Plans outlined by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s youth wing to send millions of young people to rural areas on ‘volunteering’ assignments and as entrepreneurs have been widely compared to late supreme leader Mao Zedong’s mass mobilization of urban youth during the Cultural Revolution.
China is planning to mobilize more than 10 million young people in its cities, in a bid to reverse a brain drain from the countryside, state media reported on Friday.
The move, announced earlier this month by the Communist Youth League, is aimed at boosting “cultural, technological and medical development” in rural areas by 2020.
“These young volunteers will be sent to rural areas, especially old revolutionary base areas, regions of extreme poverty and areas where ethnic minority groups live to promote local development and improve personal skills,” the Global Times newspaper quoted the Communist Youth League as saying in a recent document.
“The move was hailed by many local officials, who said that it would help revitalize rural areas in the country that have been suffering from talent and labor outflows,” the paper said.
While it is still unclear whether the program will result in a mass, mandatory mobilization of young people, political commentators told RFA that there are clear economic parallels with Mao’s Down to the Countryside movement of the late 1960s to early 1970s.
U.S.-based political commentator Wu Jianmin said the recent economic slowdown in China and the U.S.-China trade war have boosted unemployment among young people, including university graduates, with huge potential for social unrest.
"The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League has said that this ‘Down to the Countryside’ [decision] was based on the overall situation of the Chinese economy,” Wu said.
“If you have large numbers of young people accumulating in the cities, and if they have no employment opportunities and go online every day, this will trigger dissatisfaction with the government,” Wu said.
“The authorities are worried that there will be various protests against the government in the cities," he said.
Unlikely to be mandatory
According to Wu, the current program is unlikely to be completely mandatory, however, unlike the ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement initiated by Mao.
“Back in the day, the Down to the Countryside movement was totally compulsory,” he said. “When Mao Zedong decreed it, every eligible young person in every family had to do, whether they liked it or not.”
“Nowadays, the government will be dressing it up and selling it to them, so this policy is actually much more deceptive than the previous one,” Wu said.
The proposals outlined by the League target three areas: encouraging educated young people to go back to their rural hometowns to “revitalize” local economies by starting businesses; encouraging talented Chinese overseas to come back to China; and mobilizing educated young people to begin new lives in rural areas and boost those areas’ pool of human capital.
Zhang Weimin, a former ‘urban youth’ sent down to the countryside during the Mao era, said that her generation never fully recovered from the experience.
Those who were sent away often lost access to government benefits such as retirement and healthcare on their return, and they are still struggling to defend their rights, decades later. She said the younger generation today is unlikely to be attracted by the idea.
“I think that if they only go for two years’ training in rural areas, then maybe some people would be willing to do it,” Zhang said. “But if it was an indefinite arrangement, as it was for us back then, [they won’t].”
“If you were to ask them what they want to do next, I don’t think a single person will tell you that they want to go to the countryside,” she said.
According to the League document, the government will provide incentives for “e-commerce entrepreneurship” in rural areas and training for returning entrepreneurs, and will publicize any success stories, in a bid to attract participants.
The document also outlines plans to send 10,000 student members of the Communist Party of China and the Youth League to serve in rural areas as part-time officials, to train them in rural governance.
It also proposes building training centers in rural areas targeting more than 200,000 young people by 2020, the Global Times said.
But Chen Kuide, executive chairman of the Princeton China Society, said the government will find the plans much harder to implement than Mao did.
"It is definitely much harder to carry out this kind of mass mobilization nowadays,” Chen told RFA. “If the government can't provide these young people with definite benefits, it will be difficult for it to impose its will to the extent that it did during the Cultural Revolution.”
“Instead, this plan could turn into one of those policies that is imposed from above, but resisted from below,” he said.
According to official statistics, more than 14 million Chinese youth were sent into rural areas during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
The Global Times said the plan is the latest in a “raft of policies” in recent years to help rural areas attract skilled labor.
Reported by Jia Ao for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.