China’s Youth: Do They Dare to Care about Politics?

China’s Youth: Do They Dare to Care about Politics?

Young people in China are divorced from their country’s recent history. With no memory of Mao Zedong, they can glean little from a censored environment. Their parents, by and large, don’t talk about their experiences

Underground art in Beijing depicting Guy Fawkes. Photo by Chris Kealy

At a teeming intersection of Shenzhen’s Dongmen shopping street, between KFC and McDonald’s, Liu Zhongqiu, twenty-one, sits on a white fold-up chair that looks as if it is about to break and clasps his hands together like a proselyte whenever a passerby drops money into his bucket.

His legs below the knee are swollen to the size of balloons, puckered and mottled with grey spots. His feet poke out below, useless and misshapen as if they fell off and were glued back on wrong. His disease, elephantiasis, has left him crippled and in a constant aching pain that registers on his furrowed brow above fleshy cheeks, high eyebrows, and coffee-colored eyes.

Being disabled isn’t a bad gig. A good day’s haul is over a thousand yuan ($160), he told me when I stopped to chat. Some peasants barely make that in a month, I thought. He must have caught my expression, because he added that it is only just enough to cover his medication and support himself and his older sister, who takes care of him full time. And to earn it he must suffer the circle of gawkers surrounding him, as if he were indeed the Elephant Man on display in a Victorian freak show.

Liu Zhongqiu didn’t watch the 18th National Party Congress (NPC) in November, which selected his country’s new leaders. He hadn’t even heard of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which will swear them in this March. He knows the name of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, but not of Li Keqiang, the vice premier, or Bo Xilai, whose disgrace was widely reported in the Chinese press although details were downplayed. He could not recite the full name of his state, the People’s Republic of China (zhonghua renmin gongheguo) nor—on the spot, at least—could he name a single government policy enacted since he was born.

And why should he? Like most folks—not just in the People’s Republic—he has enough on his mind without familiarizing himself with his country’s politics. But while his troubles are visible, weighing him down at his ankles, for most of us the shackles on our attention are metaphorical.

In that he has expectations of what his state owes him and seeks redress when his expectations are not honored, he is politicized. As such, he exemplifies his generation.

He doesn’t take his misfortune quietly, either. Rather than just grumble like older disabled beggars, he petitioned the local health ministry to compensate his medical expenses—fruitlessly. When the city management police told him he could only beg in the shopping district two days a week for three hours at a time, he went day after day to their offices to complain. They got fed up and let him use the lucrative spot three days a week. A small victory.

Liu is most angry that he cannot apply for benefits in Shenzhen, because he doesn’t have a local hukou, the registration documents that are still one’s boon or bane in China. He had moved south from his birthplace, Liaoning in the frosty Northeast, because the winter chills made the pain in his legs unbearable. Why should he be punished for seeking warmer climes out of necessity? Why did his hukou define his rights? Instead of silently nursing the injustice, he posted about it on the Internet forums, instant messaging services, and social media with which he passes his excess of free time.

I asked him if he thought of these actions as political. “No,” he said. “They’re my problems.”
I think Liu Zhongqiu is political, even if he doesn’t. He takes action to get a result from people who have power. He says he doesn’t care about big issues, but he broadcasts the overwhelming unfairnesses of the hukou system. In that he has expectations of what his state owes him and seeks redress when his expectations are not honored, he is politicized. As such, he exemplifies his generation.

China’s twenty-somethings are collectively abbreviated as the “post eighties” and “post nineties” generations. Born into the era of reform and opening up, they are natives of the competitive, consumerist China whose economic growth and globalization are familiar to us all. Their experiences are as different from their parents’ as ours are from our grand- or great-grandparents’. They are also much too varied to generalize. This doesn’t stop their elders from characterizing them as selfish, irresponsible, vacuous, and spoiled—“the stupid generation,” in one intellectual’s phrase. Kids these days!

What is broadly true, and disquieting, is that young people in China are divorced from their country’s recent history. With no memory of Mao Zedong, they can glean little from a censored environment. Textbooks are no use when the same party is in charge now as then. And their parents, by and large, don’t talk about their experiences—why burden your child with that, even if it were easy to talk about, when they live in a brave new world?

Young people in China are divorced from their country’s recent history. They can glean little from a censored environment.

Walking around an exhibit of Cultural Revolution posters in London last year, the mid-twenties Chinese friend I was with summed it up. “It’s like this is near to me,” he said, pointing to the red slogans and imagery around us, “but it’s still history, it’s not something I experienced. It’s fifty years ago, but might as well have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. It’s like a fairy tale that you are told by your mum when you’re three or four, and now you see the fairy tale again when you’re older.”

If the young have no deep engagement with or understanding of the past, what of the present? Is the common assumption that “youth don’t care about politics” grounded in anything?

