"If you want to prosper, you must control the population", a Chinese Cultural Revolution poster. Photo: by David Pollack/Corbis via Getty Images

Young, patriotic and conservative: understanding China's millennials

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?
May 14, 2018

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.

Well, society didn’t fall—many of us grew up treating cousins like brothers and sisters. Also, the one-child policy was always less strict than many in the west understood. Though I am an only child, the rules allowed many rural households to have two children, especially if the first was a girl. A 30-something friend of mine from Henan province, one of the poorest in the country, has two younger sisters and one brother.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether the constant blaming of “only-child syndrome” for our flaws hasn’t instilled in us a deep sense of guilt—it is our original sin. And that has pushed us to prove our elders wrong. My generation turned 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 the 1980s are not as traditional as the 1970s cohort, and not as entitled as those born in the 1990s. “In my experience, the post-1990s have more of a casual outlook on 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, I can 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 cramped basement 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 disjunction with 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 the summer the food is nearly bad, and she’ll still keep it. We didn’t have a fridge until two years ago.” He now lives in Xi’an, a member of the supposedly pampered post-1990s generation whose childhood was spent in severe rural poverty.

But even when living very different lives, far away, younger generations cannot escape familial expectations. A recently-married 28-year-old gym instructor I know is already facing pressure from 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 and his 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 be liberal 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 more independent-minded. Filial piety, the Confucian ideal of having respect for one’s elders and obeying their wishes, is much subtler in the modern age, but still influential. My cousin, for example, is enrolled in a business course abroad 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. I know graduates who have returned to China at the request of their parents, even though they preferred life in the UK, and the move back required them breaking up with their partners.

 *** And what about politics? Young Chinese people like me have had all sorts of assumptions projected onto us. We have been called apathetic, as well as selfish and lazy. It’s true that the vast majority of my generation are not much concerned about domestic politics, though there is plenty of interest in international affairs. Everyone has their gripes but few find anything major to complain about. Money often solves problems better than protest. The grumbles about individual policies tend to be balanced by a wider acknowledgement that things have changed vastly for the better. That’s just as well, because complaining can be treacherous territory.

A willingness to agree with criticism of China can be put down to western influence, especially by our elders. Conversely, if you talk to a westerner about politically sensitive topics, there’s a good chance they think they know better—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 back to 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 government have achieved—hundreds of millions lifted out of grinding poverty—without tainting it with politics? And it’s not hard to understand this defensiveness, given how transformative China’s long boom has been for our generation.

“And what of the next generation?” I ask the gym instructor whose mother is lobbying for a grandchild. Will there be 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 my friend. For him, the Confucian idea of children looking after their parents in old age could fade away. “It’s not like before, you can’t rely on them for the future.”

Today’s young people are ambitious and more plugged into the world than ever before, even though Facebook and Twitter are blocked. It has fallen to us to 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 experienced western culture and democracy, and yet they still come home.

Now read Isabel Hilton on China's global ambitions