Birthday Party

The Communist Party is still growing almost a century after its birth

Xi claps after he was elected China's Vice President during a plenary session of China's parliament in Beijing

94 years-old, that deserves a clap

Mao Zedong had a problem when he pondered how best to celebrate the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC). He couldn’t quite remember when it had happened.

In fact, the CPC held its first National Congress on July 23, 1921. That was the date when two Comintern representatives from the Soviet Union called a meeting in Shanghai and a paltry 13 Chinese members showed up. (Chen Duxiu, the first Party secretary, wasn’t even present and no Chinese language records were kept.)

By 1938 only two attendees of the original Congress were politically active. One was Mao but neither he nor his co-attendee could recall exactly when the meeting had been held.

To keep things simple, Mao picked July 1 as the date to commemorate the CPC’s foundation.

Back in 1921 there were only 50 or so Chinese Communists. But when the CPC celebrated its 94th anniversary last week it also annunced its membership had grown to almost 88 million people (as of the end of last year).

The figure is more than the population of Germany, although (as western media outlets have pointed out) it’s fewer than the number of Chinese with stock trading accounts.

Not something that Mao would ever have envisaged, certainly.

Membership numbers are up 1.1 million on 2013, a slower rate of increase than the year before. They might have grown faster had Chinese President Xi Jinping not pledged in 2012 to control the inflow in hope of boosting standards in the ranks. Plenty of people still want to join, however. In fact, of almost 22 million applications for membership last year less than 10% were successful. (About 2.05 million new members were inducted, while a million were either expelled or died.)

The communiqué mentioning the membership numbers also provided glimpses of how the Party reaches out to every corner of the country. The number of “grassroots CPC units” – found in schools, hospitals and Chinese companies – has increased 1.3% to 4.56 million, for instance. “More than 99% of the grassroots in sub-districts, villages and communities have CPC units,” Xinhua reported proudly.

At the largest state firms, company chairmanships are almost always awarded to senior Party officials. The picture is less clear in the private sector but it looks like the CPC’s influence has been expanding. Close to 1.6 million private firms have set up their own Party organs.

Some of the most savvy Chinese tech firms are waving the Red Flag too. Smartphone maker Xiaomi has more than 8,000 staff and 104 of them are CPC members, says Beijing Youth Daily. It set up its own CPC unit at the end of last month, with co-founder Liu De selected as the company’s Party secretary. Likewise, China Economic Weekly has reported that high-flying media firm LeTV has set up three CPC branches inside the company.

The Global Times insists that CPC influence isn’t overbearing, however, pointing to a new law that requires top officials, including the president (head of the state) and the premier (head of the government) to swear an oath to the constitution before taking office.

In previous drafts of the oath there was a sentence compelling allegiance to “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a euphemism for the Party itself. But this was removed from the final wording, the Global Times says.

“The oath shows China’s growing emphasis on the rule of law,” a law professor at Peking University, explained.

Yet the CPC also announced new rules last month that will embed Leading Party Members’ Groups inside more private enterprises and joint ventures with foreign companies. The new arrangements will serve as “important channels to guarantee the implementation of the line and policies of the Party”, Xinhua has reported.

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