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China’s Me Generation: China’s Me Generation

14 minute read
Simon Elegant

Six friends out on a friday evening, the seafood plentiful, the conversation flowing. Maria Zhang — big hoop earrings, tight velvet jacket and a good deal of meticulously applied makeup — starts to describe an island that everyone is talking about off the east coast of Thailand. It has great diving, she says, and lots of Chinese there so you don’t have to worry about language. Her friend Vicky Yang is hunched over a borrowed laptop, downloading an e-mail from a pesky client on her cell phone. An actuary at a consulting firm, Vicky needs to close a project tonight. While she phones a colleague, the dinner-table conversation moves on to snowboarding (“I must have fallen a hundred times”) to the relative merits of various iPods (“Shuffle is no good”) and the sudden onrush of credit cards in China. Silence Chen, an account executive with advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather in Beijing, tells the group he recently received six different cards in the mail. “Each one has a credit limit of 10,000,” he says, laughing. “So suddenly I’m 60,000 yuan richer!” The talk turns to China’s online shopping business, before that is interrupted by the arrival of razor clams, chili squid and deep-fried grouper.

The one subject that doesn’t come up — and almost never does when this tight-knit group of friends gets together — is politics. That sets them apart from previous generations of Chinese élites, whose lives were defined by the epic events that shaped China’s past half-century: the Cultural Revolution, the opening to the West, the student protests in Tiananmen Square and their subsequent suppression. The conversation at Gang Ji Restaurant suggests today’s twentysomethings are tuning all that out. “There’s nothing we can do about politics,” says Chen. “So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.”

There are roughly 300 million adults in China under age 30, a demographic cohort that serves as a bridge between the closed, xenophobic China of the Mao years and the globalized economic powerhouse that it is becoming. Young Chinese are the drivers and chief beneficiaries of the country’s current boom: according to a recent survey by Credit Suisse, the incomes of 20- to 29-year-olds grew 34% in the past three years, by far the biggest of any age group. And because of their self-interested, apolitical pragmatism, they could turn out to be the salvation of the ruling Communist Party — so long as it keeps delivering the economic goods. Survey young, urban Chinese today, and you will find them drinking Starbucks, wearing Nikes and blogging obsessively. But you will detect little interest in demanding voting rights, let alone overthrowing the country’s communist rulers. “On their wish list,” says Hong Huang, a publisher of several lifestyle magazines, “a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of democracy.”

The rise of China’s Me generation has implications for the foreign policies of other nations. Sinologists in the West have long predicted that economic growth would eventually bring democracy to China. As James Mann points out in his new book, The China Fantasy, the idea that China will evolve into a democracy as its middle class grows continues to underlie the U.S.’s China policy, providing the central rationale for maintaining close ties with what is, after all, an unapologetically authoritarian regime. But China’s Me generation could shatter such long-held assumptions. As the chief beneficiaries of China’s economic success, young professionals have more and more tied up in preserving the status quo. The last thing they want is a populist politician winning over the country’s hundreds of millions of have-nots on a rural-reform, stick-it-to-the-cities agenda.

All of which means democracy isn’t likely to come to China anytime soon. And that poses challenges for Western policymakers as they try to engage China without condoning the Communist Party’s record of political repression and its failures to improve the lives of the country’s rural poor. China watchers say the Me generation’s reluctance to agitate for reform is driven in part by a reluctance to tarnish China’s moment in the sun. “They are proud of what China has accomplished, and very positive about the government,” says P.T. Black, who conducts extensive marketing research for a Shanghai-based company called Jigsaw International. The political passivity of China’s new élite makes sense while the good times roll. The question is what will happen to the Me generation — and to China — when they end.

For anyone who visited the workers’ paradise when it was still the land of Mao suits and communes, trying to reconcile that China to the one that young élites live in today is disorienting. When I first visited China in 1981, I went to the People’s Park in Shanghai with two traveling companions. Our obligatory Foreign Ministry “guide” ushered us through a special gate reserved for “foreign friends.” A knot of young Chinese had gathered outside. As we passed, a few made loud comments about the unfairness of having parts of the People’s Park reserved only for foreigners. One of my companions, a Mandarin speaker, agreed volubly in Chinese. Immediately a group of young Chinese men and women surrounded us and peppered us with questions that mixed naiveté and aspiration: Are there still slaves in America? Where did you learn to speak Chinese? Do all American families really have three cars? Can you help me go to America?

