China's Xi Shakes Up Rival Power Base Before Party Reshuffle

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State Visit Of The President Of The People's Republic Of China - Day 5

President Xi Jinping

Photographer: Richard Stonehouse/Getty Images
  • Youth League school may end undergrad classes amid overhaul
  • Reform could curb influence group once led by Hu Jintao

China’s Communist Party is considering further steps to curb the influence of the Communist Youth League, an organization that President Xi Jinping has criticized for being too aristocratic.

QuickTake China’s Pain Points

The league’s university may put an end to undergraduate admissions, according to a person familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be identified because the decision -- a response to guidance from senior officials -- is not final. That would leave it with post-graduate and training programs for up-and-coming cadres. 

Such a move would send a message to younger people about an organization that’s been a traditional springboard for leadership posts but was not the route to power for Xi. It could reverberate through a twice-a-decade reshuffle at next year’s party congress, when several prominent league alumni will be in the running for positions in the party’s uppermost echelons.

The China Youth University of Political Studies in Beijing was set up in 1985 when former President Hu Jintao headed the league. While Hu used the league to groom proteges such as Premier Li Keqiang, Xi has ordered its members to get more in touch with the masses.

"The Youth League has been a shortcut for young party hotshots to climb the career ladder," said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing. "They’re surrounded by this halo that they’d be powerful leaders one day. Clearly Xi is not happy about that."

University Alumni

The university was established jointly by the league and Ministry of Education and grants undergraduate degrees in areas including literature, legal studies and management. The league’s first secretary -- a post held by Hu, Li, as well as Guangdong provincial party secretary Hu Chunhua -- serves as its de facto president.

While the number of undergraduate students is unclear, its cadre training programs have an annual capacity of 10,000 and the entire university has a staff of more than 400, according to its website. Alumni include Propaganda Minister Liu Qibao and Ling Jihua, a former top Hu Jintao aide that is being prosecuted on corruption charges.

The effort to end the undergraduate program was revealed Thursday when an instructor named Yang Zhizhu criticized it as "too abrupt" in a post on the WeChat mobile messaging platform. The post was soon deleted.

‘Deep Reform’

The next day, the university said on its official Weibo social media account that it was "deliberating deep reform plans" and would seek staff feedback while trying to "pro-actively accommodate demands" from the leadership. Several calls to university staff members went unanswered.

The statement followed a "reform motivation conference" on Tuesday led by current Youth League chief Qin Yizhi, who called for members to study and implement policies in the spirit of Xi’s recent speeches.

Xi last July urged reform of the league and trade unions at a central leadership meeting of mass organizations, calling on them to be “gazing down to the public, working for the grassroots," Bloomberg News reported. On Monday, the party’s top anti-graft body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, released the full results of a two-month inspection of the Youth League, urging the group to shed "aristocratic tendencies" and "closely and strictly" follow the leadership’s directives.

Shanghai Overhaul

The Youth League’s Shanghai branch last month announced an overhaul that included eliminating departments, stripping government rankings from some senior officials and more than doubling to 40 percent the share of top posts held by community-level representatives, according to the China Youth Daily.

"There has been a general curtailing of the CYL, particularly those associated with Ling Jihua and Hu Jintao," said Joseph Fewsmith, a political science professor at Boston University who studies China’s elite politics and has written a book on political reform. "I expect a number of people associated with the CYL to be passed over at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. So, yes, the influence of the CYL will continue to decline."

— With assistance by Ting Shi, and Keith Zhai

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