The Future and China's Youth
Greta Thunberg has gained massive support from the youth across Europe. However, the question "how dare you" has not resonated among young people in China. How and why do Chinese youth differ from their European peers?
- In comparison to their European peers, Chinese youth seem to be more materialistic and less concerned about global issues such as climate change. Three major factors have shaped the gap in priorities across different social and political contexts:
While the concept of generational conflict provides a powerful frame for youth activism in the West, Chinese youth have never gained normative legitimacy in challenging power and demanding change. Instead, the frame of nationalism dominates political life in the country.
Chinese youth have strongly embraced new technologies and related opportunities, while in many developed countries young people tend to be less interested in newly emerging careers. But the downside of high income in China's tech sector is intense competition and new forms of labor exploitation.
The traditional norm of filial piety remains the foundation of China's social doctrine. In the fact of new social challenges, such as the single-child family structure and the heavy burden of education and health costs, the bond between generations in Chinese families has grown even stronger.
In a recent op-ed reflecting back on the past decade, New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens characterized the 2010s as the “decade of disillusion” dominated by the young, from disruptive technological creations, to Greta Thunberg’s climate activism, to the “moral convictions of the young” driving protests from Cairo to Hong Kong.
Stephens’ column, which begins with the global question of youth – “Why and how did the young dominate the decade?” – quickly turns its focus to the United States, as though we can simply take for granted that young people across the world are similarly disillusioned, or that they share convictions sure to shape the future.
But if we want to understand youth globally, and to understand how their beliefs the youth might will impact our future globally, it is important to look more closely and critically at youth in other regional or national contexts, beyond Western societies. In this Echowall series we explore the question of China’s youth. Have young Chinese experienced their own “disillusion”? If so, what are the factors shaping views? How might their concerns and convictions impact the West, and the rest?
Dreams of Consumption
When it comes to this last question, about the significance of understanding China’s young generation, one argument from the business community in the West is that China offers huge economic potential in the form of a growing consumer culture. Looking at Europe in particular, this argument is happening against the backdrop of postmaterialism, as younger generations in developed countries increasingly redefine their lifestyles, prioritizing autonomy and self-expression over material lives as consumers, resulting in movements like “Fridays for Future.”
China, or so some imagine, is a brave new world of consumerism with millions of hardworking young people ready to spend. Last year, Herbert Diess, the CEO of Volkswagen Group, said that “[the] future of Volkswagen will be decided in China.” Sales reports from the company seem to support this belief. Volkswagen, Germany’s largest carmaker, delivered 3.26 million vehicles in China in 2019. Particulary, the sports utility vehicle (SUV) segment was boosted significantly in China last year, and VW has talked about strengthening its SUV business to reach younger Chinese consumers.
For high-end European brands, China has been called the “future of luxury.” In April last year, McKinsey, the management consulting firm, released a report looking at how “young Chinese consumers are reshaping global luxury.” According to the report, Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s were the main contributors in 2018 to luxury spending in China (115 billion dollars), which now accounts for one-third of global spending on luxury goods. “Having grown up in step with China’s emergence as a global superpower,” the McKinsey report said Chinese youth “are the primary beneficiaries of the economy’s rapid and unbroken growth.”
While these numbers may seem decisive in the short term, however, it is not clear that rapid economic growth in China will be sustainable, or that young Chinese consumers buying up German SUVs and French luxury goods are typical of the country’s younger generation. The social, economic, and ecological risks underlying China’s economic growth and its unbridled consumerism are mostly unknown factors. How do young Chinese, who live in one of the world’s most unequal countries of the world, perceive that inequality? What are their expectations for the future?
Against the view that young Chinese represent huge consumer potential, a growing list of European companies, from Daimler and Dolce & Gabbana, to Dior and Versace, have come under attack by nationalism trolls from China over perceived slights to China’s national character that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
How do young Chinese, who live in one of the world’s most unequal countries of the world, perceive that inequality? What are their expectations for the future?
The differences between Chinese and Western youth also came to the fore in Germany in 2019 as the General Students Committee (the AStA) at the Technical University of Berlin made a statement to voice solidarity with protesting students at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. The Society of Chinese Academics at the Technical University responded by demanding an apology from AStA for what it regarded as an affront to Chinesee sovereignty over Hong Kong. AStA members were shocked to also receive anonymous death threats over the incident.
Many in Europe, including politicians and business people, have voiced concern that the trade war between the US and China might signal a broader decoupling of China and the West. But it is rarely discussed to what extent the two sides were ever “coupled” in the sense of shared values, social norms, and priorities.
Climate change is one area where we can see a clear gap in views between youth in the West and youth in China.
