Young And Restless In China

Where's China Headed?

A roundtable discussion with three China watchers on what the new generation of Chinese are facing


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom teaches Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine and is the author, most recently, of China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times (2007) and Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, due out this fall. He's written for various newspapers and magazines, blogs regularly at The China Beat, and served as a consultant for The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen protests which aired (1996) on FRONTLINE.

Maureen Fan is based in Beijing for The Washington Post. Fan began her reporting career with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. As New York bureau chief for the Mercury News, Fan reported on business, technology and breaking news, including the Sept. 11 attacks. Reporting from China, Fan has written on societal change there; most recently, she has been reporting on the May 2008 earthquake.

Perry Link is a professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University, where he specializes in 20th-century Chinese literature. His publications include The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System (Princeton, 2000) and Banyang suibi (Notes of a Semi-Foreigner, in Chinese) (Taipei: Sanminchubanshe, 1999). He has also co-edited two volumes about popular culture in China.

The Questions

In a society changing at breakneck speed, is there one aspect of life in China today that strikes you as emblematic of the contradictions and turmoil confronting Chinese in their 20s and 30s?


Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In a recent commentary for openDemocracy, I noted that I always try to emphasize to students the incredible diversity of China. They often start out with visions of China as a relatively homogeneous place, but I encourage them to think of it as a "complex social and geographic patchwork," more like a continent than a country.

It's crucial to keep in mind, for instance, that young adults in China's villages, as opposed to in cities, face "contradictions" that can be radically dissimilar. And even among urbanites, it makes a world of difference whether one's home is a booming metropolis like Shanghai -- the Chinese city that I know best -- or a northern rust-belt city that is facing hard times.

Still, there is at least one contradiction that's relevant to a great many Chinese of this age. Their lives have been totally unlike those of their parents and grandparents. We've grown accustomed to thinking of all societies as having "generation gaps" that make it hard for members of different age cohorts to understand and communicate with one another. The case of China, though, is one in which the chasm is unusually large -- certainly much larger than in America.

Consider something as basic as using a telephone. When I lived in Shanghai for a year in the mid-1980s, no family I knew had their own phone. To make a call, you used a neighborhood line, and no one expected to have any privacy in communicating with the person on the other end. The children I met that year, though, are now young adults who think nothing of using their cell phones to make calls and assume that communicating through this technology is a private act.

Then there are basic facts like these: Many young Chinese are only children, while very few had parents and grandparents who lacked siblings. They haven't been forced to participate nearly as often as their parents in rituals expressing loyalty to the Communist Party. And in a rapidly urbanizing China, more and more young Chinese live in cities but have parents who at their age had only known village life.

This just scratches the surface of the things that separate Chinese in their 20s and 30s from older family members. Many more examples are offered in the May special issue of National Geographic devoted to China. And Leslie T. Chang's poignant piece there on the life and family of a 16-year-old shows that gulf can be just as large or larger where teenagers and parents in their 30s and 40s are concerned. Another sea change that Chang touches upon is the shift among some urbanites from assuming that younger generations will care for older ones to considering sending a parent to a nursing home a perfectly acceptable option.


Maureen Fan: It's hard to say there's just one aspect of life that's emblematic. But one theme that seems to come up again and again is the pursuit of money, seemingly at all costs. One Chinese friend says many young people "would do just about anything to become rich and famous." Others bemoan the trait and say it's increasingly common, suggesting they don't lead their lives that way and suggesting a struggle with how to behave. There are different degrees of chasing better incomes, but I'm thinking of individuals who defy traditional values or subvert other goals and desires to do this.

Young people aren't the only ones who think first of making money, but the amount of disposable income this generation has sets them apart from their parents and their parents' values. Though I have no poll data handy, my sense is many are struggling with these issues; for example, whether to take a job they're not interested in, marry a boyfriend just for stability or chuck the idea of love and just become a mistress. One of our translators says many young people say they are influenced by Western culture but can't actually explain what it is, beyond buying famous Western brand-name clothing.

Then there's the emptiness or loneliness that some seem to find, despite their increased wealth. As a result, you have a lot of well-off young people expressing insecurity and anxiety about making friends, turning instead to hotlines, Internet Web sites or meeting strangers in clubs, at least more so than before.


