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LONDON — The Chinese government recently announced that membership in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has grown to a record 71 million; apparently there are also 17 million applicants waiting to join. Last year 2,540,000 people were admitted. Since 1990 party membership has grown by almost one-fifth.

It would appear, then, that increasing numbers of Chinese, especially younger college-educated city-based people, are concerned about the impact of China’s development on the poor, especially the rural poor. Are they turning with revolutionary zeal to Marx and Lenin to help them turn China’s new capitalists, inside and outside of government, into better communists, fighting for socialist principles? Maybe or maybe not.

Eight percent of all college students are now members of the CCP — up from 1.1 percent in 1990. The ratio is still increasing: There was a 29 percent increase in the numbers of students admitted to the party in 2005. Why?

A study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests that people who join the CCP can expect, on average, to enjoy a 28 percent growth in their income as they take advantage of the connections that membership gives them. This is growth in legal income — many, possibly most, members, enjoy much bigger increases in income from illegal sources. So the market works: Those with intellectual capital sell it to the party, helping existing members keep their higher incomes and stay in power longer, in return for which they get higher more secure incomes — and prospects of future power.

People in the countryside, the rural poor, had been led to believe that communism would improve their income and welfare. They now know that they have been fooled and are leaving the party in droves. Rural membership is apparently down by 80 percent since 1990.

Those members in the countryside who can move into the town and cities do so. There they can increase the financial rate of return on their party membership.

In most countries it would be possible to sue the CCP for misrepresentation under trade description acts. The CCP no longer has anything to do with communism. I recently met a high-level, long-standing member of the CCP who was on an expensive “fact-finding” mission. He told me the only reason that the party keeps the word “communism” in its title is that if it removed it, the leaders would lose their legitimacy and widespread social disturbances would destabilize the country. Party leaders seem concerned more with preserving their privileges and those of their families than in remaining honest and seeing to the welfare of workers and the unemployed.

As China continues to deteriorate, with environmental and social degradation accelerating, the leaders of the CCP are beginning to sound like Nero, fiddling while Rome burned. When I meet party members now, I am more likely to find myself being asked to talk about their children’s move to very expensive schools and universities in the West than I am to hear their views on the worsening conditions of China’s hundreds of millions of poor people, many who live in abject poverty by any standards.

There is no way that they could afford such education fees out of their legal earnings. There are more than 40,000 Chinese children in fee-paying schools in Britain alone now, and another 40,000 in fee-paying universities. Many are the children of poorly paid government officials.

Many of the people in the intelligentsia and government that I met 15 to 20 years ago when I started to work in China swore then that they would never join the CCP. Those that I am still in touch with have all joined. They joined because they were told that if they wanted to rise above a glass ceiling in their chosen vocation, they could only do so if they were a member of the CCP.

The CCP knows that it depends on being able to attract college students if it is to stay in power. Outside, they could criticize and foment disorder (remember the Tiananmen protests in 1989). Joining the party shows that they have been bought off.

As professor Brian Brogan of Australian National University, Australia’s leading China expert, recently put it: “Young and well educated party members are essential in (China’s) ongoing transformation.” Quite. They are essential if Chinese leaders are to continue to suppress and repress the people while they move the country more and more toward what looks increasingly like a fascist objective.

Of course, being a member of the CCP does not mean that you have to act like a communist. You are more or less required to play at capitalism, legally or illegally. The state-owned enterprises that still dominate the Chinese economy, and the state-owned banks that keep them going, continue to divert huge amounts of capital, billions of dollars a year, to party members who will never pay it back.

It goes without saying that you do not have to be a communist to be a CCP member. Apart from being a capitalist, or fascist, party members are also becoming religious. The party itself claims that more than a third of its members are now also members of religious groups and that half of them practice religion on a regular basis.

The party, of course, has rules that its members cannot hold religious beliefs, but it has no control over most of its members. If you can carve out a fiefdom somewhere in China, using the power that the party gives you, then you can ignore its rules. Last year the CCP told its members to sell any shares they held in what can only be described as China’s murderous coal mines (5,000 miners die every year). None did — they said they would rather give up their party membership than their stakes in the mines.

Now you know why the CCP is growing, and attracting young, educated, people. They get money and power from membership that they could not otherwise dream of, for themselves and their children forever, they hope.

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