September 25, 2017 8:00 am JST
China up close

Xi silences once-powerful youth league and former president's protege

With bastion demolished, the 90-million-member organization rests hopes on Guangdong secretary

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- The palace intrigue is thickening in Beijing, where the country's powerful leader has taken a new tack to undermine some remaining political rivals.

This time, the salvos were not delivered by Wang Qishan, head of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Up to now, Wang has been President Xi Jinping's political henchman, leveling corruption charges against politicians and other figures loyal to retired party bosses.

This time, Xi's weapons of choice are a building demolition and a book. As harmless as construction and the written word might appear, they nevertheless seem to have enfeebled the Communist Youth League, which boasts nearly 90 million members across the country.

Perhaps more importantly, they muted the Youth League faction, led by one of those old bosses, former President Hu Jintao.

Xi is brandishing a new arsenal less than a month before the party holds its once-every-five-years national congress.

Political death knell

The building demolition involves the China Youth University of Political Studies, a way station for Youth League cadres. The institution is commonly known as the Central School of China Communist Youth League. Both names are inscribed in Chinese on the gatepost of the university's campus in western Beijing.

At least they used to be. On Sept. 12, the long-established and influential school was reborn under a new name.

The demolition was symbolic of the dismantling and reorganization of the academy. It came two days after the party published a book containing excerpts from Xi's discourses on Chinese youths and the work of the youth league.

"Xi voiced his strong frustration with the Communist Youth League early on," one party source recalled. "He publicly vented his pent-up frustration by reorganizing the school and publishing the book. This will have significant impact, including on the party's 19th national congress," set for Oct. 18.

The Central School of China Communist Youth League was absorbed into the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China's biggest think tank, and reborn as the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

This is clearly a political death knell for the school -- and it was years in the making.

'Quadriplegic' league

In the summer of 2016, state-run China Central Television's main news program reported that a reform plan had been announced for the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League.

The youth league is widely seen as a gateway to full party membership. People aged 14 to 28 are eligible to be enrolled in the league.

The reform plan stopped short of painting a clear picture of what a revamped league would look like. But it did not have to; it was all about politics. So instead it simply called for cutting the number of cadres and boosting marginal organizations, among other steps.

Earlier in 2016, a "central inspection team" from Wang's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection raided the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League.

In its findings, the inspection team slammed the league and called attention to "four big problems," including being "aristocratic" and "focusing on entertainment." The expression "focusing on entertainment" came with the connotation that the league was slacking off and failing to function properly.

Around the same time, Xi harshly criticized the league for "chanting inane slogans" and "having its four limbs paralyzed." Allegations that anyone who drops by a bookstore in China can now read.

The book hit shelves on Sept. 10.

Hu Chunhua's fate

By delivering a debilitating series of blows to the stronghold of the Youth League faction, Xi has now apparently gained the upper hand in the tug-of-war over the party's upcoming national congress.

On Sept. 18, Xi convened a meeting of the Politburo, the 25-member body that constitutes China's top leadership. At the meeting, the leaders discussed draft revisions to party rules to be discussed at the national congress.

There, the Politburo confirmed that Xi's thinking and philosophy regarding the governance of China will be enshrined in party rules.

Many members of the Communist Youth League are now concerned about the league's future.

In addition to losing an important school for future cadres, the league has had its budget slashed for "focusing on entertainment."

It has no way of fighting back. Former President Hu, who leads the Communist Youth League faction, has suffered a complete loss of face.

The 90-million member Youth League now rest their hopes on one man.

Hu Chunhua, also known as "little Hu" from his relationship with mentor Hu Jintao, has been referred to as a potential candidate for the top job since early in his career.

His impressive resume includes entering the prestigious Peking University at the age of 16. He became China's youngest provincial governor at 45. Like Hu Jintao, little Hu served as the first secretary of the Communist Youth League.

Now, as the party secretary of Guangdong Province, he is responsible for a region that serves as a major engine of China's economy. It is where Xi's father Xi Zhongxun held leadership roles four decades ago.

Hu is one of the 25 Politburo members.

Has Xi put a ceiling on Hu Chunhua's rise? We may know in three weeks.

"I will not stand in the way"

Xi is power hungry and sees the league and the faction that rides it as obstacles to his political ambitions.

This is likely why Qin Yizhi, the league's first secretary, was not elected as a delegate to next month's national congress. When news of this hit, it sent shock waves through the league. It is unprecedented that a head of the powerful league cannot attend a party convention.

That was only the first shock for Qin. Days later, on Sept. 20 to be exact, he was dismissed as first secretary and demoted to deputy director.

Qin had been first secretary since March 2013. He had concurrently served as president of the Central School of Chine Communist Youth League. The 51-year-old was thought to have a bright future.

But he is aligned with Hu, whose relations with Xi have soured during the past five years.

At the last national congress in 2012, Xi and Hu joined forces to counter the enormous influence Jiang Zemin continued to wield.

Hu took over from Jiang as the party's general secretary in the autumn of 2002 and then as China's president in the spring of 2003. But Jiang stayed on as chairman of the Central Military Commission for about two years after stepping down as president.

The Central Military Commission supervises the People's Liberation Army.

During his two five-year terms as China's president and the party's general secretary, Hu had limited leeway because of Jiang's continued influence.

Not wanting to leave his successor in the same straits, Hu decided to make a luo tui, or full retirement, by giving up all his posts, including the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, to Xi.

"I will not stand in the way of my successor," Hu reportedly said.

If Hu Jintao did Xi any favors, they went unreturned. Instead, the new president would go on a crackdown that focused on officials close to his political rivals.

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