BEIJING – China's Communist Party has enforced its political monopoly so completely for decades that members overwhelmingly staff government agencies from Beijing to village offices, manage state-owned companies and supervise civic and religious groups, chambers of commerce and unions.
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Yet as China's economy flourished, party membership came to be seen less as a political commitment and more as a way to secure jobs and profit from power. Party loyalty gradually slipped so much among rank-and-file members that many stopped bothering to pay their required membership dues.
That suddenly changed when Beijing launched a nationwide campaign last year. In the northeastern city of Tianjin, officials collected 277 million yuan ($41.7 million) in fees owed by more than 120,000 Communist Party members at state-owned companies, state media said. Among those deemed in arrears were officials in the party's powerful personnel department, which oversaw the campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.
Doing so, Mr. Xi says, will secure his nation's transformation into a rich superpower in the coming decades, and deliver his "China Dream" of national rejuvenation.
Now that the party has given Xi Jinping five more years as leader and power on par with that of Chairman Mao Zedong, he will return to one of his top priorities in the past five years: restoring the party as a force in people's lives and recapturing its revolutionary sense of mission. Doing so will secure his "China Dream" of national rejuvenation, he believes.
Under Mr. Xi's orders, mandatory political-study sessions emphasizing his speeches and policies were revived for all party members. So was the Mao-era practice of members criticizing others and themselves. A Communist Party directive on adjusting membership dues, barely enforced for most of a decade, was abruptly applied retroactively across the country last year.
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Since becoming the party's general secretary in late 2012, Mr. Xi has overseen efforts to root out the corrupt, inept and disloyal among the 89 million bureaucrats, engineers, professors, office workers, laborers and other Communist Party members. More than 1.5 million members have been punished, some with heavy jail terms, for alleged wrongdoing that includes graft, indolence and dissent.
"We must continue to rid ourselves of any virus that erodes the party's fabric," Mr. Xi, 64 years old, said after unveiling a new top leadership lineup on Wednesday. Freshly invested with unrivaled authority, he pressured party members to get in lockstep with his program.
As Communist Party members, the son of a revolutionary leader said, they must "forever be servants of the people, the vanguard of the times and the backbone of our nation."
Some party members, especially those who viewed the organization largely as a path to career success, have grumbled about Mr. Xi's campaign to instill discipline and whip up nationalistic fervor.
At a Beijing division of a major, state-owned telecommunications company, scores of employees were ordered to catch up on years of Communist Party dues, according to a sales supervisor. "We all found it unbelievable," she said.
She and her husband, a party member working at a different company, paid a total of more than 50,000 yuan ($7,530). "We were scared that not paying dues or quitting the party would affect our spouses and jeopardize our children's futures," said the supervisor, whose teenage son is studying in Britain.
Such dissatisfaction could exacerbate foot-dragging and obstruction, making it harder for Mr. Xi to implement his agenda. Officials, particularly in local governments, already have frustrated Beijing's plans to curtail debt and close unneeded factories.
"For most rank-and-file members, the party does not require much of them, " said Bruce Dickson, a George Washington University professor who studies Chinese politics. "If it is going to start requiring them to actually pay dues, attend meetings and so on, some may decide it is not worth keeping their membership."
A way to get ahead
A 2011 study in the state-backed journal Youth Research found that about 40% of 1,559 Chinese undergraduates who were surveyed agreed that "university students join the Communist Party primarily to get good jobs." Just 27% disagreed with the statement.
Joanne Song McLaughlin, an assistant economics professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, estimated last year that Communist Party members earn 7% to 29% more than nonmembers.
"Imagine that Xi is the new CEO of a company where employees don't show up for work, don't participate in work activities, and can't even articulate what the company's mission statement is," said Jude Blanchette, a Beijing-based researcher. "That's roughly what Xi faced in late 2012."
Since taking power, Mr. Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and other Chinese leaders have repeatedly inveighed against do-nothing government and company officials. State media have blamed bureaucratic inertia and sloth for exacerbating local government debts, overbuilding and environmental degradation.
In a 2014 speech at a party conference, the Chinese president warned that the Communist Party had to become unimpeachable from top to bottom--or risk irrelevance. Membership, he said, requires discipline, trustworthiness and persevering in step with the country's leadership.
