90 million people are officially members of the Chinese Communist Party. Why have they chosen to take the pledge? And what about those who don’t?
I found out about my father’s Communist Party membership from his obituary.
It was the first winter of the new century. I was 10 years old. My father was an engineering professor at a university in southeastern China. I attended its affiliated elementary and secondary schools, where my mother also worked. A black armband pinned to my padded jacket, I went back to my sixth-grade classroom.
There was a giant chalkboard by the school entrance, where I usually stopped on my way home to look up new announcements. That afternoon, beneath faded handwritten messages, a sheet of paper taped near the bottom stood out.
The body of the text started with my father’s name, followed by his titles. The action word was “passed away.” The paragraph concluded with his number of years on earth, “thirty-six.”
It was a familiar format. But what surprised me were the seven characters immediately after his name, separated only by a comma: 中国共产党党员 (zhōngguó gòngchǎndǎng dǎngyuán) — “Member of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Years prior, when I had just become aware of the Party, I asked my parents if they were members. To my disappointment, they said no. Perhaps they had not yet risen to sufficient ideological heights, or they were too busy to file the necessary paperwork. My father’s name, now attached to the Party for eternity, gave me a flicker of comfort amid a thicket of grief.
“Was Dad awarded Party membership posthumously?” I asked my mother that evening. Had my father joined the Party while he was alive, he most certainly would have shared that exciting news with his only child, I thought. From my “patriotic education,” I had heard all about the red martyrs and their tales of selfless sacrifice, which often ended the same way: with a Party membership bestowed in death, the highest honor for the most noble spirit. My father was merely a scientist, but his academic accomplishments and moral integrity must have earned him such a recognition.
My mother looked confused, as she often was in those days, so I repeated my question.
“No,” my mother answered. “It happened before he went abroad.”
In the late 1990s, my father worked in Britain and the U.S. as a visiting scholar. My mother and I joined him for several months in California, before all three of us came back to China in the fall of 1999. Obtaining a passport at the time was a cumbersome process, full of bureaucracy, requiring permission from one’s work unit. The Chinese university where my parents worked demanded a guarantee that we would not emigrate (it had never been our intent).
I was too young to grasp exactly what was happening, but I remember the tension at home. One of the most dramatic moments in the months-long saga involved my grandfather, also a professor at the university, signing a pledge: with his impeccable reputation and a father’s authority as the bond, his daughter and son-in-law were sure to return.
Was my father’s Party membership another form of bond? I did not want to upset my mother with more questions, and the topic was never brought up again. In my juvenile comprehension, his Party status no longer felt as glorious. It was not a posthumous distinction, nor an identification with a cause. In all likelihood, my father joined the Party as a compromise to a system he could not fight, for a small privilege only the system could grant.
The Chinese Communist Party was established in 1921, with the first of July designated as its official birthday. In 1949, it defeated the Nationalists after a bloody civil war, and has been the one and only ruling party of the People’s Republic ever since. The Party credits itself as the savior and rightful guardian of the Chinese nation, while its failed policies and brutal campaigns have led to the loss of tens of millions of Chinese lives. Over 70 years, the Party has changed leadership, adopted reforms, and allowed brief periods of liberalization, which were almost always followed by harsher repression. The Party’s ideological flexibility has contributed to its longevity while its foreign siblings in name crumbled and waned across the globe. On the other hand, China remains a Leninist state. A political philosophy can be reinterpreted, but the Party’s control of military and state power must remain paramount.
The Party always comes first. Even for the deceased, their Party membership precedes everything else in the public announcement, however apolitical they were in life. The unspoken rule is that the Party’s hold on Chinese society must forever be manifested; breaking it is unthinkable.
No one in China exists free from the Party, regardless of their membership status. For the average Chinese citizen, life inside the Party is a constant tug-of-war between convenience and compromise. The party dues are modest, especially when it can buy the chance for professional advancement and personal protection. But what about the moral cost? When faced with an apparatus so vast and a force so merciless, who can afford the price of defiance?
Loyalty to the Party was always linked with love for the motherland, like a pair of conjoined twins born of the same flesh. An alternative to the Party’s doctrine was not a difference of opinion; it was treason.
