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Young, patriotic and conservative:understanding China’s millennials


Young people like me areambitious and more plugged in to the world than ever before. But will theybring about a more liberal China?

像我这样的年轻人比以往任何时候都野心勃勃,比以往任何时候都更能融入世界。 但他们会带来更自由的中国吗?


by Yuan Ren
Every generation needs to announce that it isdifferent. But the differences are real in today’s China, a country that hasbeen changing so fast that the experience of each age-group is entirelydifferent to what has gone before.


I was born in the 1980s, in the spring of the new China. When I was achild, most families didn’t have a telephone; by the time I was in my teens,supermarkets started appearing in the cities. It was only once I was a youngadult that, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, change came full-pelt,symbolised by smartphones and the western brands flooding into the shops.Foreign travel became much easier and young people began studying abroad.

我出生在上世纪80年代, 新中国的春天。当我还是个孩子的时候,大多数家庭都没有电话;到我十几岁的时候,城市里开始出现超市。在我的青年时代,绝无仅有的,翻天覆地的变化到来了。那是在2008年奥运会的筹备期间,标志就是智能手机和西方品牌洪水般涌入了中国,出国旅行变得容易多了,年轻人开始出国留学。

All of which means that, when I look to my parents, the gulf between us iswide. My dad left home at 16 to work in a state-owned factory and so did mymother. Both grew up during the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted the wholeeducation system. When higher education was eventually revived in 1977, theywere part of a tiny and lucky minority to go to university.
Most of that generation faced narrow choices, if any. Many were given jobplacements, which often involved moving far away from home. Lots of youngurbanites were sent to the vast Chinese interior to experience the ruralhardship that persisted there. Some returned, while others remained for life.


Changes began in 1986 with the introduction of compulsory nine-yearschooling, which was transformative for rural children in particular. Then, in1999, came the widening of higher education, which made university accessible.The state has provided these new opportunities—but unlike in my parents’ time,it doesn’t guide young adults through each step. Now, that’s the job of widersociety. In middle-class families parents will often help boost careeropportunities for the young using connections, and by offering financialsupport.


But the state has intervened in other ways. I am from the first generationborn under the one-child policy, which came into force after 1980. I rememberI’d often hear parents grumble that as only children, we were “all selfishthese days.” The assumption was that we “little emperors” didn’t know how toget on with other people and would grow up so lacking social acumen that we’dbring on China’s decline.
Well, society didn’t fall—many of us grew up treating cousins likebrothers and sisters. Also, the one-child policy was always less strict thanmany in the west understood. Though I am an only child, the rules allowed manyrural households to have two children, especially if the first was a girl. A30-something friend of mine from Henan province, one of the poorest in thecountry, has two younger sisters and one brother.


Nonetheless, I wonder whether the constant blaming of “only-childsyndrome” for our flaws hasn’t instilled in us a deep sense of guilt—it is ouroriginal sin. And that has pushed us to prove our elders wrong. My generationturned out to be harder-working and more responsible than anyone had predicted.We are a bridging decade between old and new China. Those of us born in the1980s are not as traditional as the 1970s cohort, and not as entitled as thoseborn in the 1990s. “In my experience, the post-1990s have more of a casual outlookon life and care more about having fun,” said my friend Lily from Beijing,herself born in the late 1970s. “They also disregard consequences… it’s like, Ican leave my job and won’t think about it.”


Of course, she is describing the lucky ones. For people born in the countryside,the city can still be tough. Many young “internal immigrants” live in crampedbasement dormitories and work in low-wage jobs. They moved for a better life,but their chances are limited, much more so than in the previous generations,when rents were not so exorbitant and social hierarchies were less entrenched.And even when the moving pays off, it can introduce an alienating disjunctionwith home. One newcomer to the city, a 27-year-old barista, told me that he was“always telling mum that she should stop eating leftovers. Sometimes in thesummer the food is nearly bad, and she’ll still keep it. We didn’t have afridge until two years ago.” He now lives in Xi’an, a member of the supposedlypampered post-1990s generation whose childhood was spent in severe ruralpoverty.


But even when living very different lives, faraway, younger generations cannot escape familial expectations. Arecently-married 28-year-old gym instructor I know is already facing pressurefrom his mother, who worked as a cleaner in Beijing for a decade, to bao haizi,literally to “hold a child.” “And it has to be a grandson,” he told me. He andhis wife, a yoga teacher, would rather wait until they are financially stable.


In the west, the children of the post-war growth period turned out to beliberal hippies—the same cannot be said for the progeny of China’s long boom.They may well be more self-centred, but they are not necessarily moreindependent-minded. Filial piety, the Confucian ideal of having respect forone’s elders and obeying their wishes, is much subtler in the modern age, butstill influential. My cousin, for example, is enrolled in a business courseabroad that was chosen by her father, even though she wanted to do psychology.Her parents continue to plan her internships and career from within China. Iknow graduates who have returned to China at the request of their parents, eventhough they preferred life in the UK, and the move back required them breakingup with their partners.


And what about politics? Young Chinese people like me have had all sortsof assumptions projected onto us. We have been called apathetic, as well as selfishand lazy. It’s true that the vast majority of my generation are not muchconcerned about domestic politics, though there is plenty of interest ininternational affairs. Everyone has their gripes but few find anything major tocomplain about. Money often solves problems better than protest. The grumblesabout individual policies tend to be balanced by a wider acknowledgement thatthings have changed vastly for the better. That’s just as well, becausecomplaining can be treacherous territory.


A willingness to agree with criticism of China can be put down to westerninfluence, especially by our elders. Conversely, if you talk to a westernerabout politically sensitive topics, there’s a good chance they think they knowbetter—that you’ve been “brainwashed” by the state.
That sort of accusation and dismissiveness infuriates one of my friends,who is completing her PhD in social sciences at Peking University. Before that,she studied at the LSE. “Why do foreigners always want to bring everything backto politics?” she asked. You often hear this from young, well-educated Chinese.It’s born out of a frustration: why can’t you see what China and its governmenthave achieved—hundreds of millions lifted out of grinding poverty—withouttainting it with politics? And it’s not hard to understand this defensiveness,given how transformative China’s long boom has been for our generation.

我的一个朋友曾这种指责和蔑视而愤怒不已,她目前正在北京大学攻读社会科学博士学位,之前她曾在伦敦商学院学习。“为什么外国人总是把一切都扯到政治上?”她问道。你经常从受过良好教育的年轻中国人那里听到这句话。这源于一种挫折感:为什么你们看不到中国和它的政府所取得的成就: 撇开了政治,让数亿人摆脱了极度贫困? 考虑到中国的长期繁荣在多大程度上改变了我们这代人的生活,就不难理解为什么我们要捍卫自己国家了。

“And what of the next generation?”I ask the gym instructor whose mother is lobbying for a grandchild. Will therebe another gap between us and our children, as we have with our own parents?“These days, you are just contributing to society by having children,” said myfriend. For him, the Confucian idea of children looking after their parents inold age could fade away. “It’s not like before, you can’t rely on them for thefuture.”


Today’s young people are ambitious and more plugged into the world thanever before, even though Facebook and Twitter are blocked. It has fallen to usto explain China to the world. Many are readier to defend the status quo:compared with their parents, they can be more vocal in their defence of the nation.Those who have lived abroad can end up more patriotic—they have experiencedwestern culture and democracy, and yet they still come home.