By Jérôme Doyon


The Montréal Review, February 2024



This book is a study of ambitious young Chinese, their aspirations, and career choices. It was prompted by an initial puzzle: how does the Chinese party-state manage to attract recruits and maintain their commitment over time, when ideology does not structure recruitment anymore and a liberalized employment market provides alternative career options? These issues are central to our understanding of what contributes to the long-term resilience of non-democratic regimes and their ability to remain attractive to educated young people.

By contrast with studies analyzing the Chinese party-state as a monolith maintaining loyalty through ideology and coercion, Rejunevating Communism takes seriously the perspective of the individuals who inhabit it, putting at the center of the analysis the mechanisms explaining the individual choice of becoming and remaining a Chinese official. I examine the cadres’ perspective and how their ambition is transformed through the first steps of political professionalization. To do so, I focus on the experience of cadres within the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) youth organizations, and in particular, the Chinese Communist Youth League (CYL), as they are excellent observation points to study officials-to-be and more accessible than the party itself. I start my inquiry at the college level as, now that most officials go to university, political activities on campus have become an essential channel towards developing a commitment to a career in the party-state. 

Youth organizations select and cultivate recruits starting from the first years of college, to progressively incorporate them into the country’s political elite. This book shows how these early experiences transform the recruits and feed their political commitment as they are gradually inducted into the world of officials. Through this formative experience they develop embryonic political networks, a growing attachment to their social role as future party-state leaders, and they learn to behave as officials. Following the initial steps of this political selection process, this book puts forward a couple central arguments on the nature of elite renewal and cohesion in post-Mao China, challenging both meritocracy and factional approaches to Chinese politics:

I argue that solidary and symbolic elements, and in particular changes in their social circles and social roles, are central to explaining party-state officials’ political commitment. Their early professional experience in youth organizations narrows their social circles down to their peers. They also change how they present themselves: through standardized behavior, how they dress, drink, or talk, cadres perform their party spirit and embody a social role as leaders-to-be. These social factors bolster what I call the young officials’ undogmatic commitment to their political careers, based on the recruit’s ambition rather than ideological fervor. The recruits who exhibit such forms of commitment—by being diligent cadres who catch their superiors’ attention, socializing with bosses and colleagues, and more generally by investing in their role— are provided with unique training and career opportunities. By stressing the importance of symbolic and social incentives in political recruitment, I challenge the view that merit (education, skill, work performance, etc.) is the main criterion for advancement within the Chinese party-state.

This book also highlights how the clubbish nature of the recruitment and nurturing process strengthens the recruits’ homogeneity, as they are primarily male and graduates from the country’s best universities, as well as behavioral standardization. As the recruits conform to the role they aspire to, their behavior is progressively standardized. For the officials I encountered during my inquiry, this process includes being selected early on by party cadres to become a CCP member and work in its youth organizations, taking part in social events that induct the recruits within the officials’ circles, developing close ties with senior officials who may become important sponsors, and internalizing the elite’s code by learning how to behave and speak like a party-state official. Yet this standardization process’s performative and ritualistic aspects imply that homogeneity of behavior, and often background, does not necessarily lead to uniformity of thought. The young cadres I met embodied the diversity of views and policy preferences found in the party-state more broadly, ranging from right-wing liberals to neo-Maoists. I argue that the cadres’ undogmatic commitment and behavioral homogenization are central to the party-state’s ability to balance cohesion and pluralism within its ranks and to how it can ask its officials to be both obedient and innovative. Diversity of views, and of personal networks, is possible due to the behavioral conventions and personal norms that cadres share and through which they signal their commitment and belonging. But as we see under Xi Jinping, this diversity can be threatened when the leadership emphasizes activism and asks more from cadres than simply showcasing their commitment.

My study also unpacks the implication on elite cohesion of the fragmented nature of the Chinese political system. I argue that officials are embedded in complex networks of personal ties that accumulate through their career, leading to their diffuse allegiance to the party-state as a whole, rather than to specific groups within it. This diffuse allegiance is based on the fact that recruits are embedded early on within networks of party-state officials. They develop personal ties with their superiors and with other student cadres who have a good chance to become officials as well. Most of the relationships built within youth organizations on campus will, therefore, translate into ties between party-state officials in the future. The political socialization role of universities is far from being specific to China, yet the Chinese uniqueness resides in the level of integration between political networks inside and outside campuses. The party’s youth organizations play a vital role in integrating these networks: starting from their volunteering as youth organization cadres in universities, they are part of CCP-led organizations.

The cadres’ networks are also cumulative and expand through rotations and transfers. These diverse relationships also establish the cadres’ allegiance to the party-state. Against a factional approach, viewing Chinese politics as a struggle between separate elite groups, I stress the non-exclusive nature of these ties. Officials develop many cross-cutting personal links, resulting from their complex trajectories across administrations and locales. This multiplicity of allegiances does not prevent officials from forming partnerships for specific purposes, but it makes it harder to organize in clearly defined and exclusive groups. These ties, which spread throughout the party-state hierarchy, lead to high levels of elite cohesion as they result in a diffuse allegiance to the overall network rather than the development of unified factions, which could endanger the survival of the regime.

Overall, by taking the perspective of political recruits in authoritarian contexts seriously, this book goes beyond functionalist perspectives that view subjective aspects of political life, such as the role of symbols and interpersonal relationships, as running counter to the efficient functioning of these regimes. It focuses on how interactions between such informal elements and formal institutional rules shape individual officials’ trajectories, their political commitment, and their allegiance to the regime. Doing so allows for a dynamic approach to elite cohesion and a fuller understanding of the drivers behind the long-term survival of authoritarian regimes, as well as the mechanisms that may contribute to their demise.


Jérôme Doyon is a Junior Professor at the Centre for International Relations (CERI) at Sciences Po Paris, and an affiliate at the Oxford China Centre as well as at the King College London’s Lau China Institute. His research focuses on Chinese politics and foreign policy with a specific interest in the inner working of the Party-State apparatus and its exportation beyond Chinese borders, as well as elite politics, political youth organizations, and the management of ethnoreligious minorities. His most recent book, co-edited with Chloé Froissart, is titled The Chinese Communist Party: a 100-year trajectory and was published by the Australian National University Press in 2024.





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