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Communist Youth League—that’s where Xi sees a political challenge coming from. He’s taming it

Despite Xi’s attempts to eliminate the league faction's influence, the CYL remains a dynamic organisation which will continue to influence Chinese politics.

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The Communist Youth League of China (CYLC) of the Chinese Communist Party is an institution that, as Socialist Youth League, came up even before the party’s foundation date. On 5 May, the CYLC celebrated its centenary and youth activism, changing China’s history forever with its first National Congress in Guangzhou, Guangdong. The CYLC has a complex history that puts the league at odds with the elders of the party, but it remains an important institution which isn’t entirely under Xi’s control.

“The realisation of the Chinese dream is a historical marathon, and contemporary youth must strive to be the first in the race to realise national rejuvenation,” said Xi on Tuesday at a gathering to celebrate the centenary of CYLC.

The hashtag “Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Youth League” was the number one trend on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, and the Chinese search engine, Baidu.

According to some estimates, the CYLC has over 81 million members, compared to the CCP’s 95 million, roughly 6 per cent of China’s population. The CYL’s membership is independent of the CCP, and individuals can be members of both or either one of them.

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CYLC, CCP and their history

After the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the now defunct Guomindang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party tried to use the youth-led movement for their political goals. The CCP, a very young party then, was caught in a tussle with Guomindang for control over youth politics in the early 1920s. Initially established as Socialist Youth League in 1920, the organisation went through a name change in May 1922 becoming the Chinese Communist Youth League thereafter.

During the Cultural Revolution, the organisation ran into trouble and was accused of ‘bourgeois revisionism’. Mao promoted the youth to join his Red Guard and shun the youth league. CYL’s activities were seized between 1966 and 1973 after the organisation was reinstated under Deng Xiaoping.

Within the CCP, the CYL acts as an organisation that has allowed non-elite aspirants to rise to the party’s ranks. Since the Deng era, the party’s top leadership has seen a power-sharing agreement between the ‘populist coalition’ and the ‘elitist coalition’. Many of those from the ‘populist coalition’ advanced through the CYL system and were from non-elite or princeling backgrounds. The CYL origin leaders within the politburo are referred to as tuanpai or the league faction.

President Xi belongs to the ‘elitist coalition’, and Premier Li Keqiang represents the ‘populist coalition’. Before Xi, Hu Jintao sat at the top of the CYL and promoted young leaders who could enter elite politics.

Influential members of the ‘league faction’ have included Hu Jintao, Li Keqiang, Hu Chunhua, Hu Yaobang, Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang, Liu Yandong and Zhou Qiang. Among the past and current ‘league faction’ members, Hu Chunhua has the potential to enter the Politburo Standing Committee later this year.

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Xi targeting CYLC

Under Xi, the CYLC has undergone few transformations, and the President has targeted CYLC to reduce its influence in elite politics. Xi’s targeting of the CYL can be attributed to his strategy of reducing the chances of his rivals promoting an alternative to his authority. But Xi still has to bring the influence of the ‘league faction’ under his control, which still has a significant presence within elite politics.

Experts who closely follow Chinese elite politics have speculated that the ‘league faction’ acted as a tool to maintain a balance of power within the Politburo Standing Committee.

In 2015, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) launched an ‘inspection and rectification work’ into the CYLC. The CCDI has become Xi’s preferred tool, first with the help of Wang Qishan and then Zhao Leji, both top Chinese politicians close to Xi, to target his rivals on the behest of ‘corruption’ charges.

“And, in a 2017 book compiling his comments on youth issues, Xi Jinping warned the CYL against “empty slogans” (konghan kouhao 空喊口号) and becoming an “empty shell” (kongke 空壳). He has also argued for more Party control,” writes Jérôme Doyon in China Quarterly.

Yang Jing, who served as the CYLC secretary for Inner Mongolia, was a rising star within the party, promoted by Hu Jintao until he was put under one-year probation and demoted from his role in 2018. It was the CCDI which investigated Yang for ‘serious disciplinary violations’.

Ling Jihua, another tuanpai, was close to Hu Jintao and a rising star. In 2016, Ling was given life sentence for corruption.

But Xi might be out to remove the factional influence of the CYLC.

“The 100-year journey has shaped the foundation of the Communist Youth League’s adherence to the party’s leadership, the political soul of the Communist Youth League’s adherence to its ideals and beliefs, the driving force of the Communist Youth League to devote itself to national rejuvenation, and the source of vitality of the Communist Youth League rooted in the youth. This is an important guide for the Communist Youth League to face the future and make new contributions” Xi said at the centenary celebration.

As China’s youth face a jobs crisis and there is rising dissatisfaction with the future direction of the country, the youth-led politics could have a surprise to offer as there is no clear successor to Xi.

Despite Xi’s attempts to eliminate the league faction’s influence, the CYLC remains a dynamic organisation which will continue to influence Chinese politics.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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