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Xi's eyes and ears in Beijing: Red-armband army of 'volunteers'
By Yanan WANG
Beijing (AFP) Oct 22, 2017

Communism is 'beyond' them, but Chinese still flock to the party
Beijing (AFP) Oct 21, 2017 - Marx might struggle to recognise his heirs among the billionaires, skyscrapers and stock exchanges of modern China.

But as the country's ruling Communist Party meets for its twice-a-decade congress this week, it boasts an 89 million-strong membership that still attracts people motivated by ideology -- and self-interest.

"When I was younger, in the 1960s, we were told in school that being in the party signified being someone good," 53-year-old Liu Shimin, a former employee at a state-owned enterprise and long-standing party member, told AFP.

"At the time, you would join it to stand up for socialism."

"Today, the ideological side of it is a little beyond me. Communism is so vague, no one can say if it will come true."

The Chinese Communist Party was clandestinely founded in 1921 by about a dozen revolutionaries in Shanghai.

Since coming to power in 1949, the CCP has survived near-destruction during the decade of the Cultural Revolution -- which regime founder Mao Zedong launched against his own cadres -- and sweeping pro-market economic reforms.

Throughout, Chinese people have continued to join the CCP in great numbers, with today's membership making it one of the largest political organisations in the world, alongside India's Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Communist Party's membership comprises 6.5 percent of China's population of almost 1.4 billion people.

But young recruits do not hide their intentions. They join the party not only to participate in national development, but also out of their own self-interest.

- Joining the 'elite' -

"At first, I never imagined joining the CCP. I only started thinking about it after university, when I had to find a job," said Xiao Wei, a 30-year-old Beijinger.

Xiao is employed by the CCP in a residential area. Her work includes relaying instructions; organising public campaigns on fire safety, the environment and health matters; and putting party slogans on display.

"To be a civil servant or work in a state enterprise, it's almost obligatory to be in the party," Xiao said. "It's like a diploma. It opens doors."

Not just anyone can join: candidates must apply or be recommended, most often by a university professor or their company's party cell.

Then, a long selection process begins: courses, dissertations, exams, interviews and a probationary period.

At the end, the CCP chooses candidates based on their high education level, political reliability, or ability to bring something extra to the table.

Some are flattered to have received an invitation to join -- recognition that they belong to the "elite".

"Today, some join the party to enter the civil service, to have a better job or to gain respectability. There's no doubt about it," prominent pundit Sima Nan told AFP in front of a portrait of Mao hung in his spacious Beijing apartment.

- 'Eternally grateful' -

For all that has changed, the Party today still dominates politics, society and the economy, ruling without opposition and with no tolerance for dissent.

"The benefit of the party is its ability to unite the forces of all these people, to mobilise it, to move the country forward and maintain order," said Sima. "Without the CCP, all this would be very difficult."

Sima, 61, became a party member in 1980. He saw the first economic reforms and the country's opening up as "a way to reach communism more quickly".

Although he believes that that objective is now "very distant", he is glad to have personally benefited from the party's accomplishments.

"My family was very poor," he said. "If the Communist Party had not been in power, I would never have been able to get a scholarship and enroll in university."

"I am eternally grateful to it."

While Chinese President Xi Jinping and his cohorts chart the nation's future at their leadership conclave in Beijing, his citizen army of red-armbanded foot soldiers are keeping an eye out for trouble outside.

Stationed on street corners, in front of shops and outside bars, civilians with armbands labelled "Public Security Volunteer" have deployed across the capital as the Communist Party holds its crucial five-yearly gathering.

The formalised neighbourhood watch patrols come out in full force during special events like the congress, which is being held mostly behind closed doors and will likely hand Xi a second five-year term when it ends on Tuesday.

The civilians are just one piece of the comprehensive security apparatus for the conclave: from black-uniformed guards who stand sentry on pavements to identification checks at subway stations.

While they see themselves as providers of a public service, their presence is a reminder of the scrutiny that the Communist authorities maintain over citizens.

"We're in the business of improving people's quality of life," said Ma Shuying, a 60-year-old party member who was patrolling the area underneath a bridge in Beijing's city centre.

Ma arrived at her spot at 7:00 am on the opening day of the congress on Wednesday, ready to look out for trouble. In her 17 years as a member of the patrol, Ma has witnessed few incidents, she said, because "Beijing is so safe."

"We're more here to give community members a sense of security," she beamed, undeterred by the grey smog and light rain.

"People see us and feel that they're being taken care of. And when government officials see us during important political events, they know that we're supporting their work."

- Dama duties -

There are 850,000 registered public security volunteers in Beijing, the city announced this summer, organising under neighbourhood tags like the "Fengtai Persuaders," the "Chaoyang Masses" and the "Xicheng Dama."

(In Chinese, "dama" is a colloquial term used to describe rambunctious elderly women who congregate in loud groups, dance in public squares and mind other people's business.)

Despite their striking "volunteer" armbands, many of the patrollers approached by AFP appeared not to be serving the people for free.

One middle-aged woman standing outside a subway station looked up from her phone long enough to say that it was "company policy" not to speak to reporters.

Another two armband-wearers who were helping to direct traffic in a busy commercial district appeared bewildered when asked whether they were volunteers.

"We're working," said a woman who looked harried as she pointed a driver to a parallel parking spot. "They just gave us these armbands to wear."

Even Ma, who also handles Communist Party affairs on her neighbourhood committee, earns 3,000 yuan ($450) a month for performing her duties.

These range from telling people about their retirement benefits to helping them rid their homes of mice.

"All my neighbours know me," she said. "It gives me a warm feeling inside."

Several other volunteers declined to be interviewed, either because they were "on duty" or were concerned that a foreign journalist would not lend "positive energy" to their vocation.

- 'Hope for our country' -

Some of the neighbourhood patrollers were truly volunteers, claiming no benefits other than the joys of the job.

Standing outside a shopping centre, a 68-year-old who only gave his surname, Ren, complained about the air pollution.

While major political events in Beijing generally enjoy blue skies brought on by government-ordered factory shutdowns, the party congress has faced rainy weather and grey air.

Ren's daughter lives in Vancouver, Canada, where the air is much better, he said. But he doesn't plan on moving there.

"My whole life is in China," he said.

Ren started volunteering during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His main duty, he said, has been giving tourists directions.

Like many volunteers, he was impressed by Xi's lengthy opening speech on Wednesday.

"The problem of corruption has not entirely been solved, but the general mood is different," Ren said. "In the past, whenever you went to the supermarket during holidays you would see officials splurging, and everyone knew they were spending public funds."

Ma proudly remarked that Xi's anti-graft campaign was going strong even in her small neighbourhood office, where she isn't allowed to use the computers to shop online or play video games.

"Because of the president's efforts against corruption, there is hope for our party and there is hope for our country," she said.

Yang Zhiling, 69, who was collecting rubbish around a bike rack, said she was inspired by Xi's stamina.

"President Xi remained standing for a whole three and a half hours! It's too excellent!" Yang said. "What we do is very insignificant compared to that."

Xi tells Communist Party to combat any actions to 'undermine' it
Beijing (AFP) Oct 18, 2017
Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged the Communist Party on Wednesday to "resolutely oppose" any actions that undermine its leadership as he opened a congress expected to enhance his already formidable power. Xi told some 2,300 delegates at the imposing Great Hall of the People that the country was entering a "new era" as the party pursues "socialism with Chinese characteristics". "The prospe ... read more

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