ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

China: Rise of the Communist Youth League

The growing predominance of China's Communist Youth League members in several central party organisations reflects the rise of the "fourth generation" in politics. Though most members of the CYL have a demonstrated keenness to "reform" the society and economy, the Chinese Communist Party retains a stronghold over most aspects of the the League's functioning. The CYL may also, in the near future, face a greater challenge to its authority from the more net-savvy and independent-minded younger generation.


Rise of the Communist Youth League

The growing predominance of China’s Communist Youth Leaguemembers in several central party organisations reflects the rise ofthe “fourth generation” in politics. Though most members of theCYL have a demonstrated keenness to “reform” the society andeconomy, the Chinese Communist Party retains a stronghold overmost aspects of the the League’s functioning. The CYL may also, in thenear future, face a greater challenge to its authority from the morenet-savvy and independent-minded younger generation.


ast November, China’s fourth generation leadership held a ceremony in the Great Hall of the people honouring Hu Yaobang, the reformist party secretary, who was once the head of the Communist Youth League (CYL) and whose death sparked the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The memorial was initiated and supported by Hu Jintao, the Chinese president. The move, on the one hand, showed the new leadership’s reformist policy orientation; on the other, demonstrated the strength and confidence of the CYL faction in China’s political arena.

The CYL of China is apparently the strongest national organisation among Chinese youth. Young Chinese aged between 14 and 28 are all encouraged to join a local CYL cell. By the end of 2004, China had 2.54 million CYL cells, 191 thousand full-time CYL cadres and 71.88 million CYL members. The history of the CYL can be traced back to the Chinese Socialist Youth League established in Guangzhou in 1922. Thereafter, the organisation changed its name several times and the name it bears at present was finalised in 1957. The CYL has long been regarded as a school for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to groom successors. It tries to unite young Chinese of all ethnic groups under the CCP’s leadership, aiming to extend the CCP’s one-party rule.

The CYL’s structure is cloned from the CCP. Its central authority is the national congress and the central committee. Led by the CCP’s central committee, the CYL central committee is elected at the national congress. The central committee office is the agency of the CYL central committee in charge of routine work. Local organs of leadership include the CYL’s committees at provincial, city and county level. The CYL’s power also extends beyond the organisation. In conjunction with the CCP, it exercises leadership over the All-China Youth Federation, All-China Students’ Federation and Young Pioneers of China.

Hu Jintao’s Power Base

The present general secretary of the CCP’s Central Committee Hu Jintao used to be the first secretary of the CYL. Due to his close links with the organisation, it has been used by him as a power base to fight adversaries within the CCP. The course of Hu Jintao’s ascent to central party leadership shows that he has benefited from two large connection groups in China: the Qinghua faction and the CYL. He joined the party at Qinghua University in 1964 and became a political instructor of the university before graduation. In 1968 he moved to Gansu province and became a hydraulic engineer. The then party chief in Gansu was Song Ping, a technocratic cadre and Qinghua graduate. Following Song’s recommendation, Hu was promoted to higher positions in Gansu Provincial Construction Commission and then was appointed head of Gansu’s CYL and member of the national CYL secretariat in 1982.

The Qinghua connection helped Hu advance quickly during his early career period. However, the Qinghua faction is neither an interest group nor a top-down national organisation. Its members have various political views and it is obviously not

Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006

a group that can be relied on by Hu Jintao. In his later political career, Hu largely relies on the CYL to shore up his power base.

Hu Jintao became first secretary of the national CYL organisation in 1984. His appointment was endorsed by the relatively liberal reformer and then party general secretary Hu Yaobang, who had close associations with the CYL since the 1950s. Controlled by Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang was unable to establish a powerful faction of his own, yet the CYL was the forum that Hu Yaobang originally used to convey his initiatives and throughout his career he maintained close relations with the organisation. Hu Jintao forged a good relationship with Hu Yaobang and partly inherited his legacy.

Hu Jintao was chosen by Deng Xiaoping to be the party’s general secretary after Jiang Zemin, and was determined to stand firm once he succeeded Jiang Zemin in 2002. He does not want to become the second Hua Guofeng who succeeded Mao Zedong in 1976, yet was shortly deprived of power by party elders in the CCP central committee. An advantage of Hu is that he has been blessed by Deng Xiaoping himself. Though the retired Jiang still pulls the strings, he is surely not as powerful as the late Deng. While paying respect to Jiang, Hu Jintao does not hesitate to promote many leaders with CYL background who are loyal to him. In fact, the CYL has already lined up behind him.

