June is the month China dedicates to its children. Starting with Children’s Day on June 1, a series of celebrations and gatherings take place across the land. They are led by the Young Pioneers (YP), a 130 million-strong youth organization controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

YP membership is mandatory for children from the age of six to 14. Unlike the Communist Youth League, which is tasked with identifying high quality party candidates at secondary school level, the YP opens its doors to all children since its mission is to inculcate as many as possible with the official ideology. In recent years, however, the YP has encountered numerous challenges and in February a reform initiative was kick-started.

The YP needs reform for a couple of reasons. Firstly, its group cohesion is eroding and the organization is losing appeal among its target audience, who see it as being steeped in formalism. Secondly, many of its counselors lack thorough professional training.

Reform of the YP – which is viewed by the party as the “strategic reserve force of socialism with Chinese characteristics” – is intended to rejuvenate the organization and recharge old doctrines with new practices.

All YP members must follow a three-tier ideology. The trinity of party-nation-people stands at the core. The next layer consists of four “-isms”: patriotism, collectivism, socialism, and communism. Then there are the “five loves”: love of the nation, its people, of science, labor, and public property. Revering the party leader, though omitted, is also an important component.  

The YP reforms seek to devolve greater power to children themselves and reduce top-down leadership. YP members are to be given more than 50% of the seats at their respective YP congresses, while grassroots counselors will constitute more than 60% of adult representation at YP congresses. Additional regulations will streamline the professionalization of counselors, and YP rituals will be updated. Moreover, YP membership will now be extended into the first year of middle school. Outstanding candidates will be promoted to the Communist Youth League starting from age 13. Each week, there will be an additional hour of class time dedicated to teaching YP values.

In theory, the reforms are intended to bring about a shift in the YP on an institutional level. However there is little evidence that much has changed or will change. Local cadres give great credence to reform objectives and have legislated accordingly, but YP reform in action is really about tightening ideological control.

The rebellious youth down in Hong Kong who have grown up with liberal values and a lack of respect are the antithesis of what the party wants for China’s future generations

It seems emblematic of this approach that the party appeared to rob children of their holiday. Children’s Day this year felt more like “praise the party day,” with YP members singing “red” hymns, saluting the party flag and showering panegyrics on Xi Jinping.

To give a flavor of the campaign, one YP member in Leshan, Sichuan Province, writes: “Grandpa Xi, you have worked very hard. Please remember to drink more water, rest, and take care of your health.” A member from Chengdu, meanwhile, declares: “Grandpa Xi, my hometown is getting more and more beautiful. The sky is bluer by the day. I really hope we can have a jog together on the tracks!” And a YP member from Guangdong Province, offers: “Grandpa Xi, I admire you greatly. In fact, I am your number one fan. Thanks for bringing prosperity to our nation and peace to the people.”A campaign dedicated to extolling Xi was launched shortly after the YP reform plan was announced. Styled “Gleefully anticipating the 19th party congress — my heartfelt words for Grandpa Xi,” it drew participation from YPs all across China who competed in honoring Xi’s leadership. Some drew pictures, some designed posters, while others planted trees decorated with cards wishing Grandpa Xi well. (Some of these, in fact, have considerable comedic value, which is worth mentioning since caricatures of party leaders are normally forbidden.)

While on paper the YP reforms are all about increasing the organization’s cohesion and appeal, in reality the focus is on stronger ideological control. The rebellious youth down in Hong Kong who have grown up with liberal values and a lack of respect are the antithesis of what the party wants for China’s future generations. Therefore, the party must deepen indoctrination among the young to make sure China’s youth “listen and follow” the party’s every dictum.

Zi Yang is a researcher and consultant on China affairs. He covers Chinese politics, security, and emerging markets. Zi holds an MA from Georgetown University and a BA from George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @MrZiYang.