Chinese leader takes power games to elite youth group

Xi’s ‘reforms’ part of bid to solidify his own authority

Shanghai Normal University has stopped taking new students in a school for future party elites.

BEIJING — The Communist Youth League of China has long served as an incubator for party elites, producing such leaders as Chinese President Xi Jinping and predecessor Hu Jintao. But the current reality paints a starkly different picture from that of an organization packed with idealistic students.

A 26-year-old Beijing office worker joined in his second year of junior high simply by printing out a downloaded pledge and reading it aloud at school. He has few memories of taking part in league activities. Unsurprisingly, some in the organization complain of a lack of pride and camaraderie among members.

The league, with some 90 million members, aged 14 to 28, was established as an organ for grooming talented young people into party elites. It turned into a veritable production line for party officials amid the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Many high-ranking officials had been lost in the decadelong purge, and the party needed to fill vacant posts quickly.

Just another line on a resume?

Things are vastly different today. “Almost everyone joins the league by the time they graduate from junior high, but not even a third of them take part in activities,” said a senior official at a unit just outside Beijing.

Back in 1980, only 140,000 or so people graduated with a tertiary education. By 2016, the figure had surged to 7.65 million. Although the times had changed, the league kept trying to sign up all students.

One league official spoke of a bubble during the decade through the autumn of 2012, when Hu led the Communist Party as general secretary. But “securing good positions in the government became the main reason” for joining, this source said. “Factionalism took hold within the organization, and it lost sight of its original mission of educating youth.”

League members have come to be known as the “chosen people,” largely because of their rapid ascent through the ranks of the government. Heilongjiang Province Gov. Lu Hao rose to his current post from first secretary of the league in 2013. Lu, at 45, was significantly younger than the average age of 56 for provincial governors at the time. To get on the fast track as he did, even more young people joined.

Cut down to size

But the changeover from Hu to Xi triggered the bursting of the bubble. Xi, who also serves as general secretary of the Communist Party, criticized the league in July 2015 as out of sync with ordinary people.

It is an open question whether Xi actually had the public good in mind. Many see his criticism as part of a ploy to consolidate control in the lead-up to the party’s next twice-a-decade National Congress, slated for this autumn. Eyeing a second term as leader, Xi launched attacks against rival party factions, including former league members.

Fewer people work at league headquarters in Beijing these days. Under Xi’s reform orders, one out of four staff members have been sent to regional governments for six-month assignments. A staffer sent to a northeastern city ranked higher in the Communist Party than the mayor. Everyone was too scared to ask him to do any work.

And the league’s 2016 budget was slashed by more than half from the 2015 amount. Shanghai Normal University’s youth school for league officials, which has 1,000 or so students, has stopped accepting new ones.

By making the most of party members’ gripes about the “chosen people,” Xi has weakened the position of ex-leaguers in the party and bolstered his own authority. At the same time, he has scrambled to install former subordinates in key posts.

Xi’s reform effort in the league ultimately amounts to a power grab to solidify his own position as leader. The roughly 1.4 billion ordinary Chinese see through this, regarding party reforms as merely a tempest in a teacup.



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