On the Front Stage

Before the rise of Hu Jintao, the CYL mainly played a supporting role in China’s politics. It seems now its time has finally come. To secure his power, Hu Jintao has promoted dozens of CYL alumni to senior party and state council posts since he came to power. Hu’s loyalists from the CYL are also expected to grab the lion’s share of new party and government slots at the 17th party congress scheduled for 2007. The CYL faction’s plan will not be severely challenged as it has already built up a solid foundation for its power expansion. In March 2003, China’s National People’s Congress appointed a new cabinet and many top government officials. Among the 62 top provincial leaders, 34 per cent have ties to the CYL, suggesting that CYL alumni have occupied many key senior posts.

Among rising CYL stars are Li Keqiang (party chief of Liaoning province), Li Yuanchao (party chief of Zhejiang province), Yuan Chunqing (party chief of Shanxi province), Liu Qibao (party chief of Guangxi Autonomous Region), Li Zhanshu (party chief of Heilongjiang), Huang Huahua (governor of Guangdong province), Liu Yandong (head of the United Front Department), Ling Jihua (deputy director of general office of the central committee), etc. The weakest link of the CYL power expansion is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This is the main reason why the CYL faction calls on the PLA and SOEs to closely follow the CCP for leadership.

The power expansion of the CYL alumni directly clashes with the princeling faction. The latter is comprised of children or grandchildren of the CCP’s first and second-generation leaders, who now occupy key senior posts almost in every aspect of Chinese society, due to cronyism and nepotism. The ex-party secretary, Jiang Zemin, actually belongs to this faction. As long as the CCP’s one-party rule exists, this group will surely continue to exert strong influence on China’s politics.

However, the CYL faction has expanded its power at the expense of the princeling faction in politics, not in business. The latter in turn, has been encouraged by the CYL, faction to achieve its ambitions in entrepreneurship. In some sense the two factions have become a good team for China’s future development. The CYL faction has kept an arm’s length from business and gained moral high ground in the CCP’s anti-corruption campaign, therefore this arrangement is to the advantage of the CYL group, at least in the current power struggle.

Zeng Qinghong is now widely regarded as the head of the princeling faction, yet he and his followers have no intention of dominating China’s politics but rather have chosen to collaborate with the CYL faction. Due to the challenge from outside the party, including the overseas Chinese democratic movement, the dominant position fo the US, increasing Japanese aggressiveness, latent separatist movements in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, etc, they know it is crucial for factions within the party to reconcile and share interests. Therefore, it is expected that the politburo after the 17th party congress will be shared largely by these two factions.

Unique Character

Leaders in the CYL faction are relatively young and better educated. The new provincial leadership are mainly from this faction and are the best educated ever.

Most of them have at least post-secondary degrees, some have postgraduate degrees, while a few even hold doctorates. Onethird have strong technical or professional career backgrounds.

Though younger in age, CYL-trained leaders are not necessarily inexperienced in public administration. In fact, most of them have experience in functional politics and are familiar with China’s mixed economy; the new provincial leadership are the most competent China has seen since 1949. Better education and a stronger professional background provides the basis to manage the more complex economy they face than did their predecessors. The increasing role of party chiefs in their local legislatures is also an indication of a gradual shift from rule of personality to rule of law.

Generally speaking, the CYL faction is more liberal than the princeling faction. The ex-party secretary Hu Yaobang, who used to be the CYL’s first secretary, is still remembered for his theory of “Three Tolerances” (“leniency, generosity and tolerance”). The dictum was the leitmotif of the five-year “Beijing Spring” movement that reigned in the Chinese academia in the run-up to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. Hu Yaobang and his followers had advocated a bold departure from classic Marxism-Leninism and called on government policy-makers to note the real needs of the Chinese people.

In 1983, Hu Yaobang used the CYL and its newspaper China Youth Daily as his vehicle to criticise the campaign against “spiritual pollution”, which had been launched by Deng Xiaoping who opposed the political reforms being introduced at the time. Hu Jintao cautiously supported the elder Hu’s movement and won him appreciation from the party boss. In 1984 he was asked to accompany Hu Yaobang on a tour to Guangdong and Hubei provinces.

Today there seems to be greater interest among CYL-trained leaders in following western politicians’ code of ethics and accepting a degree of accountability for their performance. Some 23-party chiefs hold concurrent positions as heads of 31 province-level people’s congresses, a much higher proportion than previously. This places party chiefs in a position where they are open to questioning by members of local legislatures, who are becoming increasingly independent-minded.

Despite the hint of political liberalism, on balance, the CYL-trained leadership follow policies and priorities of their predecessors. Reform and renovation of SOEs,

Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006 liberalisation of trade and industry in line with WTO commitments, and modernisation of the financial system will be on the top priority of government policy. Any substantial change in direction is not at hand.