Perry Link: I think we need to be careful about the notion of "change at breakneck speed." China has been viewed as "new" many times in the last 100 years, and yet it always seems to need re-renovation. Leading magazines in late-Qing China (1900-1910) were called New Citizen and New Fiction; the 1919 May Fourth Movement was called a Chinese "renaissance"; in the 1930s [Republic of China president] Chiang Kai-shek pushed a "New Life Movement"; Mao's revolution in 1949 was a complete "turning over" (fanshen) of social and political life; the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s aimed at revising human nature and producing "a new socialist man." After Mao died in 1976, things changed a lot, and the years from 1977 to the mid-1980s were called -- what else? -- "the new period."

China today is indeed changing, and much indeed is new. But let's keep this in perspective. I predict that when the Communist Party of China finally falls from power -- however that may happen -- the period immediately following will be called "New China."

Jeff Wasserstrom is right to point out the immense variety of China. The challenges of life under the skyscrapers of Shanghai are worlds different from those in a mountain village in Guizhou, where you still need to carry your drinking water from a stream. Nearly 100 million Chinese still live at that level, and what lies between them and the skyscrapers of Shanghai is a spectrum, not a sharp break.

But that said, my best answer to the "emblematic challenge" question is the problem of what ethical and social values to believe in. It is deep in Chinese culture -- in fact, it is coded into the very grammar of daily-life Chinese language -- that one should "be a person" properly. But what exactly does that mean?

In "traditional Confucianism," the basic duties -- of being a good father, a good son, a good ruler, subject, husband, wife, friend, etc. -- were pretty well known. That doesn't mean that everybody always behaved well, of course, but at least everybody knew the standards, could use the values as their own moral compasses and could count on the fact that other people also knew the standards, so that public criticism of someone else's misbehavior could rest on a common basis.

Modern Chinese revolutions aimed to "knock down Confucius and sons," and, after some decades of confusion, in the 1950s socialist values truly did take hold as new answers to the question of how to "be a good person." But the disasters of late Maoism -- the Great Leap famine and the Cultural Revolution -- turned people cynical about socialism, and the devil-take-the-hindmost moneymaking of the post-Mao years has made even the language of socialism utterly irrelevant to daily life.

So what should fill the "values vacuum" today? Religion has been part of the answer. It is ironic that American missionaries, in the 100 years between 1850 and 1950, produced about 3 million Chinese Christians, whereas the values vacuum created by the Communist Party, in about a quarter as much time, has produced about 100 million. But one problem with religions is that, as soon as they seem to form an organization that the Party-state does not control -- or could not easily control if it wanted to -- they are squashed; Falun Gong, Yi Guan Dao and underground Christian churches are examples.

Follow-up from Jeffrey Wasserstrom

As someone who teaches history for a living, I wish I had thought to begin my answer, as Perry did, by mentioning how often China has been said to be changing quickly. And there are local parallels to the recycling of the term "New China" in the case of the Chinese city I know best.

As I note in my forthcoming book on the metropolis, the term "New Shanghai" was first used back in the 1850s to refer to transitions in that urban center, and it was used again to different effect in the early 1900s, after 1949, and after Pudong skyscrapers began to shoot up in the 1990s.

Still, I do think some things about the newest "New China" are sufficiently unprecedented to be worth flagging as truly epochal; the fact, for example, that China could soon become, for the first time in its history, become a country where the urban-rural split is close to 50-50.

There is a prevailing sense of uprootedness in this film. As young people in China develop a taste for the good life -- fashion, cars and new technology -- do old values and traditions still apply in some fundamental way?

JW: It's inevitable, in light of how dramatically China is changing, that many values and traditions are being discarded or challenged. UCLA's Yunxiang Yan, one of the leading anthropologists of China, has argued in his latest village study, Private Life Under Socialism, that long-term family structures have undergone a devastating two-pronged attack since the 1950s: First they were undermined by Maoist collectivization, then got a knockout punch from market-driven individualism.

