The students — largely middle-age government officials looking for promotion — no longer see their mandatory time at the school as a chance to immerse themselves in the wisdom of communism. Instead, it’s become a prime place to cultivate allies with whom they can trade future favors and backdoor deals to further their careers and wealth. That means calculated friendships, luxury dinners expensed to local governments and boozy nights on the town.
The obsession with networking has alarmed leaders in China, who see it as symptomatic of larger problems threatening the party’s iron grip over the country — disillusionment with its communist ideals, irrelevance in the modern era and pervasive corruption.
Ethical corrosion has led to families of top leaders reaping vast fortunes, officials flaunting luxury watches worth several times their monthly salaries, and scandals such as a railway minister accused of using ill-gotten wealth to keep his 18 mistresses happy.
To counter such pressures, the school has strived in recent years to modernize its Marxist theories, overhaul its curriculum and enact stronger controls over students. Those changes have come as the party approaches a transition of top rulers on Nov. 8 that could determine the country’s direction for the next decade.
At stake, some teachers at the school believe, is nothing less than the ideological soul and future of the Communist Party.
“The job of the party school is not to blindly sing the national anthem. That’s the job of the propaganda department,” said one longtime professor. “Our job is to tell the party with frankness what is true and what is false, what is beneficial and what is not.”
Surrounded by secrecy
The school’s work — as a think tank for the party’s top leaders and a training center for its millions of cadres — is largely veiled in secrecy.
More than a dozen current and former professors, researchers, students and party insiders interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing a school-wide gag order because of this year’s sensitive leadership change. School administrators turned down multiple requests for comment. And a brief visit to its leafy campus — with tall stone-facade halls, drab beige dorms and gates patrolled by well-armed police officers — was possible only by accompanying a visiting delegation of foreign academics.
The caution comes in part from the school’s proximity to the country’s top leadership. The list of its former presidents reads like a who’s who of modern Chinese history, including Mao Zedong and President Hu Jintao. And the school’s current chief — a largely ceremonial office — is China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who is slated next month to replace Hu as China’s top leader.