The Communist Youth League Announces Plans to Send a New Generation “Down to the Countryside”

In a photo from the official newspaper of the China Communist Youth League, a graduate student from China Agricultural University examines a crop of tomatoes during a work assignment in the town of Wuwei (武威), Gansu Province (Source: China Youth Daily, June 11, 2018).

Introduction

In late March, the China Communist Youth League (Gongchan Zhuyi Qingnian Tuan, 共产主义青年团), or CCYL, released an official document that detailed plans to recruit large numbers of young people for work programs in rural areas of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The document, titled “Opinions Regarding Deepening the Development of the Countryside and Promoting Great Endeavors by Youth,” laid out ambitious plans to recruit one million college-level youths by the year 2022. Participants will be sent for terms of service in rural districts, “especially [historical] revolutionary zones, impoverished areas, and ethnic minority regions [in order to] develop social practical experience activities, [and to] increase skills in spreading culture, spreading technology, and establishing new [social] trends.” [1]

The phenomenon of sending “educated youth” (zhiqing, 知青) to “ascend the mountains and go down to the countryside” (shangshan xiaxiang, 上山下乡) for work in rural communities has a long history in Communist China, dating back to the 1950s. However, the practice has been particularly associated with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when millions of high school students and other young people from China’s towns and cities were sent for years on end to experience arduous physical labor and communal existence in rural villages—and in theory, to learn socialist values from the superior wisdom of poor peasant communities. [2] Large-scale use of this involuntary practice faded in the wake of the Cultural Revolution—and was dramatically reversed beginning in the 1980s, when expanding economic reforms brought a massive migration of rural dwellers to the PRC’s growing cities in pursuit of work.

However, on its surface the March announcement by the CCYL appears to indicate a startling return to a practice that many would have written off as an anachronism from the PRC’s Mao-era past. What has brought about this revived effort to send young urbanites to labor in the countryside?

Wherefore the Renewed Push to “Go Down to the Countryside”?

The March announcement by the CCYL did not emerge from a vacuum, and throughout 2018 there were hints in PRC state media of a potential revival of the “descending to the countryside” movement. Early 2018 saw a flurry of material in the Chinese press intended to invoke nostalgia for the practice on its 50th anniversary: articles presented profiles of people assigned to rural villages and work projects from the 1950s through the 1970s, along with recollections of the positive memories and lasting friendships formed by these “sent-down” youth. [3] In summer 2018, the official website of the CCYL published an article profiling young PhDs and PhD candidates in a range of fields who were conducting “countryside practical research” (xiangcun shijian diaoyan, 乡村实践调研) for periods of up to a year in rural areas. Per the CCYL account, these were revelatory growth experiences for the participants: one graduate student was described as “gradually realizing that the knowledge he had studied was from Western experience, and not from his own country’s practical experience” (CCYL Online, June 11 2018).

As a branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the CCYL has played a major role in organizing youth activities and propaganda, and has long served as a gateway for young people to enter into full Party membership as adults. However, the CCYL was also a key component of the bureaucratic power base of former CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao—and has accordingly fared poorly under current CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping in terms of resources and influence (China Brief, May 11, 2016; China Brief, April 9). Despite this, Xi’s own history as an “educated youth sent to the countryside” is an essential element of his own political narrative—and it is therefore possible that the March 2019 announcement by the CCYL represents, at least in part, an effort to maneuver back into Xi’s good graces.

Following the purge of his father Xi Zhongxun, in 1969 Xi Jinping was sent to Liangjiahe—an impoverished village in Shaanxi Province close to Yanan, the home base for the Chinese Communist movement throughout World War II and the early years of the Chinese Civil War. Xi remained in the village for seven years, and the humble dwelling where he and other zhiqing lived has been converted into a tourist attraction (SCMP, February 13, 2015). PRC state propaganda depicts this period as a formative one for Xi’s values, and as proof of his leadership skills and concern for the common people: “[Xi] became one with the villagers. They worked and ate together. He went from being a teenager with no knowledge of rural life to the village’s Party secretary, leading villagers in accomplishing practical and pioneering works [such as] erecting a dam and liberating the workforce” (Global Times, January 2, 2017).

Xi’s early career as a Party official in Fujian is also presented in similar terms of paternalistic leadership by example, with Xi depicted as an enthusiastic participant in manual labor alongside peasant farmers (see  accompanying photo). The new program announced by the CCYL therefore accords with key elements of the official themes surrounding Xi Jinping, and further bolsters efforts by the current CCP leadership to foster a Neo-Maoist ideological revival (Journal of Democracy, July 2016; China Brief, March 5, 2018).

