China’s Top Party School

At Beijing's Central Party School, it's a lot more Communist platforms than keg stands.


BEIJING — Fresh off a successful charm offensive in the United States, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will likely be working feverishly — and clandestinely — to secure his political future among the various factions and political rivals strolling the halls of power in Beijing. But Xi boasts one credential no other Chinese official has on his resume.

Last autumn, Xi presided over a graduation ceremony at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the supreme ideological training ground for party cadres and a prerequisite for any official interested in joining the elite political ranks of China’s ruling class. Indeed, in a country where party loyalty trumps even patriotism — the embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao Zedong is wrapped in a Communist Party flag, not that of the People’s Republic of China — Xi could not hope to attain China’s top post without having first proved his political purity, exemplified by his selection as president of the Central Party School in 2007. Xi followed in the footsteps of Hu Jintao, the man he will presumably succeed come October, who held the same position at the school before he became president of China a decade ago.

Housed in a heavily guarded, unmarked compound far from Tiananmen Square and most of Beijing’s government buildings, the Central Party School is both think tank and indoctrination center, "a furnace to foster the spirit of party members," according to a state media report. It is a place where Chinese officials debate and form policies that address China’s most pressing and sensitive issues while remaining safely within the confines of politically correct thought. "The ultimate work the Central Party School does is create a fit-for-purpose overarching value system and a body of ideas which serve to justify the Communist Party’s monopoly on power," says Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank that has hosted members of the Central Party School.

What happens within its walls has a direct impact on political decision-making and thus the daily lives of 1.3 billion Chinese, not to mention the world. Often, top leaders choose the school as a forum for introducing new policy concepts, which then trickle down through the state bureaucracy and media as part of the government’s "opinion guidance" mechanism. The Central Party School sits at the top of a vast network of party schools around the country, which train lower-level officials. Although the school devotes considerable energy to manufacturing palatable concepts, it’s not just a propaganda factory.

As China has moved away from traditional communist dogma toward a state-managed capitalist economy and its ensuing social complexities, the school has become a laboratory for testing new methods and foreign strategies and deciphering how they can be incorporated into official policy and instructed to the rising stars of the Communist Party. "The goal is to suck up an idea, defang it, and legitimize it for Chinese circumstances in a way that’s not threatening to the party," says Brown. Within the party’s internal discourse on political reform, topics like rule of law, religious tolerance, and civil society, particularly the role of nongovernmental organizations, are discussed at length at the school, which has published texts in support of these concepts, though strictly in accordance with Chinese characteristics.

Each year, around 1,500 midlevel and top-ranking officials come from throughout China to spend several months living on the leafy grounds, where they study the theories of Marxist-Leninism, Mao, and former leader Deng Xiaoping. Other subjects include "scientific socialism," party history, diplomatic etiquette, ethnic and religious minorities, and the increasingly relevant "public health and social crisis," topic of a course first offered after the 2003 SARS outbreak. Over 61,000 officials have gone through the school’s training program over the past 30 years. According to a report in Chinese media, students must also watch documentaries decrying the evils of corruption and sing revolutionary songs. Think Boy Scout camp for cadres, with party dogma replacing archery.

Students range in age from 20-somethings obtaining postgraduate degrees to middle-aged cadres and party officials, who sleep and learn separately according to their prefectural or provincial rank. Each year, new students take placement exams to determine their level of party knowledge, though professors say lessons have become much more advanced because many older students now come laden with graduate degrees compared with the middle-school education most common 30 years ago.

Students also get to rate their professors, who can be demoted or suspended if their scores are too low. But power remains firmly in the hands of school officials, who ensure that students follow the rules. Provincial governors, ministry bureaucrats, and county-level party bosses may mingle in cafeterias and play tennis after class, but they all have to wake up promptly at 7:30 a.m., when orderlies arrive to clean the rooms — and ensure no one has overslept. Nobody wants too many tardies because how students perform in class can dramatically advance — or doom — their careers. Staff members from the party’s Organization Department regularly sit in on political lectures to scout for the best students, who they can recommend for promotions. Likewise, big egos and troublemakers are swiftly punished. According to one article in the Chinese media, one student was banned from lectures after misbehaving. "His political future virtually came to an end after the event," reported a professor.

Xi’s political future is tied to his role as the school’s president, and it appears he has avoided making any mistakes either within or beyond its high walls. Whether he has altered the curriculum is yet to be seen, but if his predecessor indeed set a precedent, the school will continue to evolve with the times. The school emerged as a center of relatively liberal ideas on political reform and other controversial areas in the final years of Hu’s leadership of the school in the early 2000s, according to Alice Lyman Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Those who study the school and its place in China’s political ecosystem say the school provides a relatively free atmosphere to debate the issues of the day — at least compared with the heavily censored marketplace of ideas offered up by the state media. Professors, students, and outside scholars with knowledge of the school say this tolerance is vital to allowing the party to grapple with sensitive issues like HIV/AIDS and public fury over corruption that can lead to unrest.

According to a report published last year in China Daily, participants are encouraged to cast off a lifetime of hidebound, self-censoring habits. "Teachers told us there were no taboos in their teaching, and officials can debate on almost any sensitive issues," one student said.

"Officials might be discreet in talking to strangers or in public," Wu Zhongmin, a social justice professor, told the paper, "but their internal discussion in class is unbounded."

So does that mean professors can teach the benefits of true democracy and students can advocate for authentic autonomy for Tibet? Not quite. An article about the school on an official Chinese government web portal reveals that party orthodoxy is still an essential element of school lessons. "All lectures should be given in the framework of the rules and policies of the Party," it states, and professors must "have a sense of propriety" in how they teach. That self-censorship goes for their charges as well. "Some students still fear expressing their thoughts in class," the article reported, referencing one former student who acknowledged the presence of party officials watching and listening.

Just how far faculty and students can go is an open question because, like so much of the Chinese Communist Party’s inner workings, the details of the school are cloaked in secrecy. Even when outsiders are permitted inside, they are monitored closely. In 2010, the school offered foreign reporters a heavily staged tour, complete with a peek into a lecture on innovation, a gym packed with officials playing ping-pong, and a dorm where CNN was accessible in the rooms. The journalists were showed a bookstore stocked with leadership textbooks, including the lessons of Bruce Lee and U.S. President Barack Obama. The tour was meant to show that the Communist Party and its internal organs were zealously embracing transparency as if it were a recently discovered lost chapter from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. "Our party has nothing to hide," the school’s vice president, Chen Baosheng, told the visiting reporters.

Such transparency has its limits. Minders closely accompanied the foreign journalists. Unscripted meetings with faculty members, as with most government officials, are notoriously difficult to arrange. Repeated requests to interview the school’s professors and students in recent weeks were declined as being "not convenient" because of Xi’s U.S. visit. Professors who appear on television do so under pseudonyms and not under the auspices of the school, one scholar with personal knowledge of those instructions told me. Few Chinese — and even fewer foreigners — have a clue what occurs behind its walls, which is just how the party likes it: debating itself, in secret.

That aura of mystery is reinforced by heavily armed members of the People’s Armed Police, who prowl the grounds, guarding the numerous checkpoints and preventing outsiders from entering not just the campus but individual buildings. Even the drivers and secretaries of officials are prohibited from entering. While a few select foreign dignitaries, like former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, have given speeches there, the school bars most foreigners — save for a select coterie of top international scholars seen as sympathetic to the party.

Even those invited to the school can find the welcome mat suddenly yanked away. When Tony Brooks, a Cambridge University doctoral student, arrived for a prearranged meeting, the professor who had invited him appeared stunned by the sight of his face when they met outside the campus. The man, it turns out, had assumed Brooks was Chinese. "If I had written my email in English I never would have gotten a response," he said. Once inside, Brooks saw armed guards standing sentry outside every office door. "I got the impression this was definitely a place outsiders were not encouraged to visit," he says. After arriving at the professor’s office, Brooks was told to wait while his contact asked permission from a supervisor to go ahead with the meeting. It was not to be. "Suddenly, he ran back into the office and said we were leaving immediately."

The veil that cloaks the Central Party School and its nationwide political training institutions exists not just to prevent foreign voyeurs from discovering how the party thinks and operates but also to stop those within the system from straying off script. The pressure to hide in the shadows of party unity is growing as the Chinese government prepares to shuffle power later this year. Yet those in the party school system who want to see greater reforms and authentic efforts to cleanse the political ranks of corruption and greed are not all staying silent. Although the signs of succession at the very top clearly point to Xi, some school officials are voicing their misgivings over his expected selection, portraying him as a corrupt princeling content to abet China’s current political-economic complex. "This generation of leaders has been tepid and a disappointment," said one party school insider. "They have not been able to solve the country’s problems, and I have even less hope about Xi Jinping and his posse."

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