Ostensibly, it is grounded in an awful lot. Last autumn, China’s once-in-a-decade power transfer coincided with U.S. national elections. When I spoke to the educated Chinese of my generation that week, I found a prevailing sentiment of apathy toward the former and detached interest in the latter, mainly for its entertainment value. One twenty-seven-year-old linguistics Ph.D. student at Peking University, China’s Oxford, used the same words to describe both events—“It’s their affair, not ours.”

U.S. twenty-somethings, I would risk the generalization, were far more fired up about their elections. Even those who didn’t vote would have had a basic grasp of the key issues at stake and the candidates’ backgrounds. If Barack Obama, as a teenager, had been sent to labor in the countryside after his father was purged and tried as a counterrevolutionary, they would have known about it. That is precisely what happened to Xi Jinping, but many young Chinese have no idea.

There are four reasons behind this apparent failure to care about politics past and present that merit a mention, before we ask whether seeming apathy can co-exist with real terms of engagement.

First: Politics is boring. The media, predictably, report the results of politics but not the process. The leaders are so indistinguishable that, after ten years of Hu Jintao’s poker face, the slightest smile from Xi Jinping has foreign correspondents waxing lyrical. And every schoolchild takes many hours a month of compulsory “thought and politics class” (sixiangzhenzhike). Module names include “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Jiang Zemin Economic Theory,” material so mind-numbingly dull as to put them off politics for a lifetime. Which, perhaps, is the point.

Second: Politics is dangerous. In a system where a single power can decide what is acceptable and what is punishable, you develop an inbuilt barometer about what you can say and do, and what you can’t. Of course, things are better now—no struggle sessions, no forced ideology, no children denouncing their parents. But the mothers and fathers of this generation did go through all those things, and so try to instill in their only children the lesson that politics is best left alone.

Third: Politics isn’t a priority. The old saw that material concerns trump political privileges still has teeth. There is too much competition—for school places, for jobs, for spouses. There is too much financial pressure—to buy an apartment, a car, to provide for your aging parents. And there are too many distractions—casual sex, recreational drugs, or World of Warcraft for those who get neither of the first two. Anything else tends to run a distant fourth.

In a system where a single power can decide what is acceptable and what is punishable, you develop an inbuilt barometer about what you can say and do, and what you can’t.

And finally: Politics is hopeless. Why try to change something if you know you can’t? If that petition, pamphlet, or organization is going to get you in big trouble but won’t make the slightest ripple on the ocean, most would agree the sacrifice is admirable but foolhardy. It’s not that you don’t care, it’s not that you don’t dare—you’re simply being realistic, as you would advise a friend to be.

Even youth membership of the Communist Party is no indication of political proclivity. Most apply in university because it can help them get a better job.

I told one Chinese acquaintance (just turned thirty, works in oil) that I thought foreigners in China talk more about the country’s politics than its own citizens do. She agreed. “People born in a democratic country talk about this more,” she said, “because they are born with that right. We aren’t, so we don’t think about it.” For most young Chinese, she said, politics “doesn’t have anything to do with them. It’s what affects them that interests them. [Beyond] that level they don’t care.”

But the personal, famously, is political. Back on the street, Liu Zhongqiu, interested only in what affects him, rubbed against national issues when protesting private injustices. Up to a level they care, my friend said—yet that level is high enough to drive change. Let’s move from the swamp of what the post-eighties and nineties generation claim not to think to the firmer ground of what they do.

In the rising number of protests across China, young people play an underreported key role. Demonstrations tend to begin as a particular or parochial issue—bad factory conditions, corrupt local officials, “not in my backyard” marches. If the issue touches a nerve in the community, one person or group’s complaint is taken up by the crowd. And if the initial troublemakers aren’t young, the crowd largely is.

In Dalian, August 2011, protests against the safety of a chemical plant led to the halting of its construction. Months later, in Wukan to the far south, thousands of residents challenged local abuse of power. And early this year, censorship of Nanfang Zhoumo, a Guangzhou newspaper, brought hundreds out onto the streets. Look up a picture of any of those three events and count the young faces. In the last, the protest iconography itself—the Guy Fawkes mask and circled V from the film V for Vendetta —came straight out of youth culture.

This is partly because many young people are exploited, out of work, or angry (unemployment among college graduates is about 10 percent according to a recent survey but 53 percent were dissatisfied with their jobs). It’s partly because they have less to risk. Those are familiar factors worldwide, and nothing new. But these young people also have expectations and demands of their state that their parents never did. They have a greater sense of entitlement to their rights and fewer qualms about speaking out when those rights are grossly breached, whereas those born in the fifties and sixties learned to take what they were given. And, most important, this generation is alive to the possibility of actually getting a result from mass protest, as in Dalian.