On the other hand, the aftermath of the Mao era has shown us just how resilient some patterns of belief and practice can be. Despite all of the state-sponsored efforts to stamp out so-called superstitious forms of popular religion, for example, many managed to pop back up again as soon as the Reform era began. A case in point is the persistence of rumors about the magical abilities of animals, a subject brought into new relief when the earthquake hit, as Steve Smith points out in a post for the blog The China Beat, to which I also contribute.

Similarly, efforts to root out "bourgeois" modes of thinking, including smart ways to make a buck, clearly didn't work, as the resurgence of entrepreneurial activity in Chinese cities shows. And Mao-era calls to recognize that women "hold up half the sky" did not succeed in uprooting various forms of patriarchy. In other words, for better and for worse, values and traditions, not just in China but also in all other places, often have surprisingly long half-lives.

A more positive sort of persistence of values than those I've just highlighted is the high premium still placed in China on education. This shows through in the vibrancy of Chinese bookstores as hangouts and in the variety of materials they offer for sale, a subject I explore in China's Brave New World -- a book for which Perry was good enough to write a blurb -- as well as this podcast. Admittedly, what young Chinese professionals seek out in these bookstores are often distinctively contemporary kinds of reading materials: how-to books about getting ahead in business, novels by South Korean romance writers or guides to making a perfect cup of espresso. Still, the continued importance of the written word and the act of book buying, even while new media and visual spectacle are so central to urban life in China, is striking.

MF: Of course, old values still apply -- going home for Chinese New Year and getting married to please your parents, for example. But the importance of these pulls is shrinking. A former researcher says society is now a fast-food culture: Many people are impatient, and if old values and traditions don't immediately pay off for them somehow, they will lose interest in that, too.

Still, many young people seem, in the end, loath to offend their parents; for example, the many cases of gay sons or daughters entering into marriages of convenience to keep up appearances or give their parents a grandchild. Confucianism is making a comeback [in] schools, best-selling books and TV programs as people recognize the fragility of old-fashioned values, and yet many Chinese have no idea what Confucianism really is, reducing it in some cases to just a few of its tenets such as filial piety or loyalty.

PL: Please see above for my views on the enduring pattern in Chinese culture of valuing "proper behavior." Materialism and ostentation are rampant among the newly wealthy, and even among the newly not-quite-wealthy.

But if that's the bad news, the good news is that Chinese satire of ostentation is also alive and well. The anonymously authored rhythmic ditties that Chinese people pass around orally or in text messages constantly make fun of corruption, gluttony, drunkenness, sexual excess and hypocrisy among the wealthy and powerful. Indeed, these jokes address almost no other topics. People who pass them around would probably not say they are being "Confucian" in doing so. But the values that they are implicitly relying on are those same "old" traditional values.

The filmmaker, Sue Williams, says that throughout the four years of filming the documentary, she was struck by "how little interaction most Chinese have with the government these days." Do you think her experience is representative? Is this change especially true with the younger generation?

JW: I'm not sure that this is a generational difference. What is different is that many young Chinese, unlike their parents and grandparents, have been able to live most or all their lives with relatively little to do with the government, or at least the government's presence has been far subtler than it was in the past.

For older Chinese, the retreat of the state is more likely to be registered as a change, even a shock. In some cases, this is certainly for the better, in the sense that there is less monitoring of their daily lives. But in other cases, it's definitely for the worse. This is bound to be true, for example, for former employees of state-run companies, who thought that the jobs they held would be theirs for life but now find themselves unemployed. And to add insult to injury, they have ended up unemployed in a country where the state has also retreated from doing as much as it once did in realms like public health.

MF: [Sue's statement] sounds about right, but it really depends on your job. Tens of thousands of college graduates prefer danwei [Chinese for "work unit"] jobs [with state-run companies] that promise stability over excitement, and if not free housing, then preferential treatment for housing or for graduate education. Then there's all the unofficial guanxi [Chinese for business relationships or connections] people who need business-permit approvals or want help with their children's schooling have to deal with, or they have to wine and dine government officials extensively.

