After the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949, instead of contending themselves with geographic patterns of control inherited from the war, party leaders were keen on penetrating areas where up to that point Communists had little of a presence. In the 1950s and 1960s, policy planners were well aware that later acquired territories posed distinct governance challenges to the Communist regime. For instance, by 1949 land reform had already been completed in one third of the country's territory, but not in the two thirds classified as newly liberated areas – indicating not only different ownership structures, but the persistence of traditional systems of local authority. Along with a quick expansion of the CCP's membership, strategies to grasp firm control of grassroots society throughout the realm were, by and large, successful. However, this success does not imply that the CCP controls its territory uniformly, or that historically inherited patterns of control vanished without a trace.
In the seven decades after the foundation of the People's Republic, the geographic power base of the CCP has shifted remarkably little, despite great political upheaval. Comparing party penetration, that is party members per citizens across provinces in 1956 and 2010, a correlation coefficient of 0. 78 indicates that membership patterns drifted, but did not change dramatically. Membership patterns in the early years of the People's Republic go a long way predicting membership patterns today: 61 percent of the variation in membership patterns in 2010 can be explained as a result of membership patterns in 1956. Is China's political geography “under the thumb of history”? Clearly, China's political geography, as reflected in party membership patterns, proved very persistent over time – the question is why. Are recruitment priorities targeting the same geographic areas? Or are membership patterns sticky, following historical precedence and adjusting only slowly to new priorities?
The first section of this chapter argues that the party's recruitment procedures result in path-dependent outcomes. The strategic priorities, formulated by Organization Departments at all levels of the hierarchy in membership recruitment plans in the 1950s, aimed to cover the territory with a more uniform party member network.