The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ordered its youth wing - deemed the stronghold of Premier Li Keqiang and former president Hu Jintao - to improve its leadership structure and operations, in what is possibly President Xi Jinping's first salvo in the power play leading up to a leadership transition next year.
A reform road map for the Communist Youth League (CYL) was released on Tuesday night, with the approval of the CCP's apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Believed to be the first of its kind in recent decades, it is aimed at implementing Mr Xi's recent instructions on the CYL's work.
Key measures include making its leadership structure less elitist by stipulating minimum proportions of grassroots representatives; improving its outreach work by making cadres spend more time among youth and in rural areas; and cultivating a better public image by encouraging members to become registered volunteers.
Chinese media yesterday quoted an unnamed CYL leader - described as "the person in charge" - as voicing support for the reforms and acknowledging the existing problems in the league's work.
"For instance, many members lack a strong sense of pride, the league's appeal is insufficient, and the reach of our work is limited. If these problems remain, the CYL cannot perform the youth outreach work for the party," said the official.
It is a marked turn in fortunes for the CYL, which became a powerful force during Mr Hu's ascendancy in Chinese politics from 1992 when he entered the PSC to his retirement as party chief in 2012.
Key members of the CYL faction, known as tuanpai in Chinese, were his successors as CYL chief, such as Premier Li, Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua,Chief Justice Zhou Qiang and Heilongjiang governor Lu Hao. Other notable names include Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Vice-Premier Wang Yang.
But Mr Hu's retirement and his reported failure to ensure that more CYL alumni enter the PSC that year, along with the growing strength of Mr Xi and his allies, have diminished the league's influence.
In the past year, it has come under considerable fire. Last July, Mr Xi criticised the CYL leadership as being too "aristocratic" and an investigation by the CCP's disciplinary watchdog in April this year found evidence of embezzlement and influence-peddling. The CCP has also reportedly halved the CYL's budget this year from 624.13 million yuan (S$126.4 million) last year.
Analysts said the reforms could be justified as the CYL's allure among young people has been declining and this is affecting its effectiveness as a youth outreach network and source of future leaders for the party.
For instance, membership numbers in the CYL - formed in 1920 to promote communist ideology among youth aged between 14 and 28 - dipped from 88 million in 2013 to 87 million last year.
"There is a ring of legitimacy and reason to the reforms," City University of Hong Kong analyst Joseph Cheng told The Straits Times.
But Wuhan University analyst Qin Qianhong said the reforms could also be politically motivated to help Mr Xi secure top posts for his allies at the CCP's 19th Party Congress late next year.
"Mr Xi could be indirectly criticising CYL alumni for not solving the problems in the league and rising up the ranks through an inept body. It might be an attempt to put them in their place and prevent them from opposing his plans," he added.