The Politics of Student Cadres
Summary:Obtaining a high position in university student unions requires political jockeying and social maneuvering that’s sometimes compared to that of actual government officials. Once in office, the student cadres continue to live lives much like those of government leaders, and in fact, often go on to become government leaders.


By Fang Ye (
方也) and Liu Hong (刘红)
Issue 585, Sept 3, 2012
Lifestyle, page 45
Translated by Zhu Na
Original article

Last year, when Li Yi (李谊) was moving apartments, he dug out his old college graduation yearbook. There weren’t many warm messages written by his classmates. Most were just courteous clichés like “Wish you a good future.”

Most of Li’s classmates only had a vague impression of him. He served as office manager in the student union – one of the highest positions in the student government of universities. Because of their work and certain status expectations, these student cadres often find themselves estranged from common students. Parallels are sometimes even drawn between the lives of student officials and cadres in the actual government. Indeed, a large proportion of them do go on to become government leaders.

Every day as his roommates laid chatting in their beds before going to sleep, Li would still have a stack of work reports to complete. Since the dormitory lights shut off at night, he’d take his laptop to a nearby café.  

Zheng Rong (郑融) was also an active member on the student union when he studied at Shandong University, once serving as secretary general of the secretariat department. He recalled the politics of student unions, which were overseen by the student union president.

The president’s duties include holding meetings and discussions, drafting documents for the Communist Youth League Committee (CYLC) to issue to students, handling personnel administration, organizing school activities, and attending inter-school activities on behalf of the university.

The Communist Youth League Committee is a branch of the Communist Party that oversees political thought work in universities. In Zhang’s view, the president of the student union is normally selected from the main office, the secretariat department or the practice department (which organizes student volunteer activities) of the student union because of their close working relationship with CYLC leadership. The CYLC has a series of rules and procedures for the election of student unions in universities that’s pretty much the same everywhere.

Usually school faculty members nominate the student union candidates and an election committee. The members of the committee will then conduct a competitive election to narrow down those candidates to a small pool that will become vice-presidents and president. A teacher in charge of the CYLC will ultimately decide which becomes president.

He Fei (何飞), who was also a member of the student union, did a calculation. From the recruitment of new student union members during freshman year, one needs to go through a process that involves competing with about 200 people to become the student union president.  

He says that the students in the union have strong character, are capable, experienced and have a sense of responsibility to their school. Those who hope to gain personally from their position are in the minority.

But according to Zheng Rong’s understanding, the president of the student union gets preferential treatment from the university. For example, they might be recommended for admission to postgraduate school without taking an exam, or be recommended for certain jobs. Zheng thinks this is a compelling motive for many students to run for president.

In fact, Li Yi’s past colleagues in the student union all went to work in the CYLC, state-owned enterprises or became civil servants. He said there are also sometimes many students applying for membership to the Communist Party that have to wait a long time. “But if you serve as a head of one of the student union departments or as the president, applications can be approved very quickly,” he said.

And much like in the world of actual government officials, “power worship” from the opposite sex comes into play. “Many female students tend to like the president of the student union,” Li said. “In our school the male president of the student union always matches up with a female student from the art department.”

Li Yi downplayed the notion that student union leaders suffer academically from the extra work. “Most students who failed subjects actually didn’t serve any role in the student union,” he said. “There’s no inevitable connection between academic results and [student union] work.” 

He did agree though that student union members hope to become officials after graduation, so they put most of their energy into networking.

“Students who served as president of the student union have relatively higher level social contacts.” Zheng said. Serving as president means you’ve entered an exclusive field and have a chance to meet some education leaders and presidents of student unions at other universities. 

Li also said that student union presidents tend to come from well-off families. “There’s no need to be surprised,” he said.

Students from poorer families tend to work at earning scholarships to reduce the tuition burden and aren’t as inclined to serve. Moreover, students from cities have a natural advantage in social networking and can bring tangible projects and benefits to the school, Li explained.

Li Yi worked in the student union for two years, but was never able to completely adapt to it. Members of the union have lots of dinners to celebrate festivals, birthdays, working overtime or the completion of a project.  Anything can become an excuse for eating out. 

The meal protocol - who should sit in the most important seat, who should order dishes, the order of toasts, who should run errands and pay the bill - these all “match society exactly,” Li joked. “In the morning just look at the vomit by the wall of small restaurants. Either someone broke up from a relationship or it was someone from the student union.”


(Note: All names used in this article are pseudonyms at the request of the interviewees.)


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