Young Pioneers look for new path

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-24 19:05:00

About 1,000 pupils swore to join the Young Pioneers on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 1, Children's day. Photo: CFP
About 1,000 pupils swore to join the Young Pioneers on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 1, Children's day. Photo: CFP
"Be prepared to struggle for the cause of communism!" As other children saluted the Communist Party of China (CPC) and swore their loyalty on the playground, Tao Hongkai, 6, was alone in the classroom studying.

Tao, a primary student at Wuhan's Shuiguohu Primary School in Hubei Province, was the only one among his 50 classmates to not join the Young Pioneers - a State-run organization of 130 million children under the leadership of the CPC.

As a result, he was not allowed to wear a red scarf, the emblem of the Young Pioneers, or join any related activities.

"I envied them so much that I saluted in front of a mirror at home," Tao told the Global Times. "But I never felt empty because I had my own goals."

Six decades later, Tao is a sociologist and an expert on helping Internet-addicted children.

"I could focus on studying and accomplishing my goal - to be a useful person in society," he said, looking back to the days when he was not a Young Pioneer.

Almost every primary school student between 6 and 14 years of age in China joins the Young Pioneers, which is widely seen as being a great honor. Being excluded from the organization would be seen as a blemish on one's record.

However, in recent years, as social values have diversified, some parents have begun to doubt the meaning of their children being "successors of communism" and discourage their kids from joining the Young Pioneers. They say they worry their children might be influenced by an ideology at such an early stage of life.

Two-tiered elections

Xiao Yan, a Christian from Shandong Province whose son is about to attend primary school, told the Global Times that she and other religious parents are reluctant to see their children become Young Pioneers.

The Chinese Young Pioneers National Working Committee declined to comment for this story, only emphasizing that membership in the movement is optional.

Even though it is officially optional to join, in many schools, new members are elected directly by teachers without being consulted or the entire student body is forced to join up.

"I will tell my child the difference between the communism and Christianity, and I will make myself clear that as a parent I don't want him to join," she said. However, she admits that "if my child insists, I will let him do so."

Xiao suggested that joining the Young Pioneers should be conducted by a third party.

"Schools are a place to teach knowledge, it should stay out of politics," she said, "So if children are interested to join, they can apply to an external organization."

However, Xiao said most children from religious families choose to be Red Scarves, often for fear of being left behind.

In a secular society where many people do not share religious convictions and are not too bothered about ideology, Xiao's case is rare.

"Parents often ask the teachers why their children are not in yet, and if there is anything that they can improve," said Ma, a teacher in charge of recruiting new Young Pioneer members at the elite Asia-Pacific Experiment School of Beijing Normal University.

In Ma's school, 1,100 of 1,400 Grade 1 students are all members of the Young Pioneers. The rest are on the waiting list. The head teachers for each class elect candidates based on their overall performance. "Star students" with good grades and talents will be the first batch to join, others join in the second batch.

"But no one will be left behind. All the children will join the Young Pioneers eventually," she said.

Many students are reportedly upset and unhappy if they are not part of the first batch. Ma explained this division exists to motivate students to behave themselves and study harder.

"Being a Young Pioneer means being outstanding. Of course star pupils should join first and set a good example for others," she said.

Scarves not so red

Most Chinese elites follow a set political career path: Students who graduate from the Young Pioneers can expect to join the Communist Youth League and then compete to become full-fledged members of the Party.

However, this ladder is not always straight and narrow now. Some teachers reportedly accept bribes from parents in exchange for helping their children become Pioneers first, and some teachers have even put their own children at the head of the line.

Earlier this month, an online post accused teachers at Southwest Central Primary School in Foshan, Guangdong Province, of ensuring their children to become Red Scarves before anyone else. This attracted thousands of hits and broad debate on wielding this kind of influence.

The Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily quoted the school's deputy headmaster Liu Xiuying as saying that some children in the first batch were teachers' children, but that they were elected first because of their behavior and academic track record.

This was not the first time netizens had questioned the ideology of the Red Scarves. Last year, teachers from a primary school in Shaanxi Province gave green scarves to students with poor grades or bad behavior records, which drew criticism from both parents and educators, forcing the principal into an apology.

It was an easy leap for netizens to associate the elections of Red Scarves to the real world where power holds absolute sway.

Last year, the nickname of Five Stripes Boy, was given to Huang Yibo, 13, from Hubei Province who was pictured with a five-stripe badge on his uniform. The picture was to promote the Young Pioneers, but netizens said it resembled pictures of high-ranking officers. The Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday that a primary school in the province had canceled the use of the five-stripe badge to "let kids live as kids."

Tao sees this phenomenon as a consequence of cultural deterioration.

"I feel pity that some good traditions are fading and losing their meaning," he explained. "It reflects concerns about the deterioration of China's cultural, political and ideological environments."

Considering this, some non-religious parents discourage their children from joining the Young Pioneers.

Fu Yongjie, the father of a young girl daughter from Shaanxi, said he would not push his child to join.

"What does a 6-year-old kid know about the goal of the Young Pioneers? I hope my daughter's first lie will be denying she stole money to go out with her friends, not that she would struggle for a cause she doesn't understand," Fu told the Global Times.

Some religious parents have also expressed their concerns that they do not want their children to get involved with politics at such an early age.

Tao said the goals that the Young Pioneers are not always met, even once children join up.

"Interestingly, some badly behaved children I deal with are Red Scarves, that means being a member does not guarantee exemplary behavior," he said.

"Therefore, parents should not worry too much if their children are Young Pioneers or not, they should focus on their studies and their goals," he continued.

Poor guidance

One reason why the organization has been losing its glory is also because Young Pioneers' counselors, mainly head teachers or officials assigned by the educational bureau, do not know much about how to guide the Young Pioneers, Yan Kai, editor of Guangdong-based Children magazine, told the Global Times.

"Many children find it hard to accept the way they explain the organization as there are too many political terms," he said.

The current generation of students has grown up with new media, which has become part of their lifestyle and affected the way they think, according to a survey issued in May by the Guangdong Provincial Social Sciences Academy.

It found out that half of the 5,000 students surveyed in 50 Guangzhou primary schools had microblogs and many had access to cell phones and iPads.

The education ministry announced in September that Young Pioneers activities should be listed as a required course in all primary schools, with one class every week for students from Grade 1 to 8.

Yan suggested that Young Pioneers' counselors should broaden their approach to keep up with the new generation by organizing public or charity events rather than simply focusing on classes.

The organization also has a plan B. Earlier this month, on its 63rd anniversary, it announced that the Young Pioneers in Guangdong would now only receive counselors with master's degrees.

Three universities in the province launched a pilot project to create a new postgraduate program - children's organization and ideological education. This aims to produce well-educated Young Pioneers' counselors who could use positive discipline and show exemplary behavior to guide children, Xinhua quoted an unnamed director from the provincial working committee as saying.

There are over 170,000 counselors in the province. However, the pilot program will only recruit five students for 2013 although the provincial working committee said this number would increase according to the volume of applications.

"Those graduates can work in many education sectors like schools or NGOs. They will play a very important role in children's education in the future," the director said.

Chen Xinyue, 12, who just graduated from Yahetang Primary School in Guangzhou this summer, was elected as the 2010-2011 excellent Young Pioneer of Guangzhou.

When asked whether she is aware that the organization has not lived up to its ideal, she said the title was a great honor but that she did not know much about what it mean to be an excellent Young Pioneer.

"I am really unlucky," she said. "The reward was supposed to add some 5-10 points to my middle school entrance exam score, but the policy was canceled because some parents complained to the education ministry that it was unfair."

Zhang Yan contributed to this story

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