Members Only: Recruitment Trends in the Chinese Communist Party

Next year the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turns 100. Since its founding in 1921, the CCP has grown from a small cabal of Marxist intellectuals into the world’s second-largest political party, behind only the Bharatiya Janata Party in India. One of the reasons for the CCP’s success has been its cultivation of human capital—any organization is only as good as its people.

Ahead of the Party’s centenary, understanding its longevity requires an understanding of its members. While the Party is frustratingly opaque about internal operations, its human resources division, known as the Organization Department, does publish annual data on membership. After the 2019 numbers were released in June 2020, MacroPolo scoured open source databases to compile the most complete public dataset on CCP membership.

We use that dataset to reveal both new and continuing trends in Party membership, many of which intersect with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s governance reform agenda. The key findings center on 1) membership growth; 2) selectivity; and 3) composition and representation (see Appendix below for membership data from 1921-2019).

1. Growth: Slowing Down After the Hu Jintao Era

Xi believed the CCP was growing too fast. Membership increased by an average of 2.4% annually under Hu Jintao, who served as CCP General Secretary from 2002-2012. Growth hit a two-decade high of 3.1% in 2012, swelling the Party’s ranks to 85.1 million from 68.2 million only a decade before (see Figure 1).

That trend reversed in Xi’s first five-year term, with membership growth declining every year from 2013 to 2017, averaging just 1% (with a low of 0.1% in 2017). Although this growth rate recovered somewhat after 2017, it is still nowhere near its level during the Hu era.

Figure 1. Growth in CCP Membership Has Slowed Markedly under Xi
Note: Data for 1992-1996 is less specific, which may explain the more erratic growth rates for 1993-1997.
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

Looking at recruitment figures, the number of new CCP members plummeted from 3.2 million in 2012 to 2.4 million in 2013. It then fell to as low as 1.9 million in 2016 before rebounding to 2.3 million in 2019 (see Figure 2). Total membership rose from 85.1 million in 2012 to 91.9 million last year, indicating that a record 6.6% of the Chinese population are CCP members.

Figure 2. New CCP Members Have Dropped Significantly under Xi
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

Many believe the pre-Xi swell of the CCP—which now has more members than Germany does citizens—resulted from people flocking to the Party because membership brought economic benefits such as higher wages and faster promotions. But Xi took a dim view—he wanted loyalists, not opportunists— and warned that “We do not want even one of those people who are politically unqualified and want to sneak into the Party to fish for profits.”

Xi instead sought to heighten the expectations made of Party members through a sweeping anti-corruption campaign and ideological crusade for “iron discipline.” The Party’s internal watchdog punished 130% more members for violating Party discipline in Xi’s first term than in Hu’s final term. Its members must now devote more time to study and meetings, new burdens that may have contributed to lower demand for Party membership (see next section).

Reforming Party recruitment was an immediate priority for Xi after becoming General Secretary in November 2012. He convened a Politburo meeting in January 2013 that issued a new directive to “control numbers, optimize structure, improve quality, and produce effects.” That same meeting also determined the CCP must “strictly control the entrance point” by “putting political standards above everything else.”

Next month the Organization Department issued an “Opinion” (yijian) that set an annual growth target for CCP membership of “about 1.5%” over the next 10 years—a technique similar to GDP targeting. And, in May 2014, the CCP General Office codified Xi’s words when it issued new “Detailed Rules” (xize) on recruitment for the first time since 1990.

2. Selectivity: It’s Harder to Get into the CCP 

The elevation of “quality” over “quantity” isn’t exclusive to the “new normal” in Chinese economic policy—it also applies to CCP membership. Xi’s bet is that by making recruitment both more selective and more representative, it will enable the CCP to better manage the development of China’s economy and to better co-opt important sectors of Chinese society.

Enhanced selectivity seems to have suppressed membership applications, which have fallen every year since peaking at 22.3 million in 2015 (see Figure 3). The ratio of new members to new applications, the best proxy for the CCP’s “acceptance rate” given its multi-year application process, held steady at around 14.5% in the Hu era. That rate dropped precipitously under Xi, to 8.8% in 2015, and is still lower today than under Hu, at 12.3% in 2019. When compared to American colleges, this acceptance rate is double that of Yale, but just below that of Amherst.

Figure 3. Fewer Applicants and Lower Acceptance Rate in Xi Era
Note: Data for 2012 is unavailable.
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

While asking for CCP membership is easy—any Chinese aged 18 or over can apply to join the Party unit of their employer or their locality—being accepted has always been difficult. The CCP has a rigorous selection process for applicants, who must pass a battery of tests, interviews, investigations, votes, and probation over a 2-3 year period before becoming full members.

But Xi made acceptance even harder. His exhortation to “improve quality” in the CCP means stricter membership requirements, including not only enhanced training, education, management, and discipline of current members, but also greater scrutiny of lower-level recruitment. These new actions are outlined in the 2014 Detailed Rules noted above.

A further illustration of tougher vetting of membership decisions is the number of applicants accepted as “Party activists” (rudang jiji fenzi), the first stage of the four-step membership process. The absolute number of Party activists has declined in every year of the Xi administration except 2018, with the ratio of activists to applicants declining from well over 50% in the 2000s to 47.5% in 2019 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Fewer Applicants Accepted to First Stage of the Membership Process
Note: Data for 2012 is unavailable.
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

3. Composition and Representation: More Elitist and (Slightly) More Diverse

Xi’s Party has changed its membership policies by reducing the growth of new members and raising the bar for membership. However, some trends in Party recruitment have continued under Xi, particularly when it comes to composition and representation.

