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Matthias Stepan

The restructuring of the Communist Party’s youth organization has been interpreted as motivated by Xi Jinping’s inner-party rivalries. But an overhaul of the organization is in the interest of the entire Party if it wants to reach a new generation.

For a video produced last year, the Communist Youth League’s Central Committee invited the popular Chinese boy band TF Boys to cover “We are the successors of Communism”, the organization’s anthem.

The Communist Youth League is where many political careers in China began. China’s former party and state leader Hu Jintao and the incumbent Premier Li Keqiang were groomed in the organization and rose through its ranks before assuming national leadership positions. And as politics in China is often explained with factions, this group of leaders became known as the “tuanpai” (团派), the “Youth League Faction”.

Since Mao Zedong’s times, another common assumption has been that these factions are always at war with one another. So when a number of tuanpai members recently became targets in the Xi Jinping leadership’s anti-corruption campaign – among those charged and sentenced was Ling Jihua, the former top-aide to President Hu Jintao – many observers interpreted this as a political move of Xi Jinping to weaken the political power base of Premier Li Keqiang.

While there may be some truth to this, it is certainly wrong to reduce the overall efforts to restructure the Youth League under Xi’s guidance to a power struggle. Yet plans to downsize and streamline the organization’s management structures, as laid out in a document issued in August 2016, appear to go beyond an attempt to get rid of certain individuals or even to damage the entire organization. On the contrary, the suggested measures read like a rational programme to increase efficiency and to prepare the Youth League for the future.

Manga versus Marx

The document not only recommends increasing accountability at the management level. It also urges the organization to return to its mission to mobilize the Chinese youth at the grassroots, rather than launching the political careers of its most promising members.  Reaching China’s youth has become an increasingly difficult task for the organization that has come of age and is oftentimes perceived as rather stodgy.

According to party statistics there are around 87 million registered members in almost four million Youth League organizations across the country. At least on paper the membership has constantly expanded since the 1980s. This means that the organization certainly has the numbers, but does it have the hearts?

Chinese society has become increasingly pluralistic, and youngsters are largely not interested in politics. Back in the 1980s, the organization had a near-monopoly on organizing social and recreational activities for young Chinese. But nowadays many other offers compete for the youth’s attention and scarce time. Chinese teenagers and young adults are less group-oriented than their parents’ generation, and they prefer to pursue their hobbies on an individual basis. And they find South Korean pop music and Japanese mangas a much more entertaining topic than reflecting on the thoughts or Marx and Lenin.

Enlisting China’s boy groups

In light of these challenges, it will take more than a restructuring at the top to turn the Youth League’s gigantic nationwide network into political capital for the Communist Party and to strengthen the connection between millions of young Chinese and a new generation of party members and potential officials. The Party’s youth organization needs to identify new channels to communicate with the young generations and to retool its message to be in sync with their aspirations and goals in life.

The organization is already trying hard to do just that. In the central Chinese province Hunan, the Youth League just landed a PR coup by naming the singer Zhang Yixing, the only Chinese member of the popular South Korean boy group EXO, as its “publicity ambassador.” Zhang described his mission as engaging in public welfare activities on behalf of the organization, and he announced a donation to set up school libraries.

Even the organization’s anthem received an overhaul. For a video produced last year, the Youth League’s Central Committee invited the Chinese boy band TF Boys and the South-Korean trained singer Han Geng, to cover the song from the 1960s. Adorned with red neck scarves just like the ones Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang sported in their adolescent years, the popular singers raised their hands in a salute while chanting: “We are the successors of Communism”.

It is not known if the video helped to boost the Youth League’s popularity among the target audience. It certainly did not resonate well with the members of the Party’s anti-corruption watchdog who apparently do not view grassroots mobilization as including famous boy groups. In February 2016, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) criticized the organization’s forays into the entertainment business as an aberration, suggesting that the struggle over the direction of the Communist Youth League of China will continue for some time to come.