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Tiananmen losing its grip on China's students

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Universities in China are home to a strange mix of political emotions. To the Communist Party's deep concern, many young lecturers have little enthusiasm for Marx, whose ideas are still officially supposed to "guide" intellectual life on campuses.

Many students, by contrast, are desperate to join the Communist Party. Recruitment levels are at an all-time high, but ideology plays little part.

In 1989, after the Chinese army crushed student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, enthusiasm on campus for joining the party plunged, as did the party's eagerness to recruit there. In the following year only 26,000 swore the oath of admission: to keep the party's secrets, to spend a lifetime fighting for communism and to "never betray the party." That was one-quarter of the number who had joined three years earlier and a mere two per cent of total recruitment.

The days of anger and recrimination have been forgotten, however. In 2010, more than 1.2 million students joined, about 40 per cent of the total.

The increase is partly the result of a surging overall number of students. In 1989 there were only about two million of them in higher education. By 2010, the number had risen more than tenfold, thanks to a huge expansion in admissions to universities and technical colleges since the beginning of the century.

Recruitment to the party has outpaced this growth, however. In 1997, slightly more than four per cent of undergraduates were party members. Within a decade the proportion had doubled. In some colleges more than 80 per cent of upper-year students now apply for membership, according to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"In some classes nearly every student submits an application letter," it said.

This has little to do with communist zeal. The interest in membership is a byproduct of the expansion of college enrolment, which has created a glut of graduates in the job market. Public-sector employers usually prefer party members and often require membership for better positions. Demand for government-linked jobs has been growing, thanks to the relatively generous benefits and security they offer.

The academy says that it is not necessarily the case, however, that party members have better employment prospects. In a survey of graduates from 12 universities, it found the employment rate within two months of graduation was 85 per cent for non-members and about 80 per cent for members. At elite universities the proportions were roughly even, while at ordinary ones nonmembers appeared to fare far better, 82 per cent versus 73 per cent. Only at vocational colleges did the party members appear to have an advantage, with 96 per cent gaining work within two months, compared with 90 per cent of non-members.

The report did not say how academic performance might have affected these outcomes. In theory, party members are supposed to get at least average grades.

In competition for jobs at state-owned enterprises, which are among the most coveted of all, a lack of party membership appears to be no bar. More than 21 per cent of non-members surveyed got work at such companies, compared with slightly less than 20 per cent of party members. That could be a recognition by S.O.E.s that ability trumps political loyalty for entry-level jobs.

Meritocracy extends only so far, however: The party still keeps the top slots for its own.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 A17

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