Tea Leaf Nation

Lord of the Flies

Just how many low-level officials is Xi Jinping going to expel from the Chinese Communist Party? 

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

China’s hunt for "tigers," or corrupt high-level officials, has been grabbing headlines but, meanwhile, another campaign has been quietly keeping pace: swatting "flies," or Chinese officials who flout rules rather than breaks laws. Recent news reports reveal that people across China are getting booted from the Communist Party for relatively minor violations. The casualties include Huang Genbao, a 40-year party veteran in inland Jiangxi province, who was kicked out of the party in April 2013 for harassing cadres who tried to tear down an unauthorized building at his son’s factory. Yang Xiaohui, another official in Jiangxi’s Yichun city, misappropriated a little over $3,000 in public funds, then reimbursed it all. He was expelled anyway. Bribe-taking led to the expulsion of Yang Jianfu, a hospital official in Henan’s Hebi city, and Huang Quanfu, an official in the far western Ningxia region, who lost his party membership in July.

Since Xi Jinping ascended to the top of the party nearly two years ago, there’s been a steady drumbeat of party expulsions at the top. The most high-level official yet, General Xu Caihou — a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top body of China’s People’s Liberation Army — was ousted on June 30. But below the radar is another parallel push to rid the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) lower ranks of members who have "unhealthy tendencies." Maybe they do drugs, gamble, skim modestly from state coffers, miss party meetings, or fail to pay their membership dues. While less flashy, the party sees this campaign to clean up the lesser bad apples — and to keep them from joining in the first place with strict new vetting procedures — as key to regaining flagging public trust.

The same day Xu’s expulsion was announced, the party revealed its latest membership figures: Roughly 2.4 million joined in 2013, a whopping 825,000 fewer members than the year previous, marking the first decline in party membership growth in a decade. This was a reflection of the party’s picky new attitude, and not for lack of applications, Zhang Xi’en, a political science professor at Shandong University, told the newspaper the Global Times.

There is room for scaling back. When it took power in 1949, the CCP had 4.5 million members. Today it has more than 86 million members and is the world’s largest political party. The growth rate increased steadily between 2004 and 2012 as more people, particularly students, clamored for entry, and hit a historical high in 2012, with 3.23 million new members added. Many Chinese undergraduates have come to see membership as essential resume padding and a necessary networking tool, even though a survey published Dec. 2013 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, found that membership doesn’t necessarily mean better job prospects for graduates.

Hoping to ensure that new members are less vulnerable to temptation, the government announced June 11 that it was tightening the guidelines for recruitment and would do things like conduct tougher background checks and ensure that recruits exhibit "socialist core values," though it didn’t specify how the values vetting would be done. The party has scaled back quotas at universities; for example, Renmin University in Beijing, which used to have more than 1,000 spots for party aspirants, is now capped at 900, according to Southern Metropolis Weekly, a magazine based in the wealthy southern province of Guangdong.

While the party is tightening its regulations, it’s still very hard to get kicked out unless one is convicted of a crime. The party doesn’t consistently reveal expulsion figures; the most recent data reported by state media shows that roughly 32,000 people were expelled in 2010, mostly for corruption. Part of the reason so many cadres are retained is because there’s no good mechanism for shedding them. The government worries that giving free rein to local-level party organizations could result in purges. Cai Xia, a professor at the party school in Beijing, told News China, a feature magazine put out by the official Xinhua News Agency, that there were concerns that the downsizing campaign could become a way "to punish grassroots members whose opinions differ from those of their leaders." In a bid to prevent that, the government has experimented with different pilot programs aimed at finding appropriate noncriminal criteria for expulsion. Huang and Ying, the officials mentioned above, were kicked out as part of an experiment in "party purification" launched in Yichun in April 2013. They were among 114 party members expelled in the city, which has 220,000 party members. A similar experiment in Tongxiang, a city in the wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang, resulted in an audit that found 230 "unqualified" cadres out of 36,425 assessed. But only nine were persuaded by the party audit committee to quit and 20 were kicked out.

It’s no surprise that so-called unqualified members resist the booting. In China, leaving the party is almost always the death knell of one’s career. In the case of Bo Xilai, the charismatic former party secretary of Chongqing, it became clear that he was being destroyed — and not just sanctioned — when the party announced in September 2012 that he had been expelled. "They want to drive a stake through the heart of his political career, and make it absolutely impossible," for him to reappear, said Rana Mitter, a history professor at Oxford University, at the time. Another year would pass before he was found guilty of bribe-taking, embezzlement, and abuse of power in a five-day trial and sentenced to life in prison. The verdict came as no surprise.

Richard McGregor, bureau chief for the Financial Times in Washington and author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, told Foreign Policy that, for members at all social strata, getting ejected is "pretty much crippling." But not doing the booting threatens to be crippling for the party itself. McGregor says that although the party would like to be seen as a "benevolent but distant and upright father figure," the Chinese public has long held a different view. "The father figure these days is very scary, sometimes cruel, and, for many years but especially so in recent years, much soiled and very corrupt."

Fixing that tarnished image will mean more expulsions and tougher recruitment, and not just to satisfy party vanity. It’s required to give the leadership the political will it needs to push through tough reforms necessary for its survival. But just how many cadres will be cut remains unclear. In May 2013, Zhang the political science professor suggested the party downsize to a "moderate" 51 million members by shedding some 30 million from the rolls. It’s extremely unlikely that the party will take Zhang’s suggestion. But there are a lot of potential flies to swat.  

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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