PRAGUE, March 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The number of college students joining the Chinese Communist Party has reportedly risen in recent years to some 8 percent of the total student body, or more than 700,000 individuals.
If these figures publicized in the official media are accurate, this is a dramatic increase in a short time, considering that only 1.1 percent of China's students were party members in 1990.
"On the economic front, there is very considerable reform, but there is still very strong political control, and I don't think it's realistic to expect that will change in the next 10 to 15 years."
Large Number Of Students
Illustrating the trend, the party newspaper "People's Daily" has reported that at some universities, 90 percent of the students were party members or applicants already by 2003.
The party seems, therefore, to be going out of its way to recruit from the educated and sophisticated levels of society. Analyst Alexander Neill of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, says the present generation of leaders sees the educated young as the best chance of building China while keeping the party at the helm.
"They came to the realization that with [former President] Jiang Zemin's policy of liberalization, the Communist Party needed to appeal to the future generations of entrepreneurs, industry leaders, scientists, and engineers, not to mention intellectuals," he said.
But what is the motivation for the young -- whether at the elite universities or in the humble villages -- to join the party?
Obviously there are those who want to contribute as party members to China's further development. Its economic expansion has been forging ahead with growth rates of between 8 and 10 percent each year, and this is bringing with it a myriad of new problems for the party and government to solve.
There's unsustainable pressure on the environment, on resources such as water, and growing social unrest as the rural majority are left behind in poverty while city dwellers and entrepreneurs grow richer.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao opened the annual National People's Congress on March 5 with an urgent plea for a refocusing of national effort.
"We must try as hard as we can to change our investments in order to focus on building basic amenities and infrastructure in the countryside," Wen said. "This is a major and significant change."
But to many young Chinese, party membership means advantages on the road to personal wealth.
Joining For Money?
A study done at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2005 indicates that being a party member increases an individual's income by some 28 percent, at least in urban areas.
One of the authors of that report, Junsen Zhang, says this does not imply any wrongdoing on the part of party members:
"That's not what our results imply, our results imply that these people are more [able]; it's not because of favoritism, but because of ability."
But undoubtedly, party membership provides connections that offer better-than-ordinary conditions for obtaining such things as licenses, permits, and credit.
And beyond petty corruption, there is big-scale corruption, where party members embezzle from the public purse and pursue their own business schemes detrimental to the public. For instance, some of the many mines in China with shocking safety records are reported to be operated by party members who ignore safety rules.
Another form of corruption presently in the news is the improper confiscation of rural land for industrial and residential purposes, which has led to riots in the countryside.
The party acknowledges that corruption is widespread. The Central Discipline Inspection Commission in Beijing last month issued figures showing that in 2005 it disciplined more than 115,000 party members, of whom 15,000 were sent to the courts for prosecution. Some 24,000 members were expelled during the year.
Despite this level of control, analyst Neill says he sees no conclusive proof that the party has a policy capable of overcoming endemic corruption.
"There will be purges, there will be 'strike hard' [anticorruption] campaigns and all the rest of it, but really grassroots level democratization is probably the best way to expose corrupt practices," Neill said.
But democratization is exactly what the party does not want. Analysts have long said that economic liberalization will lead inevitably to political liberalization, but this has not happened.
Brian Brogan, an expert in China's transitional economy at the Australian National University in Canberra, says that it would be unrealistic to think that the party will relinquish its grip anytime soon.
"On the economic front, there is very considerable reform, but there is still very strong political control, and I don't think it's realistic to expect that will change in the next 10 to 15 years," Brogan said.
Brogan says, however, that the party has long displayed an internal flexibility, and he expects this to continue as it faces new challenges brought on by the economic transition. Young and well-educated party members will be essential in this ongoing transformation.