According to the latest Shell Youth Study published in 2019, this being the most influential empirical study on youth in Germany, nearly three out of four young Germans (between 12 and 25 years of age) cited pollution and climate change as their main concern.
By contrast, a study based on nationwide survey data in China published in August last year showed that just 14 percent of Chinese expressed genuine concern about global warming. The study showed that those concerned about global warming tended to be younger and female, corresponding to survey results elsewhere in the world. But the larger correlation was with those who expressed greater interest in values associated with political democracy and civil liberties. Youth, in other words, did not correlate strongly with concern about climate change.
If we understand the lackluster interest in climate change among Chinese, it is easier to understand the overwhelmingly negative perception of young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg in China. In the West, where Thunberg has gained massive support, particularly among the youth, it may surprise people to learn of the hostility voiced toward the activist. Thunberg’s Asperger’s syndrome and her appearance are constant points of mockery on Chinese internet forums, and much fake news stigmatizing her is quickly translated and shared on Chinese social media.
Statistical reports on China’s internet show that around 70 percent of internet users are under the age of 40. These younger users are also the segment of internet consumers in China who are most likely to be finding and translating information from Western sources. This suggests that for many young Chinese, Thunberg does not personify the “power of youth.” Correspondingly, we can note that the “Fridays for future” movement has not resonated in China.
Assuming that these online voices are representative of how youth in China view environmental activism, what can account for the gap in views on climate change and other issues? And what do these gaps mean for our global future given China’s rising power in the world?
One of Germany’s most influential sociologists of the 20th century, Helmut Schelsky, identified three factors determining the social roles and identities of youth. First, there were basic social structures, including family and gender roles. Next, there were changing social structures, such as industrialization. Finally, there was the historical-political situation. These factors can also help us understand the differences between Chinese and Western youth. Since we’ve identified the gap in views of Greta Thunberg, let us stay for a moment with the activist and look at each of Schelsky’s factors, beginning with the historical-political situation.
How Dare You!
Thunberg’s success lies in large part in her framing the climate change issue as a generational conflict and a question of justice. As fresh as her message may seem, the generational conflict is a concept that has been embedded in public life in the West since the 1960s, as discussed by American anthropologist Margaret Mead. But Chinese society has never passed through a similar process in which the young have gained a normative legitimacy in challenging power and demanding change.
In China, the cry, “How dare you!”, is not a legitimate question to be raised by the youth. Some may object that the example of the so-called Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is a case of youthful rebellion in which students opposed their parents and teachers and called for revolution. But the Cultural Revolution was never about the rights or freedom of the young, but rather was instituted by Mao Zedong as a top-down political purge to consolidate his own power.
Chinese society has never passed through a similar process in which the young have gained a normative legitimacy in challenging power and demanding change.
Today, the Cultural Revolution and the violent actions of the Red Guards are synonymous with disorder, and it is revealing to note that Greta Thunberg is often referred to in Chinese as the “environmental little general” (环保小将), comparing her to a Red Guard and associating her with disruption of social order.
The first attempt of Chinese youth to pose a generational challenge to old systems emerged at the end of the 19th century, culminating during the 1910s in the New Culture Movement, in which young intellectuals promoted science, individual rights, and linguistic and literary reforms. But the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was a real moment of disillusionment for many Chinese, who viewed decisions by major Western powers – including the ceding of Qingdao to Japan – as a deep betrayal of china’s interests. Nationwide protests followed, and the path of the youth movement ran into a nationalistic and radicalized direction. The slogan, “Wrestle for national rights abroad, punish traitors at home” (外争国权，内惩国贼), reflected a strong sense of nationalism, which became the dominant frame for Chinese state narratives of legitimacy even today.
Another nascent youth rebellion took shape in the early 1980s in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, as young Chinese began searching for new models for Chinese society in Western theories. This period ended with the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, a “How dare you!” moment in which students and other demonstrators had called for political reform and spoken against gerontocracy.
Ever since 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has worked to strengthen its ideological work and nationalism education to ensure that such a generational conflict is not repeated. During a plenary session on June 23-24, just three weeks after the crackdown, Party leaders pledged to “strengthen ideological and political work, work to carry out education in patriotism, socialism, autonomy and self-determination, and arduous struggle, actively opposing bourgeois liberalization.”
It is within this post-Tiananmen political context that young Chinese today came to adulthood, and this has significantly shaped their views and values.
Nationalism has very different perceptions in the differing historical-political context of China and the West, and we can see this again reflected in survey results. In the Shell Youth Study in Germany, nationalistic attitudes were regarded as populist, and just nine percent of young people in the survey were identified as national populists. The study cited as positive its finding that 52 percent of young people surveyed regarded xenophobia as a social problem.
Nationalism has very different perceptions in the differing historical-political context of China and the West.