Otherwise, "the party is ruined, the nation is ruined," Mr. Xi said in the speech. "If our party weakens, breaks up, or collapses, what meaning will our political achievements have?"
Ye Qinglin, who grew up in rural China, joined the party while studying journalism more than two decades ago, inspired by his parents, who were party members.
The 43-year-old television anchor said his faith in the party wavered while working at state-owned Fujian Media Group in southern China, because he saw that other party members paid lip service at best to party ideals.
Mr. Ye remembers being appalled by a lavish dinner hosted at a Beijing restaurant in 2006 by his ultimate boss, Fujian Media Group Chairman Shu Zhan. Mr. Shu ordered three bottles of Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac, which cost more than 100,000 yuan ($15,060), Mr. Ye recalled.
Nearly a decade later, Mr. Shu was toppled by Mr. Xi's corruption crackdown. Mr. Shu was convicted of taking bribes last year after pleading guilty in court, and he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He couldn't be reached for comment.
"We felt that the party ranks were being purified," said Mr. Ye. "Xi Jinping has restored confidence in the Chinese system. I see hope for my party."
Many government agencies and state-owned businesses require party members to attend study sessions at least once a month. Some officials organize weekly discussions, ask members to spend an hour a day on political self-study or arrange field trips to revolutionary landmarks. Destinations include the northern village of Liangjiahe, where Mr. Xi performed manual labor from 1969 to 1975 during the Cultural Revolution.
Rank-and-file Communist Party members must take notes in standard-issue journals and submit them for review, as well as spend spare time studying for regular political discussions and quizzes. Their knowledge of the party's constitution and regulations, as well as Mr. Xi's policies, are regularly tested.
"Participants have to come prepared," said Zhan Wenchao, a township-level party worker in central Henan province who organizes such study sessions. Poor performers face counseling and probation, he added.
One Chinese judge said the new requirements added to his already onerous workload and have worsened morale in the overloaded judiciary.
"Even when things get busy, our supervisors will still chair study meetings, asking us if we've paid attention to the party plenums, or watched the evening news bulletins," said the judge. "This is an unreasonable use of our time."
The judge, who presided over criminal cases in a major city, left the judiciary in 2016 to join the private sector. He still is a party member.
The campaign to collect party membership fees has sparked widespread complaints. Social media and online forums crackled with party members fuming about the payments and debating whether to quit. A poem by an employee at the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing lamented making a lump-sum payment worth "five years of transport expenses or the cost of a half-year's supply of baby formula."
Party-run media outlets criticized such reactions as signs of wavering loyalty. Privately, though, some Communist Party officials relented, exempting some retired members from paying backdated dues, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Xi has sacrificed some growth in the party's ranks in return for more loyalty from those who do join. Tighter admission procedures slowed membership expansion to 0.8% last year from roughly 3% a year earlier in this decade, party data showed.
Still, the Communist Party's leadership doesn't want to see a drastic decline in membership, which party researchers say would be seen as a vote of no confidence, especially if high-profile members step down.
Party regulations state that members are free to leave and are automatically deemed to have withdrawn if they fail to attend party activities, pay dues or fulfill their work responsibilities for six months. In reality, quitting isn't easy.
"There are members who don't dare to quit, aren't allowed by the party to quit and are unable to quit in practice, because there's an overly politicized interpretation of what it means to quit the party," Gong Xianqing, dean of the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law's School of Marxism, wrote last year in an influential, party-run journal.
A nationwide audit by the party's personnel department last year tried tracking down estranged members to see who could be brought back and who should be culled from the official party ranks, according to party documents.
In the northern city of Handan, party authorities tracked down more than 12,400 inactive members last year, put nearly 1,800 "unqualified" members on probation and struck 237 names from party rosters, state media said.
Several prominent and outspoken academics said they have been rebuffed in their attempts to leave the Communist Party.
Zhang Ming was stripped of his post as dean of political sciences a decade ago at Beijing's prestigious Renmin University after criticizing China's lack of academic freedoms. Since then, he has tried to quit the party by not paying dues. He said he was told by university officials late last year that his party membership wouldn't be revoked.
"They keep dragging their feet on my request to quit," said Mr. Zhang, who said he wants to leave the party for personal reasons. "I find it frustrating."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 26, 2017 07:53 ET (11:53 GMT)