveraged deep contacts within her boyfriend’s family into a party membership, and subsequent employment.
Summer has been my friend ever since I arrived in China.
Allan, whose life started as humbly as that of Summer, has made different life choices. After entering Tshinghua University, he quickly joined the party.
Capitalizing on his poor, non-elitist background, he soon found favor with local officials and upon graduating, married the love his life – a non-communist. He subsequently joined a large State Owned Enterprise (SOE).
A devout fan of Chairman Mao and communism, even though he lost several family members (as did Summer) during the Mao’ist purges, he was far from bitter.
To him, the atrocities of the past should stay there, and he chalks it up to nothing more than a mistake in party direction.
He frequently disagrees with his wife, who feels that the party has lost its rudder and is currently the worst thing for China, but knows that a divorce could spell the death of his career, and thus he does the best he can.
The Decision to Join the Party
Summer’s decision to join the party was born from necessity, as it was a requirement for her new position in the legal area of the local southern Chinese communist party office.
I had known her before, during and after her transition, and party membership never seemed to be one of her goals. At the time she’d changed jobs, she claimed it was ‘forced upon’ her by her family.
Being poor, they thought a job with the party could secure her future, a thing they would not enjoy.
A beautiful woman with a curvacious build who seems much younger than her years, she soon caught the eye of a senior communist party official. And one cold night after a party dinner, Summer was date raped by the boss of her boss.
She’d sent me a text after the incident and was distraught beyond belief. When I asked what she would do, she responded, “Nothing, he’s a leader, what can I do?”
Nearly a month after her sexual assault, she was transferred to a position in a local communist bureau where ironically enough, it was her job to speak with the locals about alleged misconduct of party leaders and investigate them.
After a while, it appeared as if she had put the rape behind her and tried to get by as best she could. She vociferously participated in party meetings and competitions, and claimed to be as “red as the rest”.
Communist China – The Hidden Stories
However, the entire time she didn’t seem happy, and needed something more. When I asked what was missing, she said that the job was too tiring and depressing, among other things.
She stated that she could never disclose the stories she had heard about the suffering at the hands of the communist party, but stated that the news of land grabs, and beating of villagers was merely the tip of the iceberg.
I asked her about her life plans, and she said she had no idea but needed to move on. She said there was no future at her current post.
When I asked if it was the corruption and her alleged impotence to make a change, she laughed that off. Explaining that this was China. She said one has to expect such things.
I then asked why the need for the change?
She confided to me that while a party member, she was ‘loaned’ a house and chance to purchase others at ‘cut rates’. In addition she said that the communist party of China was great if one liked to travel, for they were constantly whisked away on party trips.
While I agreed, and said it was nice to have that police motorcade when one traveled with the party, she cut me off and said that was nothing.
“All the best resorts in China, Hainan, Qindao – you name it – were reserved for the party members. Although affluent citizens and foreign businesses could apply for time there, the party is king.”
Taking Bribes to Earn a Living
I pressed her again, why she needed a break if she had it so good?
“It’s the money. It’s just not like it used to be.” she said.
“Good benefits but low salary?”
“My salary is around 300U$ per month, but that is not the problem,” she frowned. “It’s the bribes.”
I was shocked she’d be so candid.
“Nowadays, a person in my position can only make 100-200 in bribes per week or about 13-20U$.”
“They are clamping down on corruption, so now only the big bosses get the large payouts.”
“Does your boss make much in bribes?”
She said she was not sure of the exact amount he was taking in, but based upon observations and what she had heard, her boss could inflate his “official” take home salary of approximately U$8,000 per year by a factor of ten, to U$80,000.
Although she was sketchy on the details, she said that each time she and her boss would undertake an investigation of untoward action, they would demand a “gift”, or bribe.
When I asked if this was a typical practice, she gave me a tired smile and said that even before joining the Communist party in China, everyone is already aware of the rules of the game. To her, the problem was that not enough of the cash was getting kicked back to her, so she was getting out.
Summer has left her position investigating illegal acts by party members and will start her MBA this fall.
Becoming a Communist for a Wealthier Life
Allan, as mentioned loves the party. To him, it is a way to overcome the poverty he suffered as a child.
Although he and his wife’s combined income is less than U$40,000 per year, they do quite well, owning a pair of Beijing houses valued at over two million dollars between them.
Allan is quick with a smile and is unassuming in his diminutive frame and large glasses. His English is decent, and his only desire is to provide for a better life than he was given, and he seems well on his way to doing so.
Although his annual salary is not much, Allan – as do most party members – enjoys the benefits that the party brings.
When new luxury housing was being built a few years back, all party members in his SOE were allowed to join a lottery to make a purchase. As luck would have it, Allan’s number was chosen, and before the public was allowed, he was able to buy an apartment in the resort villa.
Allan and his colleagues already were guaranteed a place for a lower price.
As it turned out, his work group was offered land for 13,000RMB per square meter, and by the time construction began, the land had almost tripled in value, netting each person 230,000 RMB profit for doing nothing more than being a member of the communist party.
Apart from this perk there were many others.
Allan too expected ‘gifts’ from his customers in order to maintain their business relationship, but would not divulge how much he had gained at their expense.
Aside from this, there were the company parties and other perks as well. His group had a beautiful hotel that was reserved for visiting dignitaries that was open to he and his family for vacations.
In addition, purchasing a car was much easier for him as he had yet to achieve enough clout to merit a driver and government vehicle.
In China, Money Talks
While Summer’s desire to leave the party life and obtain her MBA was based upon many differing factors, Allan’s need to to maintain his status was never a question. For, earlier in this year, his party life almost came to and end and nearly severed his career and marriage.
A late night of reverie was cut short when the car his wife was driving struck a collection of poor manual laborers. It was an accident that ended in tragedy.
An argument between he and his wife ensued about the necessary compensation to the grieving family. His wife contended that based upon the projected future earnings of the victims, Allan was offering up too much.
But spurred on by the fear of losing his party membership, Allan offered a large amount of money to keep the family quiet. For, although Allan had not been the driver, such an offense could be disastrous for him.
When I asked him the rationale for offering such a large payout for the accident, he replied
“The amount I paid is nothing compared to what living the life of a party member can bring to me in China”.
I would like to say that I understood both Allen and Summer’s life decisions, but this would be an untruth.
It would appear to me that benefits conferred to a select group at the hands of themasses is by its very nature wrong. While Summer left her position because she could not capitalize on the misfortune of the poor, Allan saw it differently.
To him, being a member of the most powerful group in China was nothing less than an honor and if some had suffered at his action or hands then so be it for as Deng Xiao Ping is quoted as saying, “To get rich is glorious”, and who deserves that ‘glory’ more than a faithful member of China’s communist party?