A smaller example, described in Mary Bergstrom’s 2012 book All Eyes East: Lessons from the Frontline of Marketing to China’s Youth , backs up this bigger point. When KFC ran a coupon promotion in 2010—half off popular menu items for a limited time—fans of the Dragon Twister and spicy wings were excited. But when nationwide stores, inundated, couldn’t tell which coupons were printed and which were copied, they reneged on the deal. The crowds turned sour. They got out their mobiles, texted friends, and posted the outrage online. Before long, supporters were joining the angry throngs even if they didn’t care about the promotion. Some ordered McDonald’s take-out and ate it inside KFC restaurants. McDonald’s launched a replica campaign to add insult to injury, and KFC learned its lesson.

Technology, evidently and intuitively, adds the kick to this cocktail. It’s no coincidence that the most vocal generation is the most connected. Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, is all but ubiquitous among educated urban youth, and anything can go viral. Last spring it was a horrific photograph of twenty-three-year-old Feng Jianmei, on the same bed as her bloody, forcibly aborted seven-month-old fetus. Tens of thousands of outraged Weibo users forwarded or commented on the image, implicitly criticizing the excesses of the single-child policy with every click or tap of a button.

Local-outrage protest rarely scales up, and online clamor has little follow through. The real question is whether any of them want systematic change, rather than a specific result or a pressure valve.

These post eighties and nineties are voting with their fists and their iPhones. But local-outrage protest rarely scales up, and online clamor has little follow through. The real question is whether any of them want systematic change, rather than a specific result or a pressure valve.

Despite the historical legacy of youth in this country, one is hard pressed to find a young revolutionary in mainland China today. Those who directly criticize the state tend to be in the Chinese diaspora, part of an aggrieved ethnic minority, or to have lived or studied abroad. The most revolutionary sorts, paradoxically, are the nationalistic youth (fenqing), whose raw anger at Japanese presumption or Western media bias could turn on their government if it is seen as weak.

The majority of twenty-somethings occupy a middle-ground—unindoctrinated, alert to China’s problems, in favor of rule of law. They are receptive to democracy as concept but unwilling to push for it as a system of government for China. In a poll last autumn hosted on the People’s Daily website, which asked what big issue online users cared most about, “democracy” won by a landslide (followed by “anti-corruption”). Yet no one is calling for regime change.

This isn’t out of fear. Rather, it’s individualized democracy that they mean: representation, protection of rights, individual freedoms. To achieve it, reform trumps revolution every time. Multiparty elections are widely viewed as unrealistic (the majority is uneducated, votes can be bought, and look at India). Revolution is mistrusted as unpredictable and dangerous, likely resulting in a ruthless factional leadership. America is no longer the shining model it used to be. And beneath it all runs the fear of chaos.

They might shrug their shoulders and paraphrase Winston Churchill to say that the Chinese Communist Party is the worst form of government for China, except for all the other forms.

At a crowded restaurant in Beijing’s central Dongcheng district, between the Bank of China and an adult store, Wang Dingnan, twenty-five, sits on a wooden chair befitting the Empress Dowager and surgically picks a stray mushroom out of his bok choy dish with his chopsticks.

Clean cut, smartly turned out, privileged, informed, progressive, he is as different from Liu Zhongqiu as could be. I first met him four years ago, when he was a Peking University international relations undergrad. Now, after a master’s in London, he is studying math and politics at Cairo University, and is visiting Beijing to see his family.

It was Dingnan who first introduced me to the idea that post-eighties Chinese were glad the Tiananmen protests failed. “The young generation,” he wrote in an essay for my blog called “A Chinese Spring?”, “even justified the crackdown, arguing that reassertion of political order paved the way for economic prosperity….Revolution is seen as old-fashioned, treacherous, and above all harmful to social advance.”

If he did not share such distrust of revolution before, he did after living through Egypt’s. Protesters on Tahrir Square, two years after the blooms of the Arab Spring failed to produce fruit, were just relishing the chaos, he believed. And where did their great democratic moment get them? If you “do not see any improvements in Arab countries that revolted, but rather a deteriorating security and economic situation,” Dingnan wrote, then you are “inclined to compare the Arab Spring to the disintegration of Soviet Russia and treat it as an unpleasant experience for China to learn from.”

“Democratic change like that,” he says when I bring up the essay, “would be harmful for China.”

We talk about other things for a while: old friends, new flames, rent hikes. Then I ask what his plans are after Cairo. Maybe a Ph.D. in Germany, he says, as if ordering another dish. But then back to work for change in his country. “From the grassroots.”

Alec Ash is a freelance writer in Beijing, where he is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a contributing author to Chinese Characters (University of California Press, 2012), and is working on a book for Picador. You can follow him on Twitter: @alecash