The first time I became part of an organization affiliated with the Party, I was five years old. On a sunny spring afternoon, I stood with my first-grade classmates in the schoolyard, our white shirts clean and crisp. The school officials, each wearing a silky red neckerchief, tied smaller versions around our pressed collars. As newly minted Young Pioneers, we saluted the flag and sang the national anthem. On the way back after the ceremony, I heard a girl’s voice behind me: “Did the red neckerchief really get its color from blood spilled by the revolutionary martyrs?”
“Don’t be silly,” a boy answered. “It’s from artificial dye.”
The Young Pioneers has three ranks, awarded based on school performance, symbolized by an arm badge with one, two, or three stripes. Unfortunately for me, my mother was also my elementary school teacher, with a fierce aversion to nepotism. Despite having the best grades, I was assigned to the lowest rank and barred from promotion.
“You talked very loudly in your sleep last night,” my mother told me one morning over breakfast.
“What did I say?” I had no idea.
“You were arguing how it was not fair that you did not get more stripes,” my mother laughed and shook her head.
I was younger than most of my classmates and often sickly, so I sat out a good number of physical education sessions. Alone in the classroom, I’d look out the window at the schoolyard, the students lined up in neat rows and columns. A double-striped squadron leader stood in front of each group, shouting commands with a stern face.
I wondered what it would be like to give orders and be obeyed. I watched with envy.
My red neckerchief faded in color as the years went by. The daily accessory retired at the start of middle school, stashed away with the humiliation of a single-striped badge. It was then that, amid coursework, secret crushes, and Britney Spears, a new phrase entered our vocabulary: “Communist Youth League.”
The junior version of the Party follows a similar organizational structure, and is designed for young people between the ages of 14 and 28. Resembling that of the Party, membership in the Youth League is selective, and requires a formal petition with official approval.
“Many of you have asked me whether or not to join the Youth League,” an 8th grade teacher of ours said one day in class.
She stepped away from the lectern. Her voice reverberated in the room of 50, her petite frame appearing larger than life.
“Communism is a faith. If you believe in it, you should enthusiastically apply to the Youth League. But if you do not believe in it, there is no need to join just for the title.”
She gave an example of one of her students who was raised Christian. “I told her she should not join the League.” The student believed in God, and communism is atheist.
“Communism is a faith,” the teacher repeated. After a brief pause, she looked at us and smiled. “I myself am not a member of the Communist Party.”
The last statement caused a small stir in the classroom. Many of us, myself included, had never heard such a voluntary declaration. From the government-sanctioned narrative we had learned, loyalty to the Party was always linked with love for the motherland, like a pair of conjoined twins born of the same flesh. An alternative to the Party’s doctrine was not a difference of opinion; it was treason.
If Party membership was synonymous with patriotism and moral character, how could an upstanding citizen like our teacher refuse the association? It would be years before I could appreciate the significance of my teacher’s statement, that communism is only one ideology out of many, and identification with the Party should be a free choice made out of true belief.
However many times I heard the word spoken, “communism” remained incomprehensible to my 12-year-old self. The first time we stood under the flag as Young Pioneers, my classmates and I took an oath to be “the successors to the great enterprise of communism,” but no one explained what that meant. It was more slogan than theory, more abstract symbol than belief system. In middle school, our curriculum included textbooks on history and politics. The thin volumes introduced obscure concepts in broad strokes, meant to be swallowed whole and regurgitated word for word in our exams. If one took the time to chew and digest, an inquisitive mind could easily spot inconsistencies and missing pieces. It was much easier to simply repeat without thinking.
“Should I join the Communist Youth League?” I turned to my mother for advice. To cope with the loss of her husband, my mother sought solace in the Bible. I was ambivalent about the existence of a higher order, but praying every night before bed had become a comforting ritual.
“Of course!” my mother was unequivocal. “The Party is the biggest.”
