China’s Youth Are Changing. The Party’s Message Must Too.
For a century, China’s Communist Youth League has been a central pillar of the Communist Party’s power.
Party leaders proposed setting up a socialist youth league to train up potential future members at the very first National People’s Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The organization began operating a year later.
After the Communist Revolution, the League wove itself into the fabric of Chinese society, establishing cells in every school, university, and major enterprise in the country. As of December 2021, it had over 73 million members aged between 14 and 28.
Generations of Chinese have grown up attending regular Youth League meetings, where they study speeches by Party leaders, watch revolutionary films, and take part in other ideological activities. To this day, the Party views the League as its “reserve army” — a crucial tool for molding the nation’s youth into loyal patriots and socialists, and for identifying promising young organizers.
Yet, 100 years after its founding, the League is struggling to stay relevant. Today’s young Chinese, born into a diverse, digitally connected world, are much less receptive to the organization’s methods than previous generations.
“When the League interacts with today’s youngsters, the form is outdated, the discourse is embarrassing, and the effects are poor,” wrote Guo Guangliang and Zou Qiao, two scholars researching the League’s interactions with Chinese born after 2000, in a recent paper.
Like Gen-Zers elsewhere, China’s post-2000 generation is more individualistic and willing to question authority than older cohorts. In a survey of people born between 2000 and 2006 by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, over 80% of respondents said that parental authority can be questioned. More than half said they directly pointed out mistakes made by their parents and teachers.
They’re also more critically minded. Rather than taking information at face value, post-’00s prefer to analyze multiple sources and form their own opinions. Nearly nine in 10 said they “use multiple channels to obtain and verify information.” Only 7.5% said they “judge based on feeling, intuition, and personal experience.”
Can the League adapt its message to reach this new generation? Sixth Tone spoke with four students born around the turn of the century about their experiences as Youth League members and their views on the organization.
Clio Du, 18, history student in Shanghai
Du applied to become secretary of her class’ League branch after starting university. The reason was simple: A friend advised her to get the position as it would help her find useful academic and career development opportunities.
Half a year into the position, Du has organized meet-ups to study government reports, quizzes about Party and League history, visits to revolutionary museums in Shanghai, and discussions on current events and policies. The response, however, has been tepid.
“Our classmates aren’t very enthusiastic,” Du says. “It’s more like a task that needs to get done.”
Students rarely volunteer to participate in activities. The problem may be that the activities aren’t engaging, but Du says the League organizers don’t have time to come up with more creative ideas.
But when students feel a topic is relevant to their lives, they’ll jump into the conversation, according to Du. One recent example was a debate on China’s “double-reduction” policy, which aims to reduce the amount of homework and after-school tutoring Chinese schoolchildren receive.
Du describes herself as patriotic, but says this hasn’t come from being part of the League. Instead, she has been inspired by seeing how grassroots Party organizations provide support to vulnerable people.
Last Spring Festival, she returned to her hometown in the southwestern Sichuan province and found an elderly neighbor had fallen ill. He was only able to receive treatment after the village committee agreed to pay his medical bills. This incident left a lasting impression on her.
“I feel that disadvantaged groups are cared for and that individuals are valued,” she says.
Yet, there are also times when she and her classmates have doubts. When Du saw the news about the “chained woman” — a human trafficking victim who had been kept chained inside a hut by her husband in Feng County, Jiangsu province — she was horrified.
“I wondered if individuals are truly under protection,” she says.
Cai Xintong, 20, journalism student in Shanghai
As a League organizer, Cai has led efforts to shake things up. Her biggest success has been creating a Communism-themed murder mystery game.
Like most murder mystery activities, which are wildly popular in China, Cai’s game combines glamor and intrigue. In 1940s Shanghai, a Japanese officer hosts a lavish banquet for a pro-Japanese Kuomintang official, hoping to conclude a secret peace deal.
But the meeting has been infiltrated by intelligence operatives from the Kuomintang and Communist Party. When the pro-Japanese official is murdered, a sheriff arrives and must unmask the perpetrator.
“It’s all based on history,” says Cai. “We did a lot of research and spent around a month writing it.”
Cai, who is applying to become a Party member, considers the traditional League events “a bit dry.” At a lunch organized by the League, many members said they wanted to introduce more innovative activities, she says.
This led to the creation of a Communism-themed escape room, where students entered a 1940s-styled room and had to find their way out by solving a series of challenges related to Party history. Cai says her friends who took part in the activity gave positive feedback.
“We used to talk about Marx’s ‘Das Kapital,’ but now we can play games,” she says.
Cai and her team are working to create more games and refine the murder mystery activity. “We are confident it could be a special, maybe even a permanent activity for patriotic education,” she says.
The student is currently on an exchange program at the University of Helsinki. Being away from home, she says, has actually made her feel more patriotic.
“It’s when I’m overseas that I miss my country a lot,” she says. “I miss the familiar atmosphere, the crowded rooms, and the busy streets.”
Vincent Tang, 21, postgraduate engineering student in Chengdu, southwest China
Tang still remembers the ceremony when he joined the League at the age of 14: raising the national flag, singing the League anthem, “Glorious! Chinese Communist Youth League,” and taking the oath.
Ever since, the League has been part of his life. In senior high school, he took part in a chorus to celebrate a series of 1935 youth protests. In college, he became his class’ League branch secretary.
Many of Tang’s friends think the compulsory online “Youth University Studies” courses to be pointless, yet Tang says he views them as a useful form of propaganda. He believes that patriotism should be unconditional and that isolated tragedies shouldn’t lead one to dismiss the country’s efforts.
Earlier this year, Tang was delighted when he became a full Party member. He recalls the pride he felt when he watched the flag-raising ceremony during an event marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2019.
“When the national anthem started, and especially when I retook the Party oath, I felt a surge of patriotic emotion,” he says.
But sometimes, Tang says, his “selfishness” gets in the way of his duties as a Party member. His classmates will occasionally ask him to switch teams to help them complete homework and other tasks assigned by the League. “As a class leader and Party member, I should sacrifice myself for the collective good,” he says. He doesn’t always agree; it’s too much effort.
Jim Tian, 23, postgraduate computer science student in Beijing
When Tian received his acceptance letter from a prestigious Beijing university, he also found a bundle of information about various “Leadership Program” activities. He has taken several of these patriotic education courses, for which he receives extra credit.
For Tian, the university activities are much more “humanized” than the League events he attended at school. Unlike many of his classmates, he actively enjoys them.
“I love the tours of revolutionary sites,” he says. “Plus, it offers an opportunity to socialize with people from other majors.”
Tian is currently applying to become a Party member. He says being a League member has definitely made him feel more patriotic.
“When you go through the history of the Party’s founding and struggles, you’ll understand how awful the landowners, warlords, and people in the Kuomintang were,” he says.
Inspired by the League, Tian is considering pursuing an internship at a local government and taking China’s civil service exam. But when it comes to choosing a career, he says people will normally prioritize their personal interests over patriotism.
“Few want to work in industries that pay little and require a lot of work, even if they’re much needed (by the country),” he says. “When individualism and patriotism are in serious conflict, the Youth League can do little.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: College students take a selfie with the Communist Youth Leagueflag in Chongqing, southwest China, May 2, 2022. Chen Shichuan/IC)