Chinese youth from the origins to Xi Jinping’s era

On the 100th anniversary of the Communist Youth League's founding, Xi Jinping started his important speech underlining how “youth gives rise to infinite hope, and young people are the creators of a bright future"

"Youth of China in the New Era" is the title of the most recent white paper published by China's State Council Office on April 21, in which the vitality and power of young people are highlighted as crucial points for the People's Republic of China's advancement and economic development.

Last May, on the 100th anniversary of the Communist Youth League's founding, whose first National Congress was held on May 5, 1922, this importance was emphasised once more. Xi Jinping, indeed, started his important speech underlining how “youth gives rise to infinite hope, and young people are the creators of a bright future".

When one examines China's history from the late nineteenth, one can quickly observe the impact and tremendous influence that young people have always had on the country. It's enough to mention the Hundred Days' Reform, which was initiated by the young Guangxu Emperor and his supporters in mid-1898 as an attempt to modernise China by overhauling its government, economy, and society. Or the May Fourth Movement, in which over 3,000 students from 13 Beijing institutions gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest China's diplomatic impotence in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles. The students marched to foreign embassies, handing out protest letters to ministers from all over the world. Last but not least, the 1911 Revolution, also known as the Xinhai Revolution, led by modern China’s father, Sun Yat-sen and his followers, ended China's 2,132-year monarchy. These are just a few examples of how influential Chinese youth have been in shaping China as we know it today.

The Communist Youth League (CYL) was founded in May 1920 (then known as the Socialist Youth League of China), a year before the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party.

First and foremost, it's crucial to realise that the League is the world's greatest political organisation for youth. According to some estimates, the CYL has more than 81 million members (aged between 14 and 28), compared to 95 million for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The membership of the CYL is separate from that of the CCP, and individuals can belong to both or just one of them.

The League has indoctrinated millions of young Chinese to the Party's demands since its foundation in 1922. It is fascinating to watch how a weak organisation has become a stepping stone to power. Despite its lack of autonomy and cohesion, the CYL is recognised as the cradle of one of the Chinese Communist Party's key factions. Since the 1980s, it has played an important role in the recruitment of senior leaders. Above all, politicians such as former Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang, former President Hu Jintao, and current Premier Li Keqiang have come from the organisation. As the Party picks CYL heads, CCP leaders have utilised the League to hasten the elevation of their protégés at various levels and times.

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the Youth League played an important role in the revolutionary process in China. By disseminating party policies and directing the activities of China's more than one hundred million youths, it operated as a transmission belt between the Communist Party and the country's more than one hundred million youths. The League's operations were hampered throughout the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, and the Central Committee was disbanded after being accused of "bourgeois revisionism." Mao pushed young people to join his Red Guard, instead of the League. Between 1966 and 1973, once Deng Xiaoping reconstituted the organisation, its activities were suspended. It was indeed only in the early 1970s that its responsibilities were partially reinstated.

While the CCP was and continues to be dominated by the more elitist groups of the "red princes" (those who directly participated in the most important moments in Chinese history and their descendants) and the so-called "Shanghai gang" linked to Jiang Zemin, the CYL provided opportunities for youth from less privileged backgrounds to play a role in the Party's management. Things began to shift in 2013 with the nomination of Xi Jinping, a "red prince" himself, being the son of former President Xi Zhongxun. By demonstrating that he has tamed this centre of power, Xi has dramatically reduced the function of CYL. He also wanted to exert more control over the group, as many future leaders will pass through the CYL, thus it is critical to maintain control over the organisation. The President has singled out the CYL to decrease its power in elite politics. Xi's targeting of the CYL is part of a larger attempt to keep his enemies from developing an alternative to his rule. However, Xi must still subdue the power of the 'league faction,' which continues to have a considerable presence in elite politics.

Xi had long been dissatisfied with the CYL's performance and had wanted to limit the CCP's youth wing's influence. In 2016, he worked on a League reform with the goal of encouraging and modernising work in order to ensure that the CYL operated to "service young people," that is, to advance party goals.

In his speech on May 10th, Xi firstly retraced China's history since the imperial era, saying that the current generations "are proponents of a bright future." Its goal was to show the continuity of Chinese civilization from its beginnings through the establishment of the People's Republic, regardless of the political systems used, and to remind young people that the country's future now belongs to the Party.

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