Young people like me are ambitious and more plugged in to the world than ever before. But will they bring about a more liberal China?by Yuan Ren / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Every generation needs to announce that it is different. But the differences are real in today’s China, a country that has been changing so fast that the experience of each age-group is entirely different to what has gone before.
I was born in the 1980s, in the spring of the new China. When I was a child, 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 young adult 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.
All of which means that, when I look to my parents, the gulf between us is wide. My dad left home at 16 to work in a state-owned factory and so did my mother. Both grew up during the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted the whole education system. When higher education was eventually revived in 1977, they were part of a tiny and lucky minority to go to university.
Most of that generation faced narrow choices, if any. Many were given job placements, which often involved moving far away from home. Lots of young urbanites were sent to the vast Chinese interior to experience the rural hardship that persisted there. Some returned, while others remained for life.
Changes began in 1986 with the introduction of compulsory nine-year schooling, which was transformative for rural children in particular. Then, in 1999, 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 wider society. In middle-class families parents will often help boost career opportunities for the young using connections, and by offering financial support.
But the state has intervened in other ways. I am from the first generation born under the one-child policy, which came into force after 1980. I remember I’d often hear parents grumble that as only children, we were “all selfish these days.” The assumption was that we “little emperors” didn’t know how to get on with other people and would grow up so lacking social acumen that we’d bring on China’s decline.