Chinese youth are changing. The message of the party must also.

For a century, the Chinese Communist Youth League has been a central pillar of Communist Party power.

Party leaders proposed to establish a socialist youth league to train potential future members at the first-ever National People’s Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1921. The organization began operating a year later.

After the communist revolution, the League woven itself into the fabric of Chinese society, establishing cells in every school, university and major corporation in the country. As of December 2021, it had over 73 million members between the ages of 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 engage in other ideological activities. To this day, the Party regards the League as its “reserve army” — a crucial tool in molding the country’s youth into stalwart patriots and socialists, and in identifying promising young organizers.

When the League interacts with today’s youth, the form is outdated, the speech is awkward, and the impact is poor.

Yet, 100 years after its founding, the League is struggling to remain relevant. Young Chinese today, born into a diverse and digitally connected world, are far less receptive to organizational methods than previous generations.

“When the League interacts with today’s youth, the form is outdated, the speech is embarrassing, and the effects are poor,” wrote Guo Guangliang and Zou Qiao, two scholars who study the League’s interactions with the Chinese. born after 2000, in a recent article.

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, more than 80% of respondents said that parental authority can be questioned. More than half said they directly reported errors made by their parents and teachers.

They are also more critical. Rather than taking information at face value, post-2000s prefer to analyze several sources and form their own opinion. Nearly nine in 10 people said they “use multiple channels to get and verify information.” Only 7.5% said they “judge based on feelings, intuition and personal experience”.

Can the League adapt its message to reach this new generation? Sixth Tone spoke with four students born at the turn of the century about their experiences as Youth League members and their thoughts on the organization.

Clio Du, 18, history student in Shanghai

Du applied to become secretary of his class’s League branch after starting college. The reason was simple: a friend advised him to get the job because it would help him find valuable academic and career development opportunities.

Six months after taking office, Du held meetings to study government reports, quizzes on Party and League history, tours of revolutionary museums in Shanghai, and discussions on events and policies in Classes. The response, however, has been lukewarm.

“Our classmates aren’t very enthusiastic,” Du said. “It’s more like a task that needs to be done.”

Students rarely volunteer to participate in activities. The problem may be that the activities aren’t engaging, but Du says 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 jump into the conversation, according to Du. A recent example has been a debate over China’s “double reduction” policy, which aims to reduce the amount of homework and after-school tutoring Chinese schoolchildren receive.

Du describes himself as patriotic, but says that doesn’t come from being in the League. Instead, she was inspired by seeing how grassroots Party organizations provide support to vulnerable people.

During the last Spring Festival, she returned to her hometown in southwestern Sichuan province and found that 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 him.

“I feel that disadvantaged groups are cared for and individuals are empowered,” she says.

Yet there are also times when she and her classmates have doubts. When Du heard the news of the “chained woman” – a victim of human trafficking who had been kept chained in a hut by her husband in Feng county, Jiangsu province – she was horrified.

“I wondered if the individuals were really under protection,” she said.

Cai Xintong, 20, journalism student in Shanghai

As the League’s organizer, Cai led the effort to shake things up. His biggest success was creating a communism-themed murder mystery game.

Like most murder mystery activities, which are very 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 strike a secret peace deal.

But the meeting was infiltrated by Kuomintang and Communist Party intelligence agents. When the pro-Japanese official is murdered, a sheriff arrives and must unmask the perpetrator.

“Everything is story-based,” Cai says. “We did a lot of research and spent about a month writing it.”

Cai, who is applying for Party membership, considers traditional League events to be “a bit dry.” At a luncheon organized by the League, several members said they wanted to introduce more innovative activities, she said.

This led to the creation of a communism-themed escape room, where students entered a 1940s-style room and had to find their way by solving a series of challenges related to Party history. . Cai said her friends who participated in the activity gave positive feedback.

“We used to talk about ‘Das Kapital’ by Marx, but now we can play games,” she says.

Cai and his team are working on creating more games and refining the murder mystery activity. “We are convinced that this could be a special, even 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, actually made her more patriotic.

“It’s when I’m abroad that I miss my country a lot,” she says. “I miss the familiar atmosphere, crowded halls and bustling streets.”

Vincent Tang, 21, an engineering graduate 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 to take the oath.

Since then, the League has been part of his life. In high school, he participated in a choir to celebrate a series of youth demonstrations in 1935. In middle school, he became secretary of his class’s league branch.

Many of Tang’s friends think that the compulsory online “University Studies for Young People” courses are useless, but Tang says he considers them a useful form of propaganda. He believes that patriotism should be unconditional and that isolated dramas should not lead to the rejection of the country’s efforts.

The home pages of a selection of online courses “University studies for young people”.

The home pages of a selection of online courses “University studies for young people”.

Earlier this year, Tang was overjoyed when he became a full Party member. He recalls the pride he felt when he witnessed the flag-raising ceremony at 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 took the Party oath again, I felt a surge of patriotic emotion,” he said.

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 with homework and other tasks assigned by the League. “As a class leader and a Party member, I should sacrifice myself for the collective good,” he said. He doesn’t always agree; it’s too much effort.

Jim Tian, ​​23, graduate computer science student in Beijing

When individualism and patriotism are in serious conflict, the Youth League can do little.

When Tian received his acceptance letter from a prestigious Beijing University, he also found a packet of information about various “Leadership Program” activities. He has taken several of these patriotic education courses, for which he receives extra credit.

For Tian, ​​college activities are much more “humanized” than the League events he attended in school. Unlike many of his classmates, he actively enjoys them.

“I love groundbreaking site visits,” he says. “Plus, it provides the opportunity to socialize with people from other majors.”

Tian is currently applying to become a Party member. He says being a member of the League has definitely made him more patriotic.

“When you go through the history of the founding of the Party and the struggles, you will understand how awful the landlords, warlords and people of the Kuomintang were,” he says.

Inspired by the League, Tian plans to intern in local government and take the Chinese civil service exam. But when it comes to choosing a career, he says people will normally prioritize personal interests over patriotism.

“Few people want to work in industries that pay little and are hard-working, even though they are in high demand (by the country),” he says. “When individualism and patriotism are in serious conflict, there is little the Youth League can do.”

Publisher: Dominic Morgan.

(Icons: yuoak/VCG)

(Header image: College students take a selfie with the Communist Youth League flag in Chongqing, southwest China, May 2, 2022. Chen Shichuan/IC)

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