Three generations of red
At the ceremony celebrating my admission to the Communist Party of China, I stood on the stage in a hall at my university, saluting with my right fist near my ear. My oath of loyalty began with “I volunteer to join the Communist Party of China” and ended with “never betray the Party.”
People have many different reasons for becoming part of the organization of nearly 90 million members. Mine go back to my grandfather and father. I felt inspired by their dedication, and they always encouraged me to join. Their entrances into the CPC, however, tell other stories. In them is a glance at how much my country and party have changed.
My grandfather was born in the 1930s in a southeastern city of Zhejiang Province. He lived during a tumultuous period in Chinese history, one marked by struggles to unify the nation, foreign invasions, impressive advances, and a battle for power between the Nationalists and Communists.
He once made a living by looking after cows for landlords. He never received any education. When the CPC took control and executed reforms in the 1950s, he was one of millions of peasants who acquired land confiscated from wealthy owners whom, along with capitalists, the communists considered enemies. To join the party, he made an oral application because he was illiterate; other members wrote it up. He credited the CPC with bringing him a good, happy life. He felt gratitude.
When my father joined the CPC in the 1990s, the party and nation had transformed again. The anti-intellectual, destructive period of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 had come to an end by 1976. The country had been opening its economy to the world for years. China was leaving behind the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, when the nation’s military put an end to the demonstrations. It was full speed ahead toward material prosperity. My father, a teacher, recalled great enthusiasm among his peers for joining the CPC. Laborers, peasants, students and intellectuals competed to claim some of the limited number of spots. Membership was not just an honor and symbol of excellence for my father, but a way to advance his career.
China marked another turning point in 2001 when Jiang Zemin, the country’s former president and one time head of the CPC, declared that private business owners, professionals working for foreign companies, self-employed artists and many others normally excluded from the CPC were welcome to join.
Back then, I was a nine-year-old member of the Young Pioneers, an organization run by the Communist Youth League for children. It teaches and encourages the CPC’s principles. I had to wear a honglingjin – a red neckerchief – to school every day. It was said to be one corner of China’s flag, colored red by the blood of martyrs. Unfortunately, I often forgot my honglingjin when I left home and had to buy a new one at the school gate, berating myself for wasting “blood.”
I recall having to salute with my right hand above my head when the national anthem was played and the Chinese flag raised. In some ceremonies, I and other Young Pioneers had to shout together, “Be prepared to struggle for the cause of communism!”
I moved on from the Young Pioneers and became a Communist Youth League member in junior high school. I no longer had to wear the red scarf; instead, I pinned an aluminum badge, also bright red, to my chest.
All this time, my grandfather urged me to join the CPC. My father did the same, pointing out a path of party membership followed perhaps by a job as a civil servant.
The last thing I wanted was to disappoint them.
I handed in my application to the CPC when I was an undergraduate. It was a handwritten essay that had to be at least two pages long. In it, I reflected on my own personality and goals, and explained why I wanted to join. No typos or revisions were allowed. I wrote it in an hour or two in my dorm room.
After officials accepted my essay, I attended a class every week for months to receive a political education. I wrote a two-page report on my ideological progress every three months. After I graduated from the party school, the party branch held a meeting to decide whether I could become a probationary member.
A year later, I attended another meeting with probationary members like myself who had gathered for our final evaluation by party officials: Were we ready to become full members of the CPC?
Each of us on stage had a story that led us there. Some regarded membership as a mark of excellence, like my father did. Some were forced by their parents. Some thought something was better than nothing, especially when the duties of being a communist were fairly general. For some, it could be a practical route to more career possibilities.
Regardless, there they were, a small number of the 2.4 million people who joined the party in 2013. And there I was, sharing an identity with my grandfather and father: member of the Communist Party of China.
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Yuqing Yang is a graduate student in the University of Hong Kong’s journalism program. She was born in Zhejiang Province and obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Shanghai International Studies University in 2015.