That discussion took place 25 years ago, the span usually allotted to a single generation. The naive, wary Chinese I met that day could be the parents of the group gathered for the seafood feast in Beijing. But there is almost nothing about the appearance, attitudes, life experience, education or dreams for the future that those young people in the Shanghai People’s Park share with the likes of Vicky and her friends.

The most obvious change is demographic. Because of China’s one-child policy, instituted in 1978, this is the first generation in the world’s history in which a majority are single children, a group whose solipsistic tendencies have been further encouraged by a growing obsession with consumerism, the Internet and video games. At the same time, today’s young Chinese are better educated and more worldly than their predecessors. Whereas the so-called Lost Generation that grew up in the Cultural Revolution often struggled to finish high school, today around a quarter of Chinese in their 20s have attended college. The country’s opening to the West has allowed many more of its citizens to satisfy their curiosity about the world: some 37 million will travel overseas in 2007. In the next decade, there will be more Chinese tourists traveling the globe than the combined total of those originating in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than fueling restlessness among the Me generation, however, the ease of travel seems to provide more evidence that the benefits of globalization can be had without radical change.

There’s another reason for the lack of political ferment: it’s exhausting. Like anyone else, members of the Me generation are shaped by their experiences and those of their families. When their parents talk about the Great Leap Forward (a disastrous Mao campaign in the late 1950s that left 20 million to 30 million dead of starvation) and the subsequent chaos of the Cultural Revolution, they mostly tell horror stories that would put anyone off politics forever. That chapter in Chinese history, which officially ended with Mao’s death in 1976, is ancient history to today’s young élites. They have known little but peace and an ever increasing economic boom. “We have so much bigger a desire for everything than [our parents],” says Maria Zhang, 27. “And the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want.”

One event that the Me generation does remember is the crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But to young Chinese like Maria and Vicky, the Tiananmen protests are less a source of inspiration than an admonishment. Were popular uprisings like Tiananmen allowed to continue, Vicky believes, they would have provoked a counterreaction by conservative forces and led to a return to fortress China: no more iPods, overseas shopping trips or snowboarding weekends. “I think that the students meant well,” says Vicky, who was 11 at the time and has only vague memories of what happened. But the crackdown that ended the demonstrations “certainly was needed.”

Vicky embodies the shift in the priorities of young Chinese. She’s a purposeful, 29-year-old actuary who rarely smiles but loves nothing better than a party. She and her friends meet so regularly for dinner and at bars that she says she never eats at home anymore. As the pictures on her blog attest, they also throw regular theme parties to mark holidays like Halloween and Christmas, and last year took a holiday to Egypt.

Encouraged by her new boyfriend Wang Ning, a keen snowboarder, Vicky decided earlier this year to take up the sport as well. To prime for it, she went to a mall in south Beijing that specializes in pricey, imported skiing gear. She chose a gleaming new snowboard made by the Colorado company Never Summer, emblazoned with colorful, psychedelic paintings of butterflies. Along with gloves, goggles and other paraphernalia, the new gear set her back about $700. When asked about the wisdom of spending a small fortune on equipment for a sport she may never take to, she says, “I believe you have to be fully prepared and equipped before you decide to start a new hobby.” Besides, she adds, “even if I don’t like skiing, think how nice [the gear] will look in the hallway of my apartment. Guests won’t know that I don’t use it.” Vicky smiles to signal she’s joking. But she’s dead serious when she explains, over coffee at Starbucks, her lack of interest in politics. “It’s because our life is pretty good. I care about my rights when it comes to the quality of a waitress in a restaurant or a product I buy. When it comes to democracy and all that, well …” She shrugs expressively and takes a sip of her latte. “That doesn’t play a role in my life.”

