Crony communism stirs divisions in Chinese society
Widening wealth gap, narrow path to success build up discontent
In China, the narrow road to success starts early -- a thought that pushed one Shanghai man to slip a hefty 2,000 yuan ($288) to his daughter's elementary school vice principal shortly before classes began last fall.
Around one in 100 promising children are picked as "squad leaders" at the school, receiving a prized badge to match. To the 35-year-old office worker, bolstering his daughter's chances of selection was worth a third of his monthly paycheck.
"They say the title can't be bought, but I want to make as good an impression on her teachers as possible," the Shanghai man said. To his dismay, he learned from his wife that a neighbor may have given 20,000 yuan.
A matter of record
China's extensive public records system ensures that no personal triumph or setback, even selection as squad leader, will be forgotten. Regional governments and employers compile exhaustive academic, career and disciplinary records in each resident's dang'an, or "personal file." It is often said a black mark in this dossier can block one's path to a stable and happy life, creating strong pressure to fall in line.
The office worker's daughter ultimately was passed over as squad leader. But he consoled himself, as she at least was placed in a class of smart students.
Joining the ruling Communist Party is one way for China's youth to burnish their dang'an and jump on the fast track to success. A female college student in Hangzhou was granted a membership in spring 2016 after three years of screenings and exams. "I'm proud," the 21-year-old said. "Neither my father nor my grandfather made it in."
The party counts more than 88 million people among its ranks. But this is a slim 6% of the overall Chinese population. To the female student, party membership is a ticket into China's ruling class.
Inequality eroding cohesion
Yet the man at the pinnacle of the party pyramid, President Xi Jinping, sees trouble on the horizon, warning repeatedly that moral lapses among members are chipping away at party unity. A weakening of China's ruling class, the mechanism that binds diverse ethnic populations across the massive country, is of grave concern to leaders.
A report from Peking University highlights growing inequality in China, with one-third of the country's wealth in the hands of the top 1% of households. Were this the result of fair competition, it might be easier for residents to bear. But many poor and working-class Chinese see the wealthy not as sharp entrepreneurs who earned their success, but as members of a corrupt bureaucracy who, in one lurid telling, stash wads of cash totaling 100 million yuan under the bed.
Backlash from those feeling ignored by political leaders has upended the global order over the past year, leading to the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union and propelling Donald Trump to victory in the U.S. presidential election. But in China, the masses cannot select their leaders. Xi, whose imperative is to preserve Communist Party rule, has responded to discontent by cracking down on dissent and ousting corrupt bureaucrats and political enemies, rather than extending new freedoms to the Chinese populace.
The president has ordered those selecting new party members to pursue quality over quantity. A 21-year-old college student in Wuhan failed her qualifying exam after being spotted on the street with a brand-name bag. By contrast, a 28-year-old woman working at a Shanghai bank who joined the party a decade ago was open about her reasons, calling membership an asset in the job search.
In a country where 6% of the people rule over the rest, keeping the masses content by sharing the fruits of economic growth can succeed for only so long. Strengthening internal discipline by letting fewer youths into the party could expand the ranks of a powerless public increasingly frustrated by the growing wealth gap, creating obstacles to Xi's plans for social control.