Allies of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) are moving against an organization that is the power base of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), in what analysts say might be a sign of faction-fighting at the top of the ruling party.
The Communist Youth League (CYL) has long been a proving ground for young up-and-comers to demonstrate their political talent, particularly those who — unlike Xi — are not party “princelings” with the advantage of high-ranking parents.
It has produced some of the country’s top leaders, including former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), as well as Li, and its alumni are seen as a leading faction within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
However, as Xi moves to consolidate power, the group has come under sustained attack, including direct reprimands from the president himself.
The party’s internal corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, this week took the group to task for losing sight of its core mission to guide young people’s ideological development.
On its Web site, the commission published an extensive self-criticism by the league’s central committee, acknowledging that it must have a greater “sense of responsibility and mission” to the party leadership and young people.
The declaration came after an investigation into the league found evidence of embezzlement and improper influence, according to the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party.
The commission is headed by Wang Qishan (王岐山), who is widely considered to be Xi’s top lieutenant.
Analysts say that the charges, although likely legitimate, might also be a convenient cover for the commission’s real goal: helping Xi jockey for position ahead of next year’s 19th party congress, which is to decide the new line-up for the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, the top organ of political power in China.
“To investigate the CYL is a highly political endeavor,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University. “This operation will certainly contribute to consolidating Xi’s position.”
Five of the seven committee members are expected to retire at the congress and many experts say that Xi and Li are locked in a struggle to fill the vacancies with their own supporters, not to mention protect their own positions.
“All indications are that Xi Jinping is trying to reduce the influence of the Youth League” ahead of the event, China expert Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told reporters.
The head of state sees the group “as a political threat,” Lam said, adding that in the future the league “will be concerned with promoting ideology and political correctness among young people and no longer serve a function as a talent bank.”
The league was formed in 1920 to promote communist ideology to people between the ages of 14 and 28 and has historically generally been more reformist than conservative. It had more than 88 million members in 2013, according to the CCP’s official mouthpiece the People’s Daily, making it about the same size as the party itself.
Chinese elite politics are notoriously opaque, with experts and analysts picking over the smallest details of the leadership’s activities — from minute variations in public language to seating arrangements at official ceremonies — for hints to the future.
The league’s tea leaves, by contrast, have been unusually clear, with the group suffering a seemingly constant stream of attacks in recent months.
Xi himself criticized it in July last year, blasting its leaders for being too “aristocratic,” despite his own descent from so-called “red nobility” — his father, Xi Zhongcun (習仲勳), was a CCP military leader and later senior official.
In February, the commission, according to the official Xinhua news agency, slammed the league for falling out of step with the party leadership, saying it had “not studied the spirit of the CPC’s (CCP) conference on improving mass organizations.”
In the league’s statement on Monday, its leaders pledged to “deeply study and grasp the spirit of Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s major speeches,” adding that the group could only hope to achieve reform by improving its understanding of the president’s teachings.
Even so there is no sign of a let-up in the assault. The Global Times on Thursday reported that following the commission’s report, the league plans to issue a “detailed plan” for its own reform.
Xi’s position is clear, Peking University professor of law He Weifang (賀衛方) said.
“His view on what function the CYL should play is definitely not the same as previous leaders,” He told reporters. “There is a conflict.”
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