BEIJING, March 8 — Like a giant company concerned with organizational disarray and a sinking public image, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to remake itself into an efficient, modern machine. But to do so, it has chosen one of its oldest political tools — a Maoist-style ideological campaign, complete with required study groups.
For 14 months and counting, the party's 70 million rank-and-file members have been ordered to read speeches by Mao and Deng Xiaoping, as well as the numbing treatise of 17,000-plus words that is the party constitution. Mandatory meetings include sessions where cadres must offer self-criticisms and also criticize everyone else.
"It is an effort to cope with the declining reputation of the party and the distrust of the people toward party officials," said Wenran Jiang, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
But many are distinctly uninspired. Jokes have been circulating mocking the study campaign and many party members privately grumble that it is a pointless waste of time. Web sites offer fake essays that cadres can download to meet homework requirements.
On the surface, the campaign, known as "bao xian," or "preserving the progressiveness," would seem an unlikely modern-day remedy. But in China it is partly a byproduct of a closed political system that ensures Communist Party rule but is without any national elections to force the party to whip itself into shape.
President Hu Jintao, who is also general secretary of the party, has insisted that every party member complete the program.
Some analysts say the campaign's primary purpose, besides addressing corruption, is to rebuild grass-roots party organizations that have been falling apart. "The party is not in great shape," said Cheng Li, a specialist in Chinese politics at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Loyalty is deteriorating. And the grass-roots organizations are very weak."
As for the bao xian campaign, Professor Li said, "For Hu Jintao this is better than nothing."
Requests to attend bao xian meetings were turned down by three different provinces. But conversations with several party members found apathy and annoyance. A Beijing graduate student said he was required to attend four meetings a week from September through December. He said that the self-criticism sessions were awkward, and that most people refrained from making harsh attacks against others. Most people opposed the "rigid form" of the meetings, he said, but added that the sessions provided useful opportunities "for people who are so busy to get together and talk."
At one meeting, the graduate student said everyone watched a movie about the collapse of the Soviet Union "to show us the 'grave consequences' of losing Communism." The student, fearing reprisals, would only allow his English name, Ben, to be used.
At a recent news conference about bao xian, Ouyang Song, a vice minister overseeing the campaign, acknowledged that party organizations had atrophied in villages and small towns in recent years, noting that the exodus of migrant workers had diminished the pool of young candidates for party work.
But Mr. Ouyang said the movement had already resulted in 54,000 new "grass roots" party organizations, while 80,000 cadres had been promoted to leadership positions.
Asked by a Chinese reporter about complaints over the campaign, Mr. Ouyang said the public had seen the campaign's benefits through the response of party members. As an example, he described a 75-year-old party member who, on completing the study sessions, volunteered to scrub public toilets.
Not everyone has been so enthusiastic since the campaign began in January of last year. The program has flowed down the party's hierarchy, led by central government ministries and major state-owned enterprises. The third, and final, phase is now under way at village party branches and is to end in June.
Businessmen have complained of having to reschedule appointments to make time for bao xian meetings. Mr. Jiang, the University of Alberta scholar, said he had led a delegation of Canadian oil and gas executives to an energy conference last year in Beijing. But Chinese energy officials, citing scheduling conflicts with the party study sessions, unexpectedly canceled meetings in which the two sides had planned to talk business.
"The executives were asking me if this political movement will affect China's way of doing business," Mr. Jiang said. "The Chinese immediately reassured us that it wouldn't."