Most CYL-trained leaders are from humble background and are more concerned with disadvantaged people. They have reservations over ex-party secretary Jiang Zemin’s new theory of the “Three Represents”. Coined by Jiang and his advisers during the last segment of his rule, the “Three Represents” means the CCP represents the highest level of productivity, the foremost culture and the broad interests of the masses. It legitimises the inclusion of capitalists within the CCP and is widely seen as an elitist cry for the empowerment of the “new class” of cadreentrepreneurs. After coming to the front stage, the CYL faction is anxious to emphasise a more populist approach to governance while acknowledging the role of Jiang as elder statesman and refraining from challenging him directly.

The CYL faction has lavished more resources on disadvantaged groups such as unemployed workers or peasants. For instance, Hu Jintao’s government has announced the abolition of all rural taxes by the end of 2006, an audacious move that would save Chinese peasants up to 100 billion yuan. Moreover, the government indicated that 218 billion yuan would be spent on rural education during the country’s 11th five-year plan starting from 2006.

Since gaining power at the 16th party congress in late 2002, Hu and his followers have presented him as “people-caring sageemperor” in the mould of Confucius’ ideal rulers. Many of Hu’s slogans, including “putting people first”, “running the administration for the sake of the people”, and “seeking harmony in diversity” have been culled from the teachings of Confucius and like-minded sages such as Mencius who put people before rulers. The CYL faction has focused on such problems as the gap between rich and poor and uneven development between inland and coastal regions. Both party and government have tried to move away from Jiang’s definition of development that focuses entirely on GDP growth and towards a more humanistic definition that includes social equality and high employment.

However, the CYL faction is not a prodemocracy group. They have consciously stuck to a noblesse oblige type of “Confucianist authoritarianism”, whereby leaders dispense largesse from on-high while denying masses any meaningful chance of political participation. To date, the Hu leadership has not allowed peasants and workers to form independent trade unions or other types of non-party-controlled organisations.

Hu’s ‘Appointment’

One of the main reasons why Hu Jintao was chosen by Deng Xiaoping to succeed Jiang Zemin is his decisiveness in putting down social revolts. Hu’s most noteworthy accomplishment prior to his elevation into the lofty politburo standing committee in 1992 was his suppression of the March 1989 demonstrations in Tibet where he was the party chief. While taking a more populist approach in policy-making, the CYL faction has showed no interest in relaxing party control. Hu is now widely regarded as a new type of strong defender of the CCP’s one-party rule.

The CYL faction’s policy, that is, of maintaining “social harmony”, is not so much a liberal orientation as a Confucian statecraft. It allows for individual or group sacrifice to achieve social stability. Under


Research Training Programme 2006-2007

The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, invites applications for its Research Training Programme in History, Economics, Political Science, Geography, Sociology, Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies. The programme which will run from August 2006 to June 2007 is meant for research students in India and the countries of the South in the early stages of their doctoral work. Applications are invited from research students below the age of 30 years with a postgraduate degree in any branch of the social sciences with at least 50% marks or B+ on an eight point scale. The detailed prospectus is available from the Administrative Officer, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, R-1, Baishnabghata Patuli Township, Kolkata – 700 094, India, email:, or on the website Last date for receipt of applications from international participants is 30 April, 2006 and for students from India 15 June, 2006.

Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006

the faction’s leadership, there are many reports that both central and provincial leaders have given orders to the police as well as to the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to use brute force if necessary to crush seeds of revolt. For instance, an estimated 20 peasants were shot dead by PAP officers during a confrontation in the village of Dongzhou, Guangdong province, late last year. Peasants there were protesting against the construction of a power plant, which would result in forced eviction of thousands of residents.

The CYL faction understands the importance of ideology and particularly the bankruptcy of classic Marxism-Leninism. They are eager to encourage nationalism to strengthen the CCP’s legitimacy. Hu Jintao does not want to arouse false expectations among the Chinese intelligentsia that China will be further westernised. Hu was one of the first three provincial leaders to announce support for the central party immediately after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. Plans mooted by his advisers, such as allowing a dozen-odd of the less controversial exiled dissidents to return to China, have been abandoned due to the overweening consideration played by national interests. It will not be surprising that, perhaps for the rest of the decade, Chinese society will only exude a kind of party-sanctioned liberalism that does not clash with the CYL faction’s nationalist goal to maintain social stability and ensure China’s rise in the world.

In May 1999, the CYL’s mouthpiece China Youth Daily slammed “unpatriotic” dissidents. It launched a rare attack on prodemocracy activists describing them as traitors for their response to NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. During the protests across China, some exiled dissident groups said the CCP was using the anti-NATO protests to stir up nationalism and distract people from other social problems. However, the China Youth Daily retorted angrily that if the protests were a demonstration of the new Chinese nationalism, then China needed it. It was the only official newspaper that boldly defended nationalism.