In her seminal work Secondhand Time, the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich painted an intricate picture of Russia after the Soviet Union, detailing the hope and sorrow of a proud people and their collective sense of loss and longing. Among the many unforgettable characters was an old communist imprisoned during Stalin’s purges. He survived the camps and was sent to the frontlines in 1941. Returning with battle scars and military medals, the man was summoned by the district party committee. The officials informed him that his wife, who was arrested with him, had died, but he could have his party membership back.
“And I was happy! I was so happy…” said the man. Confronted by Alexievich for expressing such an incomprehensible sentiment, he lost his temper. “You can’t judge us according to logic…You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous! What greatness do you have in your life? You have nothing. Just comfort.”
For those who followed communism when it was still a contested idea, who joined the fight for political power from the barrel of a gun, a party membership could be more precious than life itself. It was what gave life its meaning. A blind faith could convince the fervent mind to overlook the atrocities committed in its name. However, when the revolutionary has become the dictator, association with the ruling party is no longer about sacrifice, but survival.
When the revolutionary has become the dictator, association with the ruling party is no longer about sacrifice, but survival.
“We are the Communist Party and we will decide what communism means,” said Chen Yuan 陈元, as the journalist and author Richard McGregor reported in his book The Party. The younger Chen’s father was Chen Yun 陈云. One of the “Eight Elders” of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Sr. organized underground labor unions in the 1920s, survived the Long March, and championed central planning. His son headed the China Development Bank, becoming a key figure in what McGregor described as “China Inc.”
Historically, communist states have a long record of oppression against those who challenge government policy, including the ones from the left. Over the past year, several elite Chinese universities have seen members of Marxist student organizations harassed or detained by authorities, and dozens of labor activists have been arrested or disappeared. What the Communist Party fears is not the people losing faith in communism, if they ever believed in it in the first place, but the people forming associations with political power, guided by their own agency and free from the Party’s direct control.
When the Communist Party is only nominally communist, what keeps it in power is not the appeal of ideology, but power itself. The people of China fear the Party, but their pledge of allegiance to the hammer and sickle is not a result of simple coercion. With a long approval process, including essays and tests, and an acceptance rate below 10 percent, joining the Party is no easy matter. By making its membership a coveted social privilege that enables job promotions and other perks, the Party commands a base of not forced converts but witting foot soldiers.
The application for the Youth League, submitted during middle school, is more like a census survey than a political petition. I was still two years below the minimum age requirement, but like many Chinese laws and regulations that exist only on paper, it was simply overlooked. Not only did I become a member of the Youth League, my grades at the top of the class also earned me the highest position offered a student, Class Secretary.
I shouldered the title for the next four years, sometimes feeling guilty for its lack of responsibility. In my freshman year at college, each class branch of the Youth League was expected to organize a handful of activities. I invited two speakers: one was a local writer, the other the father of a notable alumni who had just been promoted to full professor at Harvard. Film screenings fulfilled the rest of the quota. I picked The Godfather trilogy and Good Will Hunting, feeling slightly mischievous when filing the reports.
Sophomore year began with a class-wide election. Student leadership positions, previously determined by ranking in the college entrance exam, would now be determined by popular vote. Boys outnumbered girls some four to one at our STEM-focused university. In our gender-segregated dorm buildings, my male opponent campaigned on the eve of the election. As a star on the school’s debate team, I naively thought my oratory skills alone would suffice. The two of us made brief candidate statements in front of the class, and the votes were cast. I lost by a few tallies.
“Damn the patriarchy!” I cried in my room. The fleeting disappointment was replaced by a sense of relief. No more paperwork. Once in a while, my buddies and I spoke of a few schoolmates who were noticeably active in the Youth League. Maybe they were genuine followers of Marx, we joked. Maybe they were preparing to climb the Party ladder for a future in the Chinese government.
I attended a special undergraduate program where one must be 15 or younger to gain admission. Unlike the lax regulations for the Young Pioneers and the Youth League, Party membership is only open to adults. I watched older schoolmates toil with study materials on Marxism and Mao Zedong thought for their Party application, and felt lucky that my youth spared me from such banality.
“Many of you are now eligible for the Party,” our class advisor said during an evening assembly in the fall of our senior year. A Party member himself, he also directed the school’s Youth League branch. “If you are going abroad after graduation, there is obviously no need to join the Party.”