Like Chinese society generally, the Party has aged (see Figure 5). The absolute number of Party members aged 35 or under—roughly equivalent to the Millennial cohort—is lower than it was in 2016, with the proportion dipping from 25.8% in 2013 to 24.2% in 2019. This share is still lower than China’s Millennial generation, which makes up 27.5% of the total population.

Figure 5. The CCP Confronts Its Own Demographic Transition
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

This may explain why 80.3% of new members in 2019 were Millennials, as the Party recognizes it could face a talent pipeline problem down the road. In fact, according to Xi’s Organization Department, optimizing the structure of the Party means that it “urgently” needs younger, higher-educated, more female, and better-employed members, and special importance should be attached to recruiting among “young workers, peasants, and intellectuals.”

By welcoming more Millennials, the Party can also accelerate its longstanding goal to improving human capital: making the Party highly educated. The Party has become much better educated over time and is now significantly more educated than the general Chinese population. CCP members with at least a junior college (dazhuan) education rose from 11.3 million in 1998 to 46.6 million in 2019, when they constituted over 50% of Party members for the first time (see Figure 6). Fewer than 9% of Chinese have or exceed this level of education.

Figure 6. The CCP Has Become Much Better Educated
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

The trend towards highly educated new members has intensified under Xi. The proportion of new members with at least a junior college education averaged 31.6% during Hu’s tenure (2003-2012), but that average has risen to 41.3% under Xi (see Figure 7). Last year, students also made up 36% of new members, making it the most common profession among CCP recruits.

Figure 7. New Members More Educated under Xi
Note: This shows the average % of new members with a junior college education or higher. That proportion hit a record high of 45.6% in 2019.
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

Better education has accompanied a professionalization of the Party. Despite Xi’s call to recruit more blue-collar and rural workers, their total share of the CCP membership fell every year from 41.5% in 2007 to 34.8% in 2019 (see Figure 8). Meanwhile, the “white-collaring” of the Party has continued apace, with the largest gains for managers and professionals, whose proportion of the Party membership increased from 22.4% to 26.7% between 2007 and 2019. This group also made up 24.3% of new members in 2019, second in professional classifications to students at 36%.

Figure 8. The “White-Collaring” of the CCP Intensifies (% Members)
Note: Not all annual totals add up to 100% due to rounding. The “Managers & Professionals” category is the sum of two separate statistical categories, the boundaries between which have shifted over time.
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

When it comes to representation, the Party officially “attaches great importance to the training and promotion of female officials and ethnic minority officials.” The thinking is that improving diversity will enhance the Party’s ability to both co-opt and make policy regarding these groups. Yet, while advances on this front have continued under Xi, the Party still faces a significant under-representation problem when it comes to both ethnic minorities and females.

While women constitute 48.9% of China’s population, they were 27.9% of the CCP membership in 2019 (25.6 million members), albeit an improvement from just 16.6% in 1998 (see Figure 9). The recruitment picture looks a little better. In 2019, the share of new members who were women was 42.4%, up from 39.3% in 2013 (although that rate increased faster during the Hu era, rising from 28% to 39.7%). However, the higher up the political ladder one looks, the fewer women one sees—only 8% of the CCP’s elite Central Committee are women.

Figure 9. CCP Progress on Gender Equality Has Been Gradual
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

Non-Han ethnic minorities have more proportionate representation in the CCP than women, but they are still under-represented as a group. The minority share of CCP membership grew from 6.1% in 1998 to 7.4% in 2019, compared to 8.5% of the total population (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. CCP Has Slowly Improved Representation of Ethnic Minorities
Source: CCP Organization Department; People’s Daily Database; media reports.

Interestingly, unlike women, minorities are relatively well-represented on the Central Committee. Recently, minorities have also for the first time been over-represented among new CCP members, increasing their proportion from 8.4% in 2013 to 10.1% in 2019. This trend likely reflects a strategy to “Sinicize” Millennial minorities—aligning with Xi’s overall objective to make the Party more prominent throughout China.

Conclusion

The first line of the CCP Constitution states that it is “the vanguard of the Chinese working class,” while the first article of the State Constitution says the People’s Republic of China is “a socialist state…led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.”

But the Party’s own data suggests that its membership today is a far cry from the official ideology it espouses. These changes did not begin under Xi but under Deng Xiaoping, the CCP leader who guided China’s post-Mao reforms. He changed the focus of Party recruitment from an ideological preference for workers and peasants to a practical preference for people with attributes useful in pursuing economic development. This shift flowed from the “Four Transformations” (ganbu sihua) policy written into the CCP Constitution in 1982, which urged “more revolutionary, younger, better educated, and more professional” cadres.

Thus, the Party has consciously changed the composition of its membership over the last few decades to create a more elitist organization that is dominated by the highly educated and is more removed from its worker-peasant roots. More women, minorities, and youth have joined, but their representation in the Party is hardly proportional.

When Xi came to power, he clearly sought to reverse some of the trends from the previous administration, although he did not fundamentally alter the general trajectory in Party representation and recruitment that began under Deng.

But Xi’s goal to improve Chinese governance by tightening Party discipline has brought slower membership growth and lower application numbers, and he has reinforced the elitist nature of previous recruitment campaigns. These efforts form part of a broader reform agenda that has recentralized power away from the local level and toward the central Party.

The potential benefits of high caliber human capital are obvious, but widening divisions between elites and worker-peasants in the Party’s composition could affect its unity and capacity to govern. Moreover, if political parties are predisposed to make policies that favor their base, then questions arise as to how well-equipped an elitist CCP is to reform an economy that is increasingly unequal and a society that is increasingly fragmented.

Neil Thomas is a Senior Research Associate at MacroPolo. You can follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work on politics, political economy, and US-China relations here. The author would like to thank Yimin Li for excellent research assistance.

Click here to download an Appendix of total membership data of the Chinese Communist Party between 1921 and 2019.


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