The Internet has also changed many people's views toward government -- for example, reducing their trust in official state news. The Internet's popularity has also prompted government officials to start blogs or solicit public opinion before major party congresses. [Chinese Premier] Wen Jiabao's Facebook page is apparently hugely popular. So it also depends on your definition of government interaction.

PL: During high Maoism four decades ago, the hand of the state reached right into homes and even into bedrooms. Families sometimes fell apart. Now, as long as you avoid public expression on politically radioactive topics -- such as the Beijing Massacre or Falun Gong or Taiwan independence or the private lives of top leaders or "wrong" views on the Dalai Lama, the Uighurs [ethnically Turkish Muslims in China], etc. -- the government leaves you alone, and you, except when you have no choice, leave it alone. Self-censorship, much more than force, governs this modus vivendi.

That said, if a young Chinese had indeed had trouble with the Chinese government, any expression in front of a camera -- or in front of a foreigner, or indeed in front of any human being -- needs to be interpreted. From one point of view, every oral datum is valuable, because everything is a real something -- including deceit, caution or just not washing family clothes in public. We just have to interpret. Naive realism will not do. Way too much "performance" goes on in Chinese culture for that.

Many observers think the Sichuan earthquake and Beijing's reaction to it could signal a new chapter in how the government relates to its citizens, and citizens to their society. Could the earthquake have significant long-term consequences?

JW: The Sichuan earthquake does, I think, mark an important turning point for China. Quite a few specialists with differing forms of expertise have been offering their takes on this issue on The China Beat in ways I find illuminating, though some have also stressed some continuities with the past when it comes to patterns of response. Several of the site's postings also direct readers to particularly good journalistic coverage of the disaster.

My own sense is that, while all of these perspectives are valuable, it will take months, or perhaps even years, to figure out exactly what all of the event's ramifications are. Sorry for this "too soon to tell" dodge, but my discipline is history, after all.

To go out more on a limb, I do think the earthquake revealed an increased concern with public opinion on the part of China's leaders, or at least brought this into high relief. As I said on NPR's Morning Edition, Premier Wen Jiabao does not have to stand for re-election, but he has often taken to acting as though he did -- and he'd get a lot of votes just now.

This is an important development. I'd put this and the unusual degree of media openness allowed -- admittedly for a short period -- in the "likely to have long-term consequences" category. I'd also say that the aftermath of the earthquake and other recent issues, including recent middle-class protests that Maureen has written about very insightfully, have underscored the degree to which new communication technologies have changed and will continue to change political equations in China.

I'm less optimistic about the trend we saw in May toward a ratcheting down of anti-Chinese commentary in the Western press and of anti-Western commentary in the Chinese blogosphere. This felt more like a temporary truce in what's likely to be a vicious cycle of mutual recrimination and misunderstanding rather than a real, lasting change.

MF: Hard to say so soon. Indications are that any openness that allows citizens to question their local officials -- such as those who allowed shoddy school construction -- will be short-lived.

The government has no doubt learned from the outpouring of sympathy in response to its initial media openness, but most of the stories now are about hero rescuers and not about poor building construction or earthquake forecasting. Nor, for example, are they about why the Chinese Red Cross does not release its revenues and expenditures.

It's true the quake also prompted a heartfelt volunteer response from individual citizens, but there is so far no evidence that this will lead to any relaxation in policies toward NGOs anytime soon. In one town, local officials reportedly used the immediate aftermath not to rescue children but to evict homeowners from undamaged apartment buildings that real estate developers had long wanted to take over.

The behavior of government officials who detained angry parents of dead schoolchildren and blocked reporters from interviewing them do not suggest a new chapter in how the government relates to citizens, merely business as usual. Many observers also predict the national harmony after the earthquake will soon give way to impatience and accusations of corruption as the rebuilding process continues, but most quake refugees have been incredibly patient and resilient so far.

PL: I would say the earthquake shook the Sichuan hills much more than Beijing politics. Beijing looked good in the days following the earthquake partly because of the contrast with the outrageous obstruction by the Burmese junta following the cyclone disaster in that country. Coverage of the earthquake by the domestic Chinese media was very good, but it is important to see why this was so. It was not that rulers in Beijing sent out orders to cover the disaster, perhaps feeling that there needs to be more openness between them and their citizens. No. What happened is that news of the earthquake spread on the Internet, and reporters from across China -- especially from Southern Weekend, Southern Window, Finance and Economy and the other "liberal" media who are pushing their own envelopes for more media freedom -- rushed to Sichuan on their own and started reporting.