The nationalist sentiments displayed by the CYL faction were further boosted by Hu Jintao’s performance the morning after the Belgrade bombing on May 9, 1999. He addressed the nation over television and declared that the US-led NATO “brazenly attacked our embassy”, killing personnel and destroying the building. It was, he claimed, a “criminal act”, a “barbaric act”.

In the short statement, Hu pointed out that “students and people” had demonstrated at US diplomatic offices in China showing the Chinese people’s great indignation. The CYL team gained substantial credit from his nationalistic statement.

In the case of Sino-Japanese relations, the CYL faction mainly takes a strong nationalist position. Relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse from the 1990s, during which China’s phenomenal economic growth coincided with stagnation of the Japanese economy. In August 2004, a China Youth Daily article charged that Japanese “equivocation over history and their irresponsible words and action are what have caused the deterioration of political relations and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”.

The CYL team claim that the Japanese have never fully apologised for the atrocities that imperial Japan committed in China before and during the second world war. The bone of the contention over the apology issue lies in the words used. The Japanese have only used the words, “deep remorse” (‘fukai hansei’) in expressing their regret over the suffering Japan caused the Chinese people. However the CYL faction demands more than that and wants the Japanese to issue an “apology” (‘owabi’) in the joint declaration. They are also unhappy with the Japanese prime ministers’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that honours Japanese war criminals, and with the revisions of history textbooks that gloss over the Japanese war crime and the repeated denials made by Japanese politicians of the Nanjing massacre. Their nationalist approach has generated a very strong negative perception of the Japanese among Chinese youth.

Generational Politics

Though there is clash within the same generation between the CYL group and the princeling faction, the latter has apparently followed the CYL team’s leadership. Therefore, the rise of the CYL faction means indeed a generational political momentum. After the 2002 power transition, the new “generation” has once again come under the spotlight in Chinese politics. The fourth generation leadership dominated by the CYL alumni have been reshaping the political landscape of China.

The so-called fourth generation are those who are now in their late 50s or early 60s and attended college in the 1960s. They were born when the country was suffering from war and poverty and it was only several years later that they began their education in the New China. Politically, they were brought up in the cold war era and under communist ideology, protesting against US imperialism. Now by backing the CYL faction, they have clearly showed their ideological orientation in a new era. Down the road they are likely to continue to support leftists for reasons of equality.

Apparently, the fourth generation is currently dominating China’s political arena, yet younger generations have also begun flexing their muscles. The fifth generation is complicated. They were born in the 1950s or early 1960s and suffered the most during the Cultural Revolution and most of them also served in the Red Guards. Some of them have turned out to be extremely anti-Maoist, and also extremely cynical and materialistic. The common belief is that most of them are “power maniacs”.

The sixth generation includes those born in the late 1960s and 1970s, familiar with the internet and growing up while China accepted reform and open-door policy. With the advent of an information-oriented society, they can more easily access information from overseas and thus, by taking the initiative, have sparked off a generational conflict. It will be a serious problem that the CYL faction has to tackle in the near future. The sixth generation Chinese mostly prefer to be left to their own devices, have their say in cyberspace and frequently turn their backs on politics. Their main interest is business rather than power struggle.

At present, a policy of seeking “harmony” among different generations is being sought for as an answer to social division. A unity of generations has been proposed to unite the nation. However, in due course, the internet-savvy generation will certainly come up with practical measures to set up a system that embodies their own interests and visions. The foreseeable change cannot be ignored but must be anticipated and well managed, otherwise the Chinese reform will run out of track and turn into revolution. The fourth generation leadership, in business and academia understand this and try to cooperate and lead younger generations to avoid social turmoil.

China has been in the process of abandoning a planned economy while experiencing globalisation, democratisation and the information age. However it has yet to come up with a new paradigm. Rigid

Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006 authoritarianism is rapidly breaking down but an alternative order has not yet taken shape. A generational change is welcome because it allows time for change and provides an opportunity to transform China in a smooth way. However, politics today is not that simple. While generational change was the driving force behind the smooth power shifts at the beginning of this century, the nation’s future depends on younger generations’ willingness to base their reform agenda on the legacy of previous generations and maintain consensus on social stability.


The CYL faction is a forward-looking group. To further its own interests it must stick with the CCP’s one-party rule, yet it is prone to political reform. What it aims to achieve is a democratisation led by the CCP. The faction represents continuity and innovation with the policies and priorities of the Deng and Jiang eras. It is a progressive and contributing force in China’s incrementalist political reform. Generational politics plays an even more important role in a transitional nation like China. Nevertheless, it is irresponsible to oversimplify political characteristics of generations and categorise them. In the Chinese case, the impact of the fourth generation leadership’s new policies should not be excessively overstated.



Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top