“Where’s the party?”

The Economist has an article about how the Communist Party is trying to stay relevant by inserting itself into companies:

The subject exposes some of the deepest contradictions that now lie at the heart of Chinese society. How can the party maintain control over a place that, in ideological terms, is no longer communist? The closure in the 1990s of vast numbers of state-owned enterprises shattered the party’s grassroots base. Over the past decade a priority of the party’s secretive Organisation Department (it handles personnel issues for the 80m-strong party, yet has no listed telephone number) has been to form party cells in private businesses, or “new economic organisations” as the official literature calls them. In 1999 only 3% of private businesses had party cells. Now the national figure is nearly 13%. Coastal Zhejiang province claims all private firms with more than 80 employees have a branch.

As party officials see it, setting up branches in the private sector is about more than just proving that a once-revolutionary party is still in touch with the masses. At a time of rapid social change and outbreaks of unrest, officials hope the new party branches will reinforce stability and keep the party abreast of potential trouble. Some bosses of private firms encourage the formation of cells, in which at least three party members are required. They do so in order to curry favour with local officialdom. But others have misgivings. They worry that the “red-collar” workers, as party-member employees are sometimes called, might interfere in the running of the company.

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported without irony last July that Communist Party branches in foreign-invested firms in Shanghai had acted as a “red impetus” to growth in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. It said one such branch in a British marine-equipment company wrote to the firm’s headquarters in London suggesting that the company take advantage of strong local demand by moving more of its operations from Britain to China. On receiving this suggestion, “light filled the eyes” of the top British management, and the firm carried out the party’s plan.

In practice, party cells are most unlikely to be debating ideology with company management. Even within the party, few people believe in Marxism any longer. The tension between an attractive private-sector career and allegiance to the Communist Party is always there for the new breed of party members: 20-somethings who tote iPhones and tweet furiously. Many of them joined the party in the first place only because they were top of their college class and they saw it as a way to earn a lot more money.

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