As the Trump administration weighs a travel ban against the members of the Chinese Communist Party and their relatives, it is considering cutting off a vast sector of Chinese society — 92 million people — that often defies stereotypes, including those who walk the halls of power in Beijing, supervise China’s schools and run major companies.
Barring them would change the topography of the U.S.-China relationship in the most prosaic of ways: It would cut off huge numbers of regular Chinese who, in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, traveled to the United States by the millions to do business, see the sights, shop at high-end department stores and study at some of the country’s most elite universities.
Blocking the party members would not only turn off an economic spigot for the United States, but also plunge the relationship between the world’s two largest economies into a new phase of deeper isolation. Who are the members of the Communist Party? Here’s what we know.
Leaders, prize winners, dissenters and caretakers
Some Communist Party members are the stolid apparatchiks of the Communist stereotype; many are not. At the heady heights of political power in Beijing, members craft harsh crackdowns, misleading propaganda and sweeping surveillance designed to preserve the party’s autocratic rule over the country.
They keep tabs on people they consider political troublemakers and control China’s government in Beijing. They enforce rules that have led to the internment of more than a million members of minorities like the Uighurs in the country’s west.
Yet voices of dissent have also come from the party. Dr. Li Wenliang, who sounded the alarm online about a mysterious virus that emerged in China and was interrogated by the police for his trouble before dying of Covid-19, was a party member.
So, too, is the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, a winner of the Sakharov Prize.
Recent statistics showed 12.3 million of them are 30 or younger, about half have college or university degrees, and 27.9 percent are female. Many party members also offer child care services, run schools, manage technology companies, organize beach cleanups, act in blockbuster movies and do outreach to older Chinese citizens. Alongside them are academics, scientists and business people — lifelines for a U.S.-Chinese economic relationship that has persisted despite souring ties.
For those not at the top rungs of power, membership in the party is often a way to fuel one’s career by making the right connections. During the boom years from the 1980s to the early 2010s, many Chinese joined the party to get a leg up in business, academics and the arts.
A party born of a civil war
Founded in 1921, the Communist Party has dominated politics in China since it won a civil war against the Nationalists of the Republic of China in 1949. Since then, it has gone through many evolutions, some dictated by practicality, others by the small-minded calculations of power grabs.
In recent decades, the party has appeared to emerge as a bastion of technocrats wielding industrial policy and close ties to business to emphasize economic growth, even as they sharply punished those who defied their power.
Under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, a party that 10 years ago was often jokingly called a business group masquerading as Marxists has reaffirmed its Communist roots. Members must engage in study sessions of high theory, at times with the tracking power of apps to monitor their reading habits.
Mr. Xi has emphasized political loyalty over economic benefits, and a ferocious anticorruption crackdown has taken some of the shine out of joining. He has also made the selection process more rigorous: What was once a dull formality has become more difficult and selective. Applicants are subjected to an investigation and a battery of tests and interviews, before years of waiting for full membership.
A new, shinier hammer and sickle
The power and symbols of the Communist Party of China loom inside companies and other organizations, and new, shinier hammer-and-sickle signs have popped up at community centers in towns and cities across the country.
Inside the party’s multiplicities, there are books and playgrounds for children. But surveillance is a given, with officials neatly tracking local happenings, reporting political troublemakers via databases.
Party committees, once ceremonial and dormant at private companies, have gained new powers. Many top executives, like Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, are members. Overseas, the party’s structure has helped tie together institutions that run influence campaigns to drum up support for China.
Yet even as Mr. Xi has brought back many Mao trappings, like study sessions and surveillance, people still join for the professional perks, not the stultifying ideology. Tempted by the prospects of better jobs, many students sign up in university, well before they have a fully developed political outlook. Admittance is often seen as a sign of excellence. In the southern tech hub of Shenzhen in 2018, a sign encouraged entrepreneurs with a slogan that would boggle the mind of the orthodox Marxist: “Follow our party, start your business.”
Barring millions may be impossible
With party members making up a bewilderingly huge portion of society in China, some tell stories of the party losing the records of their membership. Mr. Xi, in seeking to revive the party, has gone after myriad members who have not paid dues for years.
If even Beijing is struggling to track the 92 million party members and their families, it’s not clear that the United States could do a much better job if it decides to carry out its travel ban. Experts cautioned that the draft ban would be all but impossible to enforce on a wide scale.
Even so, the United States could set up new mechanisms by which the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security could more closely track party membership. Several Chinese citizens who recently traveled to the United States said they did not recall being asked about party affiliation. Though some travel applications from the State Department explicitly ask.
Any new rule would also be easier to apply to more prominent Chinese political leaders and their families. Children of top leaders might struggle to gain entry to the United States if the order is signed. Mr. Xi’s daughter, Xi Mingze, for instance, attended Harvard under a pseudonym several years ago.
Yet, if enforced strictly, the visa ban could make life difficult for many others. Scholars and business people who regularly visit the United States might have to either disclose their membership or risk running afoul of laws that punish falsification of visa applications.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, called the possible move by the Trump administration “very pathetic.”
“The United States, as the most powerful country, what has it left? What kind of impression does it want to leave the world? We hope that the United States will stop doing such things that do not respect the basic norms of international relations.”
The U.S. threat alone could keep many from coming to the States and do more to push business conferences and other events that include Americans and Chinese to other countries — like Canada.
Lin Qiqing contributed research.