People like Vicky and her friends represent the leading edge, the trailblazers for a huge mass of young, eagerly aspirant consumers. All over China, young professionals like these banter about blogging, travel and work-life balance. (“Work hard, play harder,” says Vicky several times, repeating it in case she isn’t heard.) If they can’t afford to blow $700 on skiing gear, they want to be able to soon.

And so for China’s leaders, placating the Me generation is seen as critical to ensuring the Communist Party’s survival. By 2015, the number of Chinese adults under 30 is expected to swell 61%, to 500 million, equivalent to the entire population of the European Union. From issues of grave consequence to trivialities, the government has made clear that it will do whatever it takes to keep the swelling middle class happy. In Beijing, for example, newly prosperous residents are snapping up automobiles at a rate of 1,000 a day. The number of vehicles on the capital’s sclerotic roads has doubled in the past five years, to 3 million. (By comparison, there are about 2 million vehicles registered in all of New York City.) But despite a grim pollution problem (Beijing air quality is among the world’s worst) that could embarrass China during next summer’s Olympic Games, the central government has made no move to curb vehicle purchases through regulation or taxes. And that, in turn, has made it harder for governments in the developed world to make progress in getting Beijing to do more to fight climate change.

That’s just one example of the long-term impact of the government’s focus on the Me generation. In an article in the official mouthpiece People’s Daily published in February, Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that economic growth should take precedence over democratic reforms for the foreseeable future, a period that he appeared to indicate could stretch to 100 years. And yet for all its machinery of control, the party is vulnerable. Senior cadres from Wen on down have acknowledged in public that growing unrest in the provinces, as farmers clash with police over expropriated land or official corruption, could threaten the party’s grip on power.

As a result, China’s rulers face a dilemma: the very policies that cater to the urban middle class come at the expense of the rural poor. So far the government is erring on the side of the rich. In March the government pledged to address problems plaguing the country’s peasants, such as access to medical treatment and schooling, health insurance and the disparity between urban and rural incomes. And yet a relatively small portion of the budget was set aside to address the concerns of the peasantry, with the bulk of spending still concentrated on stoking the booming economy.

Even more telling was the passage of what was widely viewed as one of the most important pieces of legislation to be put forward in several decades of reform: the revised law on property ownership. Pushed through despite objections from old-line conservatives, the law for the first time gave equal weight to both state- and private-ownership rights. But a look at the fine print shows that the law only protects things dear to the rising middle class: real estate, cars, stock-market assets. Farmers, on the other hand, will still be unable to purchase their land and instead will be forced to lease plots from the government.

If left unchanged, such policies could exacerbate China’s rich-poor divide and create conditions for tumultuous social upheaval. The test for China — as the Me generation grows bigger, richer and more powerful — will be whether it begins to push for the social and political reforms that are necessary to ensure China’s long-term prosperity and stability. How likely is that? Though they’re not exactly clamoring for free elections, members of the new middle class have shown a willingness to stand up to authority when their interests are threatened. Last October police in Beijing attempted to enforce rules limiting each household to a single, registered animal no taller than 14 in. (35 cm). The drive sparked a rare public demonstration by hundreds of well-heeled Chinese, mostly young dog owners. Within a month, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, President Hu Jintao had intervened, ordering the Beijing authorities to back off. It was the first time most Beijingers could remember a public protest drawing a direct intervention by China’s top leader.

It was hardly Tiananmen, but a small triumph for free expression nonetheless. And if the West hopes to see China become democratic as well as prosperous, it will have to find ways to encourage modest breakthroughs like these, rather than expect sweeping change. At the Gang Ji Restaurant, where the dishes have been cleared and fresh fruit and more tea brought in, the mood is reflective. “We are lucky compared to our parents,” says Maria Zhang, who works as a membership manager in one of the capital’s most exclusive clubs. “My parents had nothing themselves. They lived for me.” Wang Ning, the snowboarder who runs his own successful advertising company, agrees. “We are more self-centered. We live for ourselves, and that’s good. We need to have the strength to contribute to the economy. That’s our power. The power to contribute. That’s how our generation is going to help the country.” China’s future will be defined by whether they realize that democracy can help China, too.

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