China’s Communist Party is reviewing millions of applications from citizens eager to join the club. The Party is growing like never before.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis

in Shanghai, China (2010)

“Being a member of the Communist Party is not just a title, it’s a central part of your life,” the Party Secretary says just before taking another sip of his apple juice. “It broadens your mind and forces you to strive for a stricter moral discipline.”

This is not a grey, old communist talking. These are the words of Zhang Jia, a 26-year old student in Shanghai. He’s a Party Secretary with spiky hair who prefers to meet in a hipster student bar. Eight years ago he became a convinced Party member. His current position is the highest in the hierarchy of his university program.

Tourists at the site of the First Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

Zhang didn’t wait. As soon as he turned 18, the eligible age, he applied to become a member of the Communist Party. Each new member has to be introduced by two existing ones. Zhang got a teacher from his high school and his grandma to vow for him.

“I’ve always admired them,” he says. “You know they are Party members because of how they behave. My teacher is much more eager to help out students than a lot of other educators in China. And while most Chinese people are reluctant to help another person, my grandma jumps in whenever she can. Because that’s what is expected of Party members: be helpful, an example and a moral compass for others. I want to become like them, which is why I joined.”

The communists have been ruling China for 61 years with an iron fist. The Party has permeated society. On every level, Party members are the ones making the decisions. Not just in politics, but also within companies, hospitals, sports clubs and universities: the Party calls the shots everywhere.

Leadership of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 2012. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

The Party accepts applications for membership only a few times a year. The number of people applying keeps growing.

In 2009, twenty million Chinese send in the paperwork. Two million were accepted, a three percent growth over the year before. The Communist Party of China is the world’s largest political organization, with a current total membership of 78 million people.

And while the very top of the Party is still made up out of greying old men with dyed black hair, the growth at the bottom consists of a remarkable large chunk of young people.

One in four members is under 35 years old. To be fair, not all have the ideological purity of Party Secretary Zhang. They’re not in it for Marx or Mao.

Chun Shuo is currently in the middle of the procedure that should get her to full membership by next year. “Right now, I’m taking the mandatory classes at the Party School on history, ideology, regulations and Party heroes,” says the 24-year old.

Tourist at the site of the First Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

She takes out a grey notebook from her bag. “I have to write three essays explaining my opinions of the Party. This is to prove I’m loyal to the Party and supportive of its ideology. And to be honest: the Party is the best thing that ever happened to China. It takes care of all of us.”

Chun says it with a smile. She’s a bit embarrassed to be saying these things out loud. “It’s a load of crap. But you have to say things like this to be admitted as a member. The reality is that the Party is only taking care of its own. It is rife with corruption. The laws of the country don’t seem to apply to Party members.”

Yet, she wants to join. “The Party is all powerful in society. Once I’ve graduated from university, I have to start building a career in that society. Everyone knows you only need two things to make it in life: a diploma from a good university and a membership card of the Communist Party.”