And this is a good example of a larger point, in my view. I think China is indeed edging more and more toward such things as press freedom, government transparency and rule of law. But this progress is generated from below -- by reporters, lawyers, rights activists and ordinary citizens with grievances. Party authorities, on the whole, push the opposite way. For them, this is a matter of preserving major vested interests.

Follow-up from Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I agree that most of the impetus for change is coming from below in China, and this kind of grassroots activism has been tracked well in recent publications by journalists and by social scientists writing in accessible ways. One work by a reporter I've found valuable is Ian Johnson's Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. And among recent publications by social scientists on this theme, a good example available online is George Gilboy and Benjamin Read's piece (PDF file) in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly.

As China continues its great experiment combining capitalistic economics and a Communist government, what's the balance between freedom and risk, particularly for this next generation?

JW: One of the big things that we need to take onboard is just how unprecedented its current path is. We don't have a roadmap for figuring out what will happen next in a country moving in this unusual direction. And each new, unexpected twist changes so much, including the balance between freedom and risk.

MF: The government risks its legitimacy as an increasingly sophisticated public slowly demands more accountability. As long as the economy keeps improving, there's a sense on their part that the balance can be maintained. But the younger generation? They're largely apolitical and pragmatic. If you're concerned about finding a job, an apartment and a spouse, you're not focused on politics, nor on many of these larger issues, I think.

PL: The real dilemma for the young generation, in my view, is whether or not to hunker down, play by the rules, pursue materialism, and be safe -- "shut up and make money," in short -- or to explore one's single chance at human life in richer and more varied ways. China's own cultural storehouse on the one side, and the outside world's cultural cornucopia on the other, have plenty to offer. There may be "risk" in pursuing these things, yes, but to ignore them risks a great deal as well.

Follow-up from Jeffrey Wasserstrom

All I'd add to Perry's eloquent description of the situation is that we shouldn't forget how easily materialist concerns can contribute to idealistic acts. Though we tend to look back on the 1989 protests -- in Eastern Europe and in China -- as inspired by pure idealism, there was a materialistic side to both. One thing that made people in, say, East Berlin so fed up with Communist Party rule was their knowledge of how much more attractive, at a material level, life was just over the Wall in West Berlin. And Chinese students and workers took to the streets in part because of economic discontent, a sense that officials and their children were getting too big a share of the perks from market reforms. This isn't to suggest that their acts weren't noble, just to remind us that they weren't motivated solely by abstract ideals.

I bring this up because sometimes it seems too sharp a line is drawn between the 1989 generation and the present one. Yes, there are big differences, meaning it doesn't make sense for us to keep waiting for a "revival" of the Tiananmen protests. But it is possible to imagine future scenarios where frustration over quality-of-life issues and a sense that official selfishness was blocking the nation's progress would again inspire young people to take risks.

There are even ways that the disturbing turn toward a "fast-food" approach that Maureen described so nicely in an earlier answer could become a liability for the state. One source of frustration among young professionals could be a conviction that leaders or bureaucracies too set in their ways were not able to keep the economic boom on track or to best serve the national good.

An illustration of what I have in mind here came in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Bloggers who had previously tended to be supportive of the government's playing up of the Olympic torch run as a glorious event began to express outrage over the official media sticking to its celebratory script, rather than shifting gears to a more somber one the day after the tragedy hit. Why, they demanded, was the state continuing to issue rosy reports about the torch making its way through Fujian when people were suffering so in Sichuan?

This didn't blow up into a major issue in this particular case, in part because the government did change course, introducing a more somber tone into torch-run coverage, including a moment of silence for earthquake victims and so on. Still, it was a very interesting development, which also showed how easily 21st-century Chinese nationalism can switch from being loyalist to being at least partly oppositional, something that was always true of Chinese nationalism in the 1900s.

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posted june 17, 2008

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