For decades, professors at the Central Party School have safeguarded the ideology of China’s Communist Party, indoctrinating each generation of officials in the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao.

The school has persevered in its mission despite massive changes in society and the economy. But in recent years, it has faced a new and insidious threat: students intent on networking.

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.

Besides the central school in Beijing, there are more than 3,000 party schools throughout China, and they trace their roots to a program created by Communist forces in 1933 at their Jiangxi mountain base during the country’s long civil war.

The most prestigious and influential branch, however, is the Central Party School, which accepts roughly 3,000 mid- to high-level officials as students each year — many tapped by the party’s powerful Organization Department, which controls officials’ assignments and promotions.

The students are mostly in their early 40s to late 50s. And campus life sometimes resembles a communist reality show gone awry — middle-aged men shoved into campus dorms, largely confined to campus and forced to discuss their ideological forebears.

Dorm rooms are assigned according to rank. The highest ministerial-level officials get the best units, which include a bedroom, living room and private bath. “I would compare it to a bad three-star hotel or a good two-star,” one teacher said.

Training programs last from a week to two years, with the longest stints for officials from sensitive ethnic areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang. According to one instructor, the longer stays for those students are not just because of the training tailored to their areas’ penchant for unrest, but also because of language barriers and additional time needed, especially by those from Tibet, to adjust to Beijing’s comparatively oxygen-rich environment.

The most elite students at the central school are those officials handpicked for their potential to fill the country’s highest offices. Enrolled in a year-long program, they are carefully assessed by party representatives, who often live among them and sit in on their classes.

Patronage and favors

Despite the regimented conditions, administrators have struggled in recent years to enforce discipline, especially on networking.

On the surface, the practice seems not so different from that at business schools in the West. But with the populace increasingly irate over a system that seems rigged for those in government, it represents a serious threat to the party’s image.

“This is happening at the very place where we are supposed to be teaching anti-corruption and instilling ethics into cadres,” said a frequent lecturer at the central school and other party schools.

Fueling the problem is the way the party hands out promotions, which now depend less on one’s ability and more on guanxi – a Chinese term for a system of mutually beneficial relationships, patronage and favors.

Guanxi is believed to be at work even at the highest levels, including next month’s appointment of a new ruling council, with competing alliances bargaining to get one of their own onto the party’s all-powerful Standing Committee. Guanxi is also how so many officials have reaped vast and ill-gotten fortunes, experts say.

At the party schools, students mainly cultivate guanxi by treating one another to meals at expensive restaurants, often paid for by their home governments — a phenomenon widely acknowledged by party insiders.

“In past years, you would sometimes walk into cafeterias and not see any students,” said a teacher at a provincial party school.

Last year, according to one man who works on the Central Party School campus, a group of officials spent more than $13,000 on a single meal. It happened around the same time several Shanghai Red Cross officials were similarly embroiled in a scandal for spending $1,500 on a dinner. In both cases, copies of receipts were posted online by whistleblowers. But the school-related bill was quickly censored, according to the campus insider.

Many schools have tried to crack down by keeping closer track of attendance at classes and at meals and by requiring students to stay on campus during weekdays or provide valid reasons when leaving.

Last month, however, yielded the clearest sign so far that concerns have reached the highest level of government.

Xi, the country’s future leader, concluded his speech at a Sept. 10 Central Party School event with sharp words about the corrosive nature of networking meals among officials.

“It’s normal to build friendships,” Xi said, in what were likely to be his last remarks as the school’s president. “But this cannot be seen as the purpose for studying at party schools. And furthermore, your time should not be spent on networking and buying dinners.”

Modernized curriculum

At the same time, leaders in recent years have strived to overhaul the schools’ curriculum.

While Marx’s “Das Kapital” still appears on most reading lists, officials now spend much more time on subjects such as international monetary policy, management theory and even the realms of leadership style, psychology and the importance of personal health amid the pressures of governing.

Teaching methods have also changed drastically.

“The old way used to consist entirely of you lecturing from a platform,” said one frequent guest speaker. “It’s much more dynamic now. Students get case studies. They bring in problems from their own provinces for study.”

In a rare interview with The Washington Post last year before the media ban was put in place, a spokesman for the central school, Luo Zongyi, described the new use of “scenario simulations” to teach crisis management. In some classes, he said, journalists from state-run media are brought in to stage fake news conferences.

Meanwhile, the central school has tried to open up, at least superficially, to the outside world — moving from its cloak-and-dagger days of not appearing on some maps and directory lists to establishing partnerships with foreign institutions such as Georgetown University.

Those steps, however, are driven by a single strategic goal.

“Modern knowledge is taught in the hope that it will be useful to maintaining party rule,” said Alan P. Liu of the University of California at Santa Barbara, in a rare 2009 study of the central school’s curriculum.

One particular area of interest is the United States, according to school researchers, who study questions such as the hegemony of the U.S. dollar, the possibility of an American decline and the effect of public opinion on U.S. policymaking.

At the same time, it was clear from conversations with several professors that many remain obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union — plumbing that system’s failure for warnings signs in their own.

Limits on new ideas

But for all the talk of change and openness, some say they think the Central Party School remains a hidebound institution where ideas about deeper reform are stifled.

Some attribute that to the party’s more cautious crop of leaders; others to the school’s waning influence.

“At certain points in its history, the school really has been innovative,” said David Shambaugh, one of the few Western academics who has studied the school in-depth. “But it remains a very rigid place.”

Several professors also blamed the repressive environment on a fear of students.

Teachers are evaluated after each lecture by students — many of whom are rising powers who already wield significant influence. One bad evaluation or ideologically stray remark and a teacher could easily find himself out of a job, several said.

“The pressure is extremely high,” said one relatively new teacher at the central school. “There are clear red lines you cannot cross.”

Most experts at the school agree that the country’s status quo of festering problems cannot hold forever, he said. “So some are looking to theories of our past, like Mao’s, for answers. Others are looking to reform.”

But even here within the ideological soul of the Communist Party, there is pessimism that solutions will soon be found.

“How can we find the answers,” said the teacher, “when even now we cannot fully discuss the problems?”

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