By contrast, a comparable research project in China published last year, based on a survey of more than 10,000 university students in nine provinces, reflected strong nationalistic views. Nine out of ten Chinese students surveyed either “strongly agreed” (17.8 percent), “agreed” (54.9 percent) or “generally agreed” (20.4 percent) with a statement that “one should not dare to forget the interests of the nation even if one’s status is humble” (位卑未敢忘忧国) – a phrase that encapsulates the Chinese sense of the need to always consider the country’s interests as a central priority.
Further details in the Chinese study clue us in to what these ideas of “nationalism” mean in practice. For example, 85 percent of the students surveyed felt that the boycotting of South Korean and US products during the 2017 dispute over the THAAD missile defense system was a positive response.
Despite the strong nationalistic sentiments revealed by the study, the Chinese researchers still voiced concern over the “infiltration of Western culture,” as 50 percent of the students surveyed agreed with the statement: “Some elements of Western culture can be borrowed, and university students should have appropriate access.”
What’s Wrong With Greta Thunberg?
The narrative of national primacy is a factor also driving the domestic debate about activist Greta Thunberg. In a recent opinion piece, one of China’s top commercial newspapers, The Beijing News, asked: “Why don’t Chinese netizens like Greta?” The article concluded that one important reason is that Chinese people believe in Deng Xiaoping’s statement that “development is the top priority” (发展是硬道理), and they see the demands of climate activists in the West as obstructing China’s development.
According to the author, actions such as tree planting, which China has carried out for decades, are “real work” to promote environment protection, whereas Thunberg’s activities are seen as “empty talk.” In fact, China’s ministry of education has made tree planting an established part of school life, demanding each student plant at least one tree. At the university level there are more than 3,000 student environmental organizations. However, as Chinese researchers have observed, most of these organizations are organized, financed and supervised by communist youth leagues at universities and lack real initiative and volunteerism. "We are not used to these kind of social movements [that Greta instigated]”, said the article in The Beijing News. It also noted that Chinese generally have a critical view towards what it called "Western political correctness".
The defensive and antagonistic posture of nationalism can make it difficult for views that are more tolerant, empathetic or nuanced about global events to become part of the conversation. One recent example was an article on the Chinese internet that harshly criticized Australia for its incompetence in dealing with the bushfire crisis, laying the blame squarely at the feet of Western values like “human rights and freedom,” and praised China for its supposedly bold response to a major forest fire in 1987. While Australian firefighters and government officials had selfishly failed to act over the Christmas holiday, the article suggested, 211 Chinese firefighters during the 1987 fire had given their lives “for their land and their people.”
The article, posted to a WeChat public account called “Youth Courtyard” (青年大院), went viral on social media, yielding more than 20 million views and 300,000 likes. But it angered older journalists and media researchers, who pointed out that reports in 1987 by the China Youth Daily and other media had been a breakthrough in Chinese media history: Young reporters at that time actively exposed government incompetence in dealing with what was actually a “man-made disaster.”
In the end, however, many of these dissenting views of the “Youth Courtyard” post and its nationalistic views were censored online, while the original post was allowed to remain. In China’s digital media landscape, where profits are driven by traffic but traffic must abide by stringent controls, nationalistic content like the above post can be a huge revenue source – in turn feeding the populist echo chamber.
This online environment has a huge impact on Chinese youth, and it brings us to the second of Helmut Schelsky’s three factors in the formation of youth identities and values – that of changing social structures. The pervasiveness of digital media and new technology in China constitutes a new social structure for China’s young generation, but in ways that may again create greater divergence with the values of youth in the West.
In comparison with their Western counterparts, Chinese youth have embraced new technologies and their opportunities whole-heartedly, with few misgivings and little consideration of the potential social costs. In his New York Times op-ed, Bret Stephens suggested that youth today had grown more skeptical of Silicon Valley innovation and how personal data is being used (or abused). Some Studies have supported this view, showing that young consumers in the West are more wary of data privacy.
The same cannot be said, however, for young Chinese. Over the past quarter century, the internet has fundamentally transformed Chinese society, and the speed of change has accelerated over the past 10 years.
Several factors have driven this spectacular growth. First, there is China’s unique political ecosystem. In 2010, the Google search engine withdrew from the China market, citing censorship demands. And nearly all of the social media platforms popular across the world have been shut out of the China market. This situation has left China’s massive market wide open for domestic internet companies, offering these companies an opportunity to evolve and expand, independent of global competitors.
Another key factor has been the rapid expansion of inexpensive domestic smartphone brands in China, which has encouraged mobile internet usage. Since 2012, the smartphone has been the most used device for internet access in China. Contrast this with just 23 percent of internet usage in 2012 in Germany.