CHANGSHA, China — The overwhelming humidity of the Chinese summer was not enough to stifle the ardor of the crowds of 20-somethings honoring Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China.

Some took fairground-style miniature trains while others ran three miles through the heat to reach the giant statue of a young Mao — China’s equivalent of Mount Rushmore — staring out over the Xiangjiang River.

“My grandmother was so happy when she knew that I was coming to Changsha,” said Xia Yuxin, a 22-year-old university student in Beijing, as she jostled on a recent day for the perfect selfie with the Great Helmsman. “She told me: ‘You must go visit Chairman Mao.’ ”

Nearby, sweaty recruits from the 23rd Metallurgical Construction Group, part of a state-owned construction and mining firm, gathered to recite one of Mao’s poems, “Changsha.” “I ask, on this boundless land / Who rules over man’s destiny?” they shouted in unison.

The answer, in this instance, is the Chinese Communist Party.

After seven decades in power, the ruling party has faced potentially existential challenges over the past year, from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and an economic slowdown to a devastating coronavirus and, most recently, once-in-a-generation floods that have wreaked destruction across central China.

But far from diminishing its stature at home, as some in the Trump administration appear to believe, the party’s response to some of these crises has helped solidify the support of existing and aspiring members — or at least neutralized grumbling.

Chinese who were complaining in February about the party’s coronavirus coverup reflect more positively on their experience now that they can see, through the American example, how much worse it could have been.

“It’s strange to think of the Communist Party as weaker, because all of us feel that our country and our party have grown stronger in the face of this epidemic,” said Xia, who was dressed more like a pop star than a propaganda star. Like her father, she joined the party at age 20.

From Mar-a-Lago to Yorba Linda, the Trump administration's comments about China went from glowing to critical. (The Washington Post)

In a confrontation that is no longer just economic but ideological, the Trump administration is taking aim at the Communist Party. Leading the charge is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who used a speech at the Nixon presidential library last month to blast the “Chinese Communist Party’s designs for hegemony” and to lay out a strategy “to truly change Communist China.”

Wang Wei, a professor at the Hunan provincial branch of the Communist Party School, said Pompeo’s comments revealed the Trump administration’s worry about China eclipsing the United States.

“This just shows that they fear a stronger Communist Party and a stronger China after we showed our might in the battle against the coronavirus epidemic,” she said.

Connections boost prospects

It’s easy for people outside China to view the Communist Party as a throwback to Soviet times, which, in many ways, it is.

It runs China as a one-party state with no opposition allowed, and heavily censors the Internet, making it difficult to access information that doesn’t fit the official narrative. It holds dreary meetings where men sit on stages surrounded by red flags, droning on in Communist argot about central economic plans and staying true to the mission.

But in China, the reality is more complicated. The party may remain bound by many of the strictures first envisaged by Mao and his comrades in the 1920s, and these pronouncements may hint at underlying alarm about the challenges China faces, but the organization is relevant to many people’s lives.

Party membership means better education prospects and better jobs, more politically advantageous marriages and nicer apartments. For many, it is a ticket to a brighter future.

“If you want an important job, or even to work in a university or a social organization, if you’re not a party member, you won’t be promoted,” said Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese political scientist who teaches at the National University of Singapore. “Plus, young people these days are quite nationalistic, so they are choosing to join the party.”

Some 80 percent of recruits last year were younger than 35, according to official party statistics.

Becoming a member is an arduous process that people can begin only when they turn 18.

After submitting a letter outlining why she or he believes in the party — and also acknowledging personal shortcomings — an applicant must go through courses and pass tests, then submit recommendations from two party members.

Those who make it through enter a probationary period that lasts at least a year but can often take much longer, and membership is not guaranteed. But those who make the cut must take an oath, swearing to “be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people, and never betray the party.”

Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, has ramped up ideological education since he took control of the party in 2012 and has sought to make its institutions even more formidable. One of his innovations was to insist that members study Xi Jinping Thought, his personal ideology, each day using a smartphone app.

“It must be clearly understood that the greatest national feature of China is the leadership of the Communist Party,” Xi said in an article published in a party journal last month.

As part of its efforts to confront China and Xi’s leadership of it, the Trump administration is reportedly considering banning members of the Communist Party and their families from traveling to the United States.

The party’s membership stood at almost 92 million at the end of last year, according to the Central Committee’s Organization Department. That could mean some 270 million people — one-fifth of China’s population — would face a U.S. entry ban.

While the total number of party members has continued to grow, the rate of increase has slowed under Xi, from about 3.2 million in 2012 to only 1.3 million last year.

“The party has always been a mass organization masquerading as an elite,” said Richard McGregor, author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.” “But one of the most striking things about the CCP under Xi is that it is, in fact, becoming more of an elite. In other words, it is getting harder to be admitted as a member.”

Indeed, Xi is trying to ensure that the membership is more ideologically pure.

“They are weeding out those simply interested in using membership to advance their careers or business but not actually believing in the party’s guiding ideology or participating meaningfully in party bodies,” said David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research, a Washington-based think tank.

Opportunity in a crisis

Some aspiring party members — whether they be police officers or nurses or students — are using this year’s catastrophes to demonstrate commitment to the cause and expedite their applications. In February, Xi said that applicants who showed outstanding performance “at the front line of the battle” could join the club.

Here in Hunan province, which borders the coronavirus epicenter of Hubei and where rivers burst their banks during extreme flooding last month, would-be members have found opportunities to prove their worth. State media has been full of stories of people who volunteered to go to Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak or, more recently, worked on flood control.

“As an active applicant, I want to bear my responsibility to serve society and to learn from those model party members at the front line of flood prevention work,” Zhou Ziyi, an 18-year-old studying at Hunan Industry Polytechnic who has volunteered to patrol the embankments, told local media.

One of those hoping to be admitted is Lu, a materials science student in Changsha who applied for membership two years ago and is on probation.

“I have no idea when I’ll become a full member, there are too many people waiting in the line,” said Lu, whose father is a party member and who asked to use only his surname while discussing sensitive political issues.

He wants to join partly because he agrees with the party ideology, but mainly because he wants a future in academia — and membership will help with that. This is even with the knowledge that party membership would make it more difficult to study in the United States, where Chinese scientists are increasingly viewed as spies.

“I think most university students are willing to join the party,” he said, taking a break from his laptop in a cafe here. “There’s good and bad with it, but generally speaking, the good triumphs. I think many students also believe that by joining, they could help lead the party towards a better future.”

Wang Yuan contributed to this report.