“However, if you plan to stay in China, I strongly encourage that you do,” the advisor continued. “A Party membership can stop a bullet for you.”
Several of us looked around the room, perplexed by the vivid imagery. A student behind me whispered, “It means that if you made a mistake, the punishment could be expulsion from the Party instead of worse.”
Growing up in a family where politics was taboo, I had yet to learn the truth behind many unspeakable topics, but by observing the vast contours of forbidden space, I had no illusions about the Party’s authoritarian nature. Like a third of my class, I was preparing for graduate school in the U.S. The Party, with its omnipresence, was what I was hoping to get away from, not be associated with.
My mother tried to convince me otherwise. “You still have time to apply!”
“I do not believe in communism.”
“How could you say such a terrible thing?”
“I believe in individual rights and a free market with necessary regulations.”
“You do not understand. It is not about what you believe in.”
My mother had become increasingly devout in her Christian faith. What used to be a spiritual crutch was now part of her identity. “I would like you to get baptized before you leave China,” she said after bringing me to mass at the city church one Sunday morning.
I told her no. I could no longer reconcile religious tenets with my scientific training.
My mother had hoped I could carry two talismans for my journey across the oceans, the blessing from God wherever I went, and a Party membership if I one day returned to my birth country. I stubbornly accepted neither. The night before my departure, my mother packed into my carry-on luggage a leather-bound copy of the Bible and a collection of psalms. “At least bring these.”
The holy verses flew with me across the continents, next to a narrow booklet I ordered from the internet: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
The Chinese people face a complex reality, victimized by an oppressive system but also contributing to their own oppression by becoming part of the system.
Two years ago, I interviewed a senior official at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We discussed China’s proposed plan to build the world’s next supercollider, and its implications for scientific collaboration and academic freedom globally. Toward the end of what was expected to be a short conversation between two particle physicists, I asked my final question:
“Will there be a Party branch attached to the project?”
What followed was a 20-minute tirade against me, my background, and my motives: “What are you doing? Why are you stirring the pot?
“You are too young. This is too sensitive. It could destroy the project.
“Don’t you dare kill my project.”
The official’s reaction became the lede in my article, which examined the limits of science’s ability to transcend China’s authoritarian politics, even in a field as fundamental as particle physics. I did not take my source’s anger personally. However much I empathized, part of me found his effort to hide the Party’s presence hypocritical. A member of his institution’s Party committee, he is a brilliant scientist distinguished in his discipline. Nevertheless, there is no denial that his career has benefited from his position in the Party and his relationship with its leaders.
Mixed with thinly-veiled personal threats, the official tried to convince me to drop the story. A mere mention of the Party would put him “in a difficult position with both sides,” he explained. Acknowledging the Party’s oversight could alienate international partners the project needed, while downplaying the role of the Party would bring deeper woes at home. For any proposal to materialize in China, the Party’s stamp of approval is essential.
After my article was published, some Chinese readers criticized me for either feigning naivete or being purposefully provocative while interviewing a Chinese subject. I had not anticipated the official’s response to turn aggressive, though the dynamic was not foreign to me as a young woman in a male-dominated profession. I asked the question and wrote the story because I believed in its importance. Plausible deniability has its part in an opaque system, and I shielded the official’s name from an on-the-record interview. After so many months, I still wonder if I made all the right choices. The ethical quandary reflects the complexity in personal responsibility for the Chinese people, who are victimized by an oppressive system but also contribute to their own oppression by becoming part of the system.
Does being a member of the Party automatically disqualify an individual from independent thought? With 90 million members, the Party is not a monolith. Even among its top leadership, there are internal struggles among different views and interest factions. On the other hand, for the billion-plus Chinese citizens who do not pay a monthly party due, the continuation of everyday life still relies on the premise of passive submission.
“Workers of the world, unite!” the green grocer put up the slogan in his shop window, at a time when everyone else did the same, so he could avoid disturbance from the authorities. The parable in Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” illustrates the essence of a post-totalitarian society. However inescapable and impenetrable the regime’s control appeared, its persistence depended on the obedience of the governed, who declared loyalty “by accepting the given rules of the game.”
