JINGGANGSHAN, China — Backs straight, heads high, three dozen Communist Party members in red neckties who hope for leadership posts belt out a poem by revolutionary leader Mao Zedong at a historic mountainside battle site in central China.
“We stay upright even as we’re surrounded by countless enemy forces!” declare the men and women, who are on a two-week course at the China Executive Leadership Academy. “Together, we will defeat the enemy!”
As the party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its 1921 founding, training centers such as the one in Jinggangshan play a key role in efforts by President Xi Jinping’s government to extend its control over a changing society.
Drawn from among its 95 million members, ambitious people at state companies and government offices are schooled in an idealized version of the party’s early revolutionary fervor before Mao’s guerrillas fought their way to national power in 1949.
Zhou Xiaojing, who works at a political training center for the Chinese central bank in the central city of Zhengzhou, described Jinggangshan as “a spiritual shock and a kind of baptism.”
“When I came here, I felt that my belief as a member of the Communist Party has become firmer,” said Zhou, 49 and a party member since 2009. “Their education of party spirit, theory and ability are thirst-quenching.”
Trainees say they want to serve the public, but people who are picked for higher party posts also receive benefits including more influence and quicker promotions at state companies, universities and government ministries.
Party schools are meant to “promote the faithful” and ensure they “ask no questions about the top leadership” and party ideology, said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi, who took power as the Communist Party’s general secretary in 2012, launched a campaign in February to increase teaching of party history.
That official history skips over a 1959-61 famine caused by Mao’s policies that killed as many as 50 million people, the millions killed in the ultra-radical violence of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution launched by Mao and the deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests under then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
It is silent on power struggles among party leaders and complaints of rampant corruption and other abuses.
Xi hopes “the party can preserve the myth that it has always been correct and brilliant in promoting China’s position in the world,” Lam said.
The campus in Jinggangshan, an early site where Mao’s army developed, is one of three nationwide for the Leadership Academy, which caters to high-ranking professionals and party officials. The China Daily newspaper said in 2016 that the party has a total of 2,900 training centers nationwide at different levels of government, ranging from county to provincial.
The 44-acre (18-hectare) campus in the mountains of Jiangxi province has dormitories and an auditorium, library and cafeteria.
Participants in the two-week “Jinggangshan Spirit” course spend 6 1/2 hours a day in class starting at 8:30 a.m., with occasional evening events.
Students took a field trip to Huangyangjie, where Mao’s guerrillas fought off enemy forces on Aug. 30, 1928. According to party history, the Communists were outnumbered but repelled the attack.
Mao heard about the victory on his way to Jinggangshan and celebrated by writing the poem recited by the students.
“This spirit of sacrifice and dedication for the party and the people is very remarkable and profound,” said another trainee, Wei Yanju, deputy chairwoman of the Women’s Federation in the eastern province of Shandong.
“I hope everyone can come to understand China and see how superior and great China is,” she said.
Party members are required to take at least 32 sessions of training per year. Some leadership posts require 56 sessions.
“Party officials know that being sent to certain select classes at a party school may indicate a bright future for them in the party,” said Charlotte Lee, author of the book “Training the Party: Party Adaptation and Elite Training in Reform-era China.”
“They have to demonstrate loyalty and certain skills in return,” said Lee, who teaches at Berkeley City College.
Yao Yuzhen, an instructor at the school whose grandfather was a Red Army soldier, conceded that while promotions are not guaranteed, students will make “better progress” after the course.
“That’s for sure,” she said with a chuckle.
Foreign reporters were invited on a tour of the Jinggangshan campus ahead of the party’s anniversary festivities this week.
Photos of Xi were shown at the front of a lecture hall as an instructor introduced Xi’s speeches and highlighted the importance of party spirit and history.
“General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out clearly in his speech that the 100 years of our party is the 100 years when we were committed to fulfilling the original mission,” said Prof. Chen Shenghua, head of the academy’s party history education research center.
Studying party history is the “obligation of every party member, cadre, mass and youth,” he said.
The “primary political task” for party members is to “study and implement Xi Jinping’s thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” according to the training plan for party members.
A plan for higher-level members requires that Xi Jinping Thought be the main focus of teachings, and that theoretical and party spirit account for at least 70% of class hours.
The Jinggangshan curriculum focuses on the party’s early days in 1927-35 and Mao’s battles with the Nationalist government.
Lectures jump over the following decades to modern successes in fighting poverty and the coronavirus.
“Under the leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, we mobilized the whole country,” said the instructor, Liu Qiufu, “and we won the war against the epidemic.”