China: Rising economy, but a meritocracy? Meet Liu Zhihua.

China's Communist Party is a small minority of the population but still has outsize influence – and not just in politics.

David Gray/Reuters/File
President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy speaks to students at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China in Beijing May 17, 2011. Although only about 6 percent of China's population are Communist Party members, the party has outsize influence not only in politics but in the doling out of jobs.

Despite rampant corruption in government — which the US itself is no stranger to — the Communist Party of China (CPC) will be celebrating its 90th anniversary a week from today, on July 1st.

Although much discussed, the one-party system is little understood outside of China. A common surprise to many is that only 6 percent, or 80 million Chinese citizens, are members of the CPC. It’s a tiny pool of China’s billion-plus inhabitants given that it basically runs the nation’s government. Yet, what’s most interesting about the CPC is how the Chinese themselves view the party… because over the nearly past century it’s been in operation, membership has repeatedly proven to have its privileges.

To demonstrate, a recent China-based interview featuring Liu Zhihua, a tour guide in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, explains how her job works and, somewhat unintentionally, also explains the advantages she’s offered by her membership in the party. We’ve reprinted some of her comments from China International Business magazine below, alongside a few reasons for why they are revealing about the CPC.

Liu Zhihua: “…I am a Communist Party member. My aunt holds a senior position at the Yunnan Tourism Office. She is a government official and was the one who suggested that I go into this business.She helps me get most of my work [...] When groups or individuals want to visit the area, they have to get in touch with the Kunming authorities and because of my connections, they then get in touch with me.” [Emphasis added.]

Firstly, it’s difficult to get into the CPC. In 2009, 20 million citizens applied to join the party, which then admittedonly 2 million members. It’s highly selective. The 27-year old Zhihua probably brings up her membership as much because she’s proud of it as because it’s also been critical to her success as a tour guide. Secondly, she candidly points out that her aunt, a more senior member, has helped her extensively due to her governmental connections.

LZ: “Each year, the local tourism board releases a book that tells tour guides everything that we need to know about a particular site. It tells us where to take tourists and where they aren’t allowed to go.”[Emphasis added.]

Secondly, as the above comment goes to show, neither creativity nor independent thinking are sought-after traits in her business, and one may also presume, the CPC. She is told “everything that [she] need[s] to know” in a single updated book, and is clearly instructed as to what information or destinations the party does not allow her to share with tourists.

LZ: “In the future, maybe five years time, I want to be a professor of tourism at the University of Kunming.By then I should have enough experience.” [Emphasis added.]

Lastly, it’s interesting to note that after another five years (and ten years total), Zhihua will be fully equipped to be a professor of tourism. Even more so considering that her job has mainly been to repeat instructions issued to her via a government-issued tourism book. One could easily get the impression that her possible professorship will have as much to do with her CPC connections as her decade of experience.

As it celebrates nearly a century of dominating the political landscape, and as China continues to rise in economic and political influence, it’s worth getting to know the Communist Party of China a little bit better. How it operates in the everyday lives of citizens provides an important glimpse into how the society works as a whole. You can read more of the interview in China International Business on Liu Zhihua’s work in Kunming tourism.

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