Since celebrating its centennial with great fanfare in July, the party has imposed a flurry of regulations telling Chinese people, especially the younger generation, how to live their everyday lives.
The measures are the latest attempt by President Xi Jinping to reassert the party’s dominance in shaping the private lives of Chinese citizens, marking a significant departure from the more hands-off direction Chinese leaders had taken in recent decades past.
After the Cultural Revolution, which ended only with Mao’s death in 1976, China pivoted away from “class struggle” and focused on reforming and opening up its economy. As the party dismantled the planned economy and shook up state-owned enterprises, it gradually retreated from the private lives of Chinese people.
Under Xi, however, that unspoken deal appears to have begun to falter, as the Communist Party seeks to reinsert itself into the center of Chinese life.
Analysts say the party’s intrusion into private life has been long in the making, following its tightening grip on virtually every other aspect of Chinese society and the economy in recent years — from clamping down on civil society to reining in the country’s tech giants.
“Now with the regulations on entertainment and so on, it does feel like all the realm of choices is significantly narrowing,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
The state as a parent
The recent policies are heavily tinged with paternalistic overtones and focus primarily on the country’s youth, who the party worries have become victims of what it sees as the greedy quest for profits by private companies and the undue influence of Western values.
“”Spiritual opium’ has grown into an industry worth hundreds of billions,” the commentary said. “No industry, no sport can be allowed to develop in a way that will destroy a generation. (Protecting) the growth of minors should always come first.”
Party mouthpieces have also decried the growing popularity of “sissy boy” stars, blaming Chinese celebrities for importing the “morbid aesthetics” from Japan and South Korea.
The party also took aim at the private tutoring industry, which it blamed for piling excessive pressure on students and preventing them from becoming more well-rounded children. But critics say the crackdown did little to ease the anxiety of parents or address the root cause of the academic rat race — namely the scarcity of good schools and universities in contrast to the huge number of students in China.
“The state is trying to take over some of the functions of being a parent in some way, helping them or trying to help,” said Yang at the University of Chicago.
“But of course we know how limited (its effect) could be over the long haul, especially when we have a tremendous generational difference here,” he added.
Unlike Xi and his colleagues born in the Mao era, young people in China today have grown up with an abundance of choices — freedoms that are hard to take away once people have grown accustomed to them.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and expert on Chinese politics, said if continued, the party’s micromanagement of their private lives is likely to “make a lot of enemies” among younger generations.
While open dissent is unlikely, people could always find ways to go around the rules and feign compliance, he added.
Remolding the youth for Xi’s new era
Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing, said the policies are part of Xi’s effort to remold the Chinese youth into fitting successors of his new era.
“As Xi prepares to start his third term in power at the 20th Party Congress next year, he wants to cultivate a generation of young people that belong to him,” Wu said.
Xi has previously stressed the importance of “unifying thoughts,” likening the development of correct values during adolescence to buttoning a shirt. “If the first button is done wrong, the rest will be buttoned wrong.”
That has prompted comparisons to Cultural Revolution, when the cult of personality around Mao reached a frenzied state, with the country’s youngsters fervently studying his wisdom in the Quotations From Mao Zedong — known as the “Little Red Book.”
But unlike Mao, who encouraged the young Red Guards to attack the party establishment and unleash chaos across the country, Xi wants the youth to “listen to the party, follow the party” and become a constructive force in achieving his ambition of restoring China to its position as a great global power.
“The future belongs to the youth,” Xi said in a speech marking the party’s centennial in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on July 1.
“Chinese youth of the new era should set the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as their mission, strengthen their ambition, backbone and confidence of being a Chinese…and not let down the expectations of the party and the people,” he said.