What happens when one person breaks the facade?
“One spark turns into three, seven, and countless numbers / likes swarms of fireflies setting upon the prairie world / …So many, so quickly! Even I am amazed / all of them coming from my tiny spark / …Burn on, fire; burn on / in this long and unending night / …When we finally see that real dawn break / humanity shall rejoice in freedom’s morning light.”
— Lin Zhao
Born to an affluent family and educated at a missionary school in southern China, Lin Zhao 林昭 joined the communist revolution as a teenager, and worked passionately in the land reforms in the early 1950s. Mao’s anti-Rightist campaign shattered her faith in the Party, and set the former aspiring member on an unrelenting path of dissent. “The only Rightist who refused to make self-criticism was Lin Zhao,” recalled Lin’s schoolmate at Peking University.
Arrested in 1960, Lin wrote hundreds of thousands of words from her jail cell, “madly attacking, abusing, and slandering our party and its leader,” as her prison report stated. Occasionally out of necessity, and more often as an extreme form of protest, Lin used her own blood as ink for what she called her “freedom writings.”
Reading excerpts from Lin’s “blood letters,” I was in awe of her piercing intellect and poetic eloquence. Lin was selfless in her devotion to the truth, but wasn’t she also selfish, when her family suffered as a result of her quixotic embarking? Lin’s father committed suicide after learning of her imprisonment. When Lin was executed in 1968 at the age of 35, the news reached her mother alongside an order for a five-cent “bullet fee.”
Lin was aware of the implications for her family, and expressed wishes to one day take care of her mother in repentance. Nevertheless, she decided that her fight for basic human rights, as “an independent, free person,” must not be bound by considerations for herself or her loved ones.
When the frantic years of political struggle turned students against teachers, children against parents, siblings and spouses against each other, who am I to blame Lin for her family’s hardship? Life versus liberty, love for family versus commitment to the truth: the only culprit was an oppressive system that forced such primal desires into false binaries.
The writer and literary critic Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 hailed Lin as “the only voice of freedom left for contemporary China.” In a letter from January of 2000, Liu articulated his hope and dismay for the Chinese people: “In order for everyone to have individual rights, there must be a moral giant who sacrifices selflessly…We cannot place our hopes in the collective conscience of the public, we can only rely on a great personal conscience to bring together the cowardly general public. And our people in particular needs a moral giant.”
Lin Zhao was officially exonerated in 1981, 13 years after her execution. Her final resting place on the outskirts of Suzhou remains under government surveillance, as democracy activists often pay tribute to her legacy. Having served multiple prison terms for his role in the Tiananmen protest and subsequent writings, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to another 11 years in 2009 for drafting “Charter 08,” a human rights manifesto. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and died in Chinese state custody seven years after. With a sea burial hastily arranged by the Chinese government, authorities made sure there would not be another pilgrimage site like Lin Zhao’s tomb. Some supporters who commemorated Liu by writing poems or visiting the beach were detained by police.
I too would like to believe in Liu’s vision, that individual heroism may serve as a wake-up call for a people. But two years after Liu’s death, the Party is at its most powerful and most repressive since the days of Mao. What has the moral giant’s selfless sacrifice achieved, other than martyrdom itself?
As Havel once said from behind the Iron Curtain, hope is “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” In the case of an individual’s rebellion against an unjust system, its validity should not be discounted by others’ inability to follow. Self-sacrifice is self-salvation. When the conscience refuses to compromise, the body may be reduced to ashes, but the flame it once held will continue to serve as a lamppost, marking the North Pole for a future generation’s moral compass.
“Because of you, we have our genealogy,” wrote the Chinese author and scholar Cui Weiping 崔卫平 in a dedication to Lin Zhao.
“I do not call it a genealogy of martyrs, because that also includes contributions from the executioners,” Cui continued. “It is a genealogy of thinkers.
“You have a choice — today’s history whispers to the people. Because of pioneers like Lin Zhao, our history is already different from what it used to be.”
Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month: