Believer Without Belief: Two Levels of Party Membership

What does it mean to be a member of a communist party? Should one ‘believe’ in Marxism in order to be so? But what if one does not ‘believe’?

Over lunch in Beijing, I spoke with a reflective younger member of the party. He knew full well what he was doing, why he was the local (student) branch secretary, and what it meant to be a member of the largest communist party in the world today.

‘What was the process of joining the party like? I asked.

‘It’s a long process’, he said.

‘So it’s not just signing a form and paying a membership fee?’ I said.

‘Ha ha, it needs a bit more than that’, he said. ‘You might be invited to join if you have shown leadership or performed well in school or shown some other potential. And you have to do some study and training beforehand. It can be a bit of a long process’.

‘Tests?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘But the most interesting experience is when you speak with an old cadre’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, I had to have a number of discussions with an old man who has been a member for decades’, he said. ‘After that, he had to fill out a report on our discussion’.

‘Did you have to give all the correct answers?’ I said. ‘So he could tick the boxes?’

‘Oh no’, he said. ‘He spent most of the time telling about his misgivings about the party, where it is falling short, about how he is sometimes embarrassed by it’.

‘What did you say?’ I asked.

‘I listened and nodded’, he said. “I was not quite sure why he was doing it’.

‘Unburdening? I suggested. ‘Testing you?’

‘Perhaps’, he said. ‘But I wonder whether it wasn’t more than that’.

‘Go on …’, I said.

‘I think he was trying show me what being a party member means’, he said.

‘To prepare you for disappointment?’ I said.

‘Not really’, he said. ‘Let me put it this way: the only real way to be a party member, a dangyuan, is to have misgivings about it, to be critical of it’.

‘Criticism and self-criticism!’ I said.

He laughed: ‘yes, a good socialism tradition. And we Chinese are very good at criticism and self-criticism!’

‘So it’s not a matter of belief’, I said.

‘I don’t like the word “belief”’, he said. ‘It has too much of a religious feel about it. In fact, the whole idea of “believing” in Marxism, or “believing” in a cause is – it seems to me – deeply influenced by Western patterns of thought’.

‘You mean Christian ideas of commitment?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘Don’t get me wrong; there is an emotional part to joining the party. It has to touch your passions. But Marxism is not a creed in which you believe. Or, as we like to say: I am a believer without belief’.

‘So he was trying to show you that the best way, or indeed the only way to become a member was to be a critical one, with your own hesitations – a believer without belief’, I said.

‘I think so’, he said. ‘It actually helped me. I could be comfortable about joining the party’.

‘What about now?’ I said.

‘Well, I am the branch secretary here at the university’, he said.

‘So you are clearly more involved!’ I said. ‘Do you approach that task in the same way?’

‘Of course’, he said.

‘Would there be any situation in which you leave the party? Or let me put it positively: what keeps you in the party?’

‘It’s got nothing to do with a better job, promotion, or anything like that’, he said. ‘In my assessment, the communist party offers the best, if not only way forward for China. It may not be perfect, and nearly all members admit that. But I cannot see any other path that would not lead to major disruption and chaos’.

‘You said that at the end of your discussions with the old member, he had to fill out a report’, I said.

‘Yes’, he said.

‘I am intrigued’, I said. ‘What did he write down?’

‘Oh, he said that he needed to put down the correct answers, reflecting the accepted narrative’.

‘Two narratives’, I said. ‘Two levels: the official one and the critical one’.

‘Yes indeed’, he said. ‘The only way to be a member: a believer without belief’.

Party Branch Secretary

Her phone tingles with yet another message. In response to my unspoken question, she says, ‘Elections’.

‘Elections?’ I say.

‘For party branch secretary’, she says.

‘Party branch secretary?’ I say. ‘Of the communist party?’

‘Of course’ she says.

But who is this party branch secretary?

She works in a local school in Yichang, teaching children up to the age of twelve. She confesses that the gift of fostering the enthusiasm of thirty or so young children is one granted to few. It is easy enough to learn the techniques of discipline, especially in a country where children are still taught respect for elders (xiao). But it is another thing entirely to draw out the spark of excitement, the desire and eagerness for knowledge within children. It is something on which she works continuously, at times disheartened since she feels it is beyond her, at other times thrilled when she breaks through and the children are with her.

In all this she carries on a family tradition, for her father too was a school teacher in the village in which she grew up. As a child in the 1970s, her village in the Shandong countryside had a single well in the village square, no doctor or shops, and one school teacher – her father. He had seen immense changes in China’s history, for he had been born in a vastly different era. It was 1933, in the midst of the long struggle by the communists to win their revolution. His marriage had been arranged when still a child, to a woman who is seven years his senior. That woman came from a ‘respectable’ family, and so she has ‘small feet’ – the painful binding and twisting of bones and toes as the feet grew, inflicted on young girls from such families. Indeed, during the struggles of the 1930s, the White Armies of Chang Kai-Shek would shoot young women who had ‘natural feet’ and hair cut short in bobs. Why? They were obviously liberated women, working and fighting for the Reds. My friend knew full well that the end of foot-binding and her own natural feet were among the many outcomes of the revolution.

Yet my friend is a woman who is very much in between, squeezing through the gaps of history to carve out her own space. She is the last of six children, with three brothers and two sisters – a very fortunate combination, or so I am told, with a balance of boys and girls. But she was even more fortunate, for she was born in 1972, barely a few years before the one child policy for the Han majority. Had her parents been a little younger, she would not have been born at all.

Further, it may seem as though she is carrying on the tradition of teachers from her father and his father before him. Yet all is not quite as it seems, for she was the only one of her siblings who received a full education. Unlike her brothers and sisters, she began school at six years of age and went right through to university. Why did they not receive such an education? The Cultural Revolution. Given that the highest calling for the ruling class in Chinese tradition was to be an intellectual (from which position one engaged in the dirty business of politics out of necessity), given that the country was still largely run by such people, and given that the new communist government was tending in that direction as well, intellectuals were famously ‘sent to countryside’ during the Cultural Revolution. They were to learn peasant values, to work, eat and sleep alongside and often with them. Meanwhile, formal education largely went into hiatus. So her brothers and sisters did not go to regular schools, with the result that even now they work as peasants or builders or workers. What of her father, the teacher who is the son of a teacher? During the Cultural Revolution, he became a teacher in potentia. He became a peasant, replacing his chalk and hair brush with a pick and shovel. He would return to teaching only in the 1980s.

As for my friend, she may have been born early enough to slip outside the one child policy, but she was born late enough to get a formal education. With her father’s intelligence, she topped the class in her village, travelled some distance to attend high school, and then quite some distance to go to university – the only one of her family to do so.

Here it was that she became a party member. In a country where the communist party is woven deeply into the fabric of society, from the local Tai Chi group to the national government, the invitation comes already at high school and university. A bright student perhaps, one whose eyes twinkle in the thirst for knowledge, or perhaps one who shows an aptitude for sport, or to whom the others look for leadership. The reasons are as myriad as the members themselves, as are the motivations for those who join. They range from the practical to the idealistic, all the way from better job prospects for party members through to belief in the cause.

When I first met my friend some years ago she made little of being a party member. Other events had happened in her life, including marriage and then a painful divorce, living for a while overseas (in Oxford), joining a Christian fellowship group (intermittently), and meeting foreigners like me. Of course, she was free with the information that she was a party member, but she was highly critical of a party and a government that was concerned only for itself and not for the people they it supposed to serve.

So imagine my surprise when she mentioned her election to be party branch secretary.

‘What branch?’ I ask.

‘Oh, it’s just the local branch in our primary school’, she says.

‘I thought you weren’t all that interested in the party’, I say.

‘This is just local’, she says. ‘It’s … what is the right word? … trivial. Nothing special; just ordinary’.

Is this not precisely the way party work is represented? Ordinary, everyday work; nothing special, the mundane tasks of rank and file members. In downplaying her role, she fulfils the age-old and well-worked narrative of the ordinary member, whose minor tasks are vital for the whole. Perhaps she is more deeply enmeshed than she cares to admit.