Image: This photo, from a People’s Daily article titled “President Xi Warms Hearts by Showing His Care for the People,” depicts a scene in 1989 when Xi, “as the then Party head in Ningde, southeastern China’s Fujian Province, joined a voluntary labor activity with local cadres” (People’s Daily Online, April 12, 2019).

“Spreading Scientific Concepts and Publicizing the Party’s Policies” in Rural Areas

Historical iterations of “ascending the mountains and going down to the countryside” were imbued with the message that urban youth would benefit from their experiences on farming communes and other work projects, and that they would learn from the supposedly more pure socialist values of rural communities. The March CCYL document follow this ideological tradition in part, stating that participating students will “both conduct research and build up the countryside” (yibian diaoyan yibian xiang jian, 一边调研, 一边乡建) in the course of their rural work assignments.[4] Other recent CCYL materials assert that rural work experiences will help urban youth to better appreciate the country’s development needs, and to “understand the true native soil of China” (CCYL Online, June 11 2018).

However, the CCYL’s new template is for a program that is more regulated and orderly than the chaotic and disruptive practices of the Cultural Revolution, when vast numbers of youth were dumped into rural communities with minimal planning. The CCYL’s guidelines indicate that recruitments for this latest rural work program are to be voluntary; inducements for joining are not wholly clear, but would presumably offer ambitious young people a leg up for future Party membership, with all the benefits conferred by that status. (The precise mechanisms by which recruitment for the program and geographic assignments are to be managed has been left vague, but these matters are to be handled by CCYL organs at the county level and above.) Additionally, terms of service in the countryside will not be open-ended as in past years, but will be more limited—with many of the periods scheduled for summer school holidays. [5] All of this represents a far more ordered and professionalized version of Maoism than that seen in the 1960s.

Most striking of all, the March CCYL document carries a consistent theme that young people from the towns are now to be placed in the role of instructors—not only in terms of bringing the benefits of their education and knowledge of technology to the less developed countryside, but also in terms of spreading proper political values as defined by the CCP. Students participating in the program will be expected to serve the Party by performing “rural youth thought and political work” (nongcun qingnian sixiang zhengzhi gongzuo, 农村青年思想政治工作), and by “spreading scientific concepts [and] publicizing the party’s policies” (chuanbo kexue lilun, xuanjiang dang de zhengce / 传播科学理论、宣讲党的政策) to rural dwellers. [6]

Conclusions

The new program announced by the CCYL to send youth “down to the countryside” is not a retread of China’s tragic Cultural Revolution history. Instead, the March 2019 CCYL announcement indicates a program very different in its intent from those of the past, and one that seeks to better organize—and arguably, professionalize—aspects of legacy Communist ideology. If the CCYL document is any indication, the CCP now regards China’s urbanized, educated, and plugged-in youth as not only more technically proficient, but also as more politically reliable than young people from less-developed rural areas. It appears that the CCYL is looking to the former group of young people, rather than the latter, to form its vanguard for the PRC’s latest incarnation of Maoist ideology.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at: [email protected]

Notes

[1] “Central Communist Youth League Notification: ‘Opinions Regarding Deepening the Development of the Countryside and Promoting Great Endeavors for Youth'” [Gongqingtuan Zhongyang Guanyu Shenru Kaizhan Xiangcun Zhenxing Qingchun Jiangong Xingdong de Yijian, 共青团中央《关于深入开展乡村振兴青春建功行动的意见》的通知], Chinese Communist Youth League Central Committee, Document #5 (2019). http://youth.cqu.edu.cn/info/1010/10817.htm.

[2] Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Harvard Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 251-252; and Magnus Fikesjo, “Bury Me with My Comrades: Memorializing Mao’s Sent-Down Youth,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 16 | Issue 14 | Number 4 (July 2018).

[3] For two such examples, see:  “Educated Youth Ascending the Mountains and Going Down to the Countryside—Recollections of Fifty Years” [Zhiqing Shangshan Xiaxiang Wushi Nian Huaigan, 知青上山下乡五十年怀感] Sohu.com, Jan. 23, 2018, https://www.sohu.com/a/218340850_162611; and “Memories of an Epoch: The 50th Anniversary of Educated Youth Ascending the Mountains and Going Down to the Countryside” [Shidai Jiyi—Zhiqing Shangshan Xiaxiang 50 Zhounian Jinian, 时代记忆–知青上山下乡50周年纪念], Beijing CCP Committee Dept. of Retired Cadres, April 8, 2018, http://www.bjlgbj.gov.cn/lgbfc/wshg/wshghdq/201804/t20180408_33236.html.

[4] CCYL, “Opinions Regarding Deepening the Development of the Countryside and Promoting Great Endeavors for Youth” (see endnote #1, above).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.