Who are the next generation of communist Chinese leaders?
2021 not only marked the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but also the third resolution on party history, ensconcing Xi Jinping as a core leader on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Starting with roughly 50 members in 1921, the CCP organization and mandate has grown exponentially over its lifetime. Today, under Xi’s leadership, Marxism has again assumed the center stage in the “China model,” guiding China’s unmatched rise. Strengthening party organization becomes increasingly important, as the party’s success in delivering results is entwined with the “Chinese Dream” of great rejuvenation. Under Xi’s leadership, CCP members are younger, better educated and better employed than their predecessors as the party’s apparatus has integrated itself into all aspects of the modern Chinese society. A close look at the youngest members of the party sheds light on its future direction.
Historically, Chinese leaders made conscious efforts to shape the CCP membership to reflect the priorities and challenges of the party. Four decades ago, China witnessed the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping to the position of paramount leader and kicked off a new era of economic reform and opening up. To implement these reforms, he wanted the Communist Party of China to become more “young, intellectual, professional, and revolutionary;” a distinct turn away from its original peasant-centric composition. This economic reform opened up a capitalist-communist paradox by making a business perspective essential to the party. Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, attempted to resolve this by stepping up the recruitment of business leaders and ambitious and talented youth to hasten China’s productivity and development.
Today, CCP members with a college or university-level education or above make up over half of the 95 million members, three times higher than the 15 percent of the overall population with a college degree. Similarly, the party has begun to more earnestly recruit young members: 12.5 million members are younger than 30, and three million are students.
In prioritizing the recruitment of the youngest and the brightest, the CCP faces the challenge of ensuring the new members’ loyalty and ideological commitment. Interviews with young members of the party, including current university students and young professionals, reveal that much like admissions to a prestigious university or firm, “fit” plays a significant role in how the party judges its ambitious young aspirants. Whereas before members might have decades of loyal service records to assess, it is harder to prove “loyalty” today: Party officials resort to conducting extensive ideological examinations to determine mastery of the Marxist doctrine, probing one’s reputation among fellow students, and even evaluating candidates’ social interactions with established party members who mentor them through the multi-year admission process.
In recent years, the new emphasis on ideology has meant that the heightened scrutiny does not wane once students become full-fledged members of the party. As a student CCP member explained, ideological group bonding activities within local units that were once optional have become strictly mandatory. Fast tracks through the process of admission have been shut down, making the display of the best civic behaviors and ideological reflections a prolonged process. New members also face increased pressure to embody the party’s ideological virtues.
Yet for all the ideological requirements of party membership, the self-selecting component of the process is not to be overlooked. The young people with the most feelings of nationalism and pride in the party’s accomplishments tend to be those who respond most enthusiastically to the party’s ideology and aspire to party membership. CCP members are found to be far keener than similar aged counterparts to engage in civic activities such as voting or volunteering. Although there may be very few who are absolutely in ideological lockstep with “Xi’s Thoughts,” for many aspirants, party membership is more than simply a prestigious prize. There are other reasons to join the CCP at a young age, including a genuine belief in the party’s leadership over China.
When discussing China’s future, it is important to learn about the next generation of leaders in their formative political years. Xi’s political legitimacy is intimately linked to his experience as a 17-year-old-youth who was sent to the countryside during the cultural revolution. The party line is that Xi’s experience in a barren mountain village in Shaanxi province shaped his worldview and made him more closely attuned to the ordinary people of China.
It is highly likely that the next generation of leadership will emerge not from the countryside but rather from elite universities. As China looks to become a fully innovative nation without sacrificing its adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles, those who expect to engage with China in the future should keep a close eye on how the party strikes this balance now in recruiting and training its future leaders.
Zoe Leung is the director of Track 2 Diplomacy at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. Eric Yang is vice president of Harvard China College Forum and a junior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.