Commercial buildings, business districts and dedicated marketplaces in China are now required to set up Communist Party branches, joining a long list of economic and social institutions where the party is extending its reach.
Beijing this week released its first regulations in its 90 years on how party branches should be run, as part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to reassert the party’s control over the grass roots of society.
In China, party branches have long been a feature of political life, branded the party’s “fortress in the grass roots”. The charter demands all grass-roots organisations – including companies, villages, schools, research institutes, communities, social organisations and military units – must set up a party cell if they have three or more members.
But with rapid developments in China in recent decades, party leaders are determined to catch up and expand the organisation’s presence into “new fields”. Branches and meetings in NGOs, private companies and foreign firms are increasingly commonplace.
The latest regulations, effective from October 28, list “innovative” ways for branches to be set up, with the aim of achieving “full coverage” for the party’s reach and influence.
One innovation is for party branches to be established at dedicated markets where one line of goods or produce – such as clothing – might be traded, as well as in commercial districts and buildings and large-scale or cross-region farmer co-operatives.
Such practices are well established in some places. Shanghai had set up 3,200 party organs inside its commercial buildings by 2016, covering more than 50,000 members.
During a visit to the city’s glitzy Lujiazui financial district earlier this month, Xi arrived at its party branch located in Shanghai Tower – China’s tallest skyscraper – and “highly affirmed” its efforts to build the party’s presence, state media reported.
“Party organs should cover wherever party members live and work, so that wherever they go they will be able to find the organisations and find their home,” Xi was quoted as saying.
The new rules also require organisations with fewer than three party members to team up with counterparts to create “joint party branches”.
Moreover, any project or work programme that lasts more than six months is subject to the latest requirements.
Even party members who regularly change workplaces or residences, and cannot stay with any party unit for long, are not overlooked. There, the regulations now demand the establishment of “party branches for floating party members” to address the matter.
“The regulation aims to help party members find the organisation whenever they switch jobs or places,” Cai Zhiqiang, a professor at the Central Party School, was quoted by the Global Times as saying.
The regulations also stipulated that party branches in private companies should be chaired by a member of the company’s management.
The tactic of deploying party cells to control the grass roots goes back to the early days of China’s communist uprising.
After his first insurrection was routed by nationalist forces in the autumn of 1927, Mao Zedong came up with a way to inject morale and discipline into his beaten, unruly peasant army. He set up party units in companies, platoons and squads so that the party’s commands would be heard all the way down the army’s chain of command.
Nine decades on, the practice is now hailed by the party as a “glorious tradition”, which the latest regulations must carry on.
After decades of breakneck economic growth, the party is plagued by rampant corruption and a loss of discipline and convictions among its cadres, which Xi believes have eroded its control at the grass roots and posed a threat to its rule.
He had repeatedly warned against the party’s “weak and lax” local units – a message also heard at the Politburo’s meeting on Monday.
The new regulation, which is a trial version, is not a one-size-fits-all solution as party branches in different sectors have their own priorities.
Party cells in universities, for instance, should emphasise “enhancing ideological and political guidance”, while counterparts in private companies should focus on “uniting and rallying the staff” and building a “progressive” corporate culture, the regulations said.
Under Xi, the party’s presence has also been greatly expanded in areas where it once had only a token role – such as in private and overseas companies.
Can the Communist Party’s unprecedented endorsement calm the frayed nerves in China’s private sector?
By the end of 2016, 70 per cent of foreign-funded firms and 68 per cent of all private businesses in China had set up party branches, according to official figures.
Some groups have since publicly raised their concerns about the developments. Last November, the Delegations of German Industry and Commerce in China warned that members of the German business community were concerned about the setting up of party cells in their companies.
“Should these attempts to influence foreign-invested companies continue, it cannot be ruled out that German companies might retreat from the Chinese market or reconsider investment strategies,” it said.