January 14, 2017 8:20 pm JST
Xi's Supremacy

In China's Youth League, more advocacy than political jockeying

Formidable reputation hides efforts to assist country's youth

ISSAKU HARADA, Nikkei staff writer

China's Communist Youth League has footholds throughout the country -- even in the mountainous Chengkou County.

BEIJING -- For the casual political observer, the Communist Youth League of China brings to mind intraparty intrigue and past leaders with ties to the group.

But current leaders paint a different picture of the league's day-to-day goings on. More general services provider than political breeding ground, the organization works mainly to help China's young people make the most of the opportunities available to them.

Though nominally part of the sprawling municipality of Chongqing, Chengkou County, some 450km north of the metropolitan area's urban core, is more akin to a small mountain town, supporting a population of around 180,000 and drawing its livelihood from agriculture and tourism. Thirty-year-old Li Yong has served as secretary of the Youth League's local branch since August.

"I worked for the Chengkou government and the Communist Party for eight years" before joining the handful of Youth League staff in the county, Li said. The top post is his first job with the group.

As a general rule, the Youth League has branches in all administrative levels in every part of China, from whole provinces to the most remote hamlets. Full-time staff are said to number around 250,000, with the most elite 260 belonging to the group's central committee. The organization's first secretary and other top figures are well positioned to become leaders in the Communist Party overall -- general secretaries Hu Yaobang and Hu Jintao both originated from the so-called Youth League faction, which remains a force in the elite Politburo Standing Committee.

But while membership in the league is often said to reach 90 million people, the notion that the Youth League faction draws on this massive base to control party affairs is more fantasy than reality. Most anyone between the ages of 14 and 28 is eligible for membership, and many in China recall dimly, if at all, when or how they joined in the first place. Those older than 28 are automatically expunged. 

In part because it is easier to join than the Communist Party proper, group identification and unity within the Youth League is weaker than among full-fledged party members. Politicians linked to the league faction may also be counted among other groups including the so-called Princelings -- politicians whose parents were high-ranking party officials.

Here to help

The league defines itself as an "assistant and reserve force" for the party -- a notion Li says he adheres to in his work. "Anything and everything having to do with young people in the county is my responsibility," he said.

This has recently come to include the critical task of helping local youth start their own businesses. A sizable number of young people in Chengkou open their own guest houses, for example.

"This entails rolls of red tape -- getting operating permits and startup funds, finding financing, promotion, you name it," Li said. "The Youth League helps connect young people to the local government and other resources," he said. The league will even go so far as to deal with companies that guarantee loans on potential entrepreneurs' behalf.

The Youth League's chief in a farming town on the outskirts of Beijing -- call him Liu Qiang, a pseudonym -- offered a similar view. "The league's work is extremely flexible -- the only restriction we have is the age of the people we deal with," Liu said. "If they're young, we can do anything."

Occasionally, Liu said, he will help connect entrepreneurs to tax breaks or low-interest financing. But promotion and public relations is important too. On Dec. 1, volunteers from the town's Youth League helped raise awareness of AIDS risk and prevention for World AIDS Day, for example.

Fall in line

The league is currently undergoing reform aimed at boosting such activity and curbing political climbing. The party's top disciplinary body in February 2016 blasted the league's central committee as a bloated bureaucracy and playground for political aristocrats. A source familiar with the committee's work fleshed out those criticisms. The prevailing view is that members simply check and sign off on documents that have floated up from below, or sit at their desks all day crafting slogans, the source said. Members are also said to see themselves as superior to other party members, and to turn light official jaunts to the countryside to plant trees, for example, into occasions for drinking late into the night.

To combat this, workers for the central committee are now required to spend at least four months out of the year in far-flung postings at the county level or below -- a solution resembling the sending of intellectuals "down to the countryside" for compulsory hard labor during China's Cultural Revolution. League functionaries on the provincial level or in major municipalities such as Chongqing or Beijing are urged to do the same.

"We've been interacting constantly with the Chongqing league since the reforms were adopted," said Li in Chengkou. Shortly after this reporter visited the county, Youth League members from the city apparently came to town for a literary event, Li said.

League employees are also required to keep in constant contact with 100 young people as part of the reform push. "Any way works -- telephone, email, a smartphone messaging app," Li said, adding that he had exceeded his 100-person quota.

But Liu outside Beijing has had a tougher time. "The one-child policy has been in place for a long time, and young people tend to head into central Beijing, leaving very few youth in other areas," he said. "It's impossible for me to keep in contact with 100 people -- in a farming town, isn't 10 enough?"

Even with China's strict censorship policies, instilling the Communist Party's preferred ideology in the nation's youth has become more difficult amid the rise of the internet and the diverse values it spreads. While party membership can help speed professional and social advancement, the benefits offered by Youth League membership are far less clear.

"To tell you the truth, young people are hardly aware of the Youth League -- they're coming to us less often, even when they have problems we could help with," Liu said. "There's nothing to do now but look to the enthusiastic few."

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