Chinese millennials

by Brendan O'Reilly

Chinese millennials – a truly unique generation

Modern Chinese youth are members of a truly unique generation. The incredibly rapid pace of change in China since the death of Mao Zedong opened up opportunities and challenges for young Chinese that their parents might have never imagined. The generation gap in China has grown into a chasm of nearly insurmountable social, economic, and ideological differences.

Vanessa Fong, professor of anthropology at Amherst College, Massachusetts, points out the radical disparities between Chinese youth and the older generations: “…the generation gap is smaller for Western millenials, who were born into a world only somewhat different from the world their parents grew up in, than for Chinese millenials, who were born into a world that is vastly different from the world their parents grew up in… China experienced a massive and abrupt change of direction in the 1980s, shifting from a planned economy to a market economy, from high fertility to very low fertility, from autarky to globalization, and from reserving secondary and tertiary education for a small minority to expanding adult education programs that made secondary and tertiary education available to most who want it.”

In order to understand the specific characteristics, aspirations, and fears of Chinese millennials – or China’s Generation Y – China Outlook has researched Chinese-language sources, consulted with experts in both academia and business, and, of course, spoken to the Chinese millennials themselves. They are a generation wholly unlike their predecessors. If their high expectations can be met, and their increasingly vocal grievances addressed, then their technological, communicative, and social talents could herald a new age of Chinese and global prosperity. However, they could be the instigators of major unrest if their dreams are thwarted.

It is important to note that in Chinese media, the Chinese millennials are two distinct, though related, groups. One is the balinghou (八零后, “After 1980”) cohort, born in the years between 1980 and 1989. The other group is jiulinghou (九零后),encompassing all Chinese born in the 1990s. No matter if they were born in the 80s or the 90s, China’s millennials grew up in an environment that was almost unimaginably different from the world of their parents and grandparents.

The oldest generations in China remember firsthand the bloodshed and anarchy of the Warlord Era, the Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War. Chinese born in the 1950s and 1960s spent their childhoods in the shadow of the Great Leap Forward – which led to what was probably the worst famine in human history. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were the years of the Cultural Revolution, a period of chaos and political instability. Many of today’s middle-aged Chinese were swept up by revolutionary fervor and joined the Red Guards, who sought to “smash the four olds” of Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas (especially religion).

The hardships faced by the Chinese people in the period between roughly 1911 and 1979 are difficult to imagine and quantify. However, some relevant figures can provide insights into the dramatic change of fortunes since Deng Xiaoping began the process of opening up the Chinese economy. China’s infant mortality rate has decreased from 79 per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 12.1 in 2012. According to the World Bank, China’s per capita GDP was $195 dollars in 1981 – less than Ethiopia’s in the same year. In 2012 per capita GDP was $6,091, putting China above Serbia and Thailand. What makes these figures yet more impressive is the fact that they are measured in inflation-adjusted “current U.S dollars”. The standard of living enjoyed by contemporary China’s urban working poor – the ability to eat three full meals a day, own a variety of outfits and watch color television – would have been considered luxurious a mere three decades ago.

Concurrent with China’s rapid economic growth has been a worldwide proliferation of new technology, bringing novel forms of communication and increased exposure to foreign culture and ideas. The number of Internet users in China increased over tenfold over the course of a decade, with more than 500m Chinese netizens online today. Telecommunications have allowed Chinese Millennials to communicate with each other on a scale that would have been impossible in previous decades.
Such tools have created entirely new forms of communication – forms of communication that may be undecipherable for the members of older generations.

Robert L. Moore, Professor of Anthropology at Rollins College told China Outlook: “A number of slang expressions were picked up and spread by the millennials via the Internet and eventually, cell phone connections. Some were abbreviations using the Roman alphabet, like mm for cute girl (from Mandarin meimei), and some were character images like jiong (), which is thought to represent a stunned or distressed face. The millennials, because of their reliance on social media, may be the first generation of Chinese to have created a widely used, national-level kind of discourse, complete with its own vocabulary, including slang vocabulary.”

Greater economic opportunity, personal freedom, and exposure to ideas from foreign lands have also led the Chinese millennials to socialize in entirely new ways. Professor Moore specifically cites dating culture as a very obvious difference between Chinese youth and the older generations: “China’s rising prosperity, which really took off like a rocket in the 1990s, also laid the groundwork for new ways of thinking and behaving. Dating was a very limited affair for Chinese in the 1980s both because of the pull of traditional values and because of the lack of funds. At that time, there was little “dating” except for the meetings between young men and women, typically arranged by their parents or other helpful older adults, and these meetings had as their backdrop the idea that the boy and girl were trying to determine if they were a reasonable match to get married. But starting particularly in the 1990s, that is, just as the balinghou were coming of age, dating for fun emerged as a new norm, and a lot of young people had money for movies and other sources of fun.”

Increased mobility and economic opportunity has come with a sense of loss of traditional attitudes and ethical grounding. The ideals of socialism were meant to replace he “four olds” that were smashed in the Maoist days. However, socialistic values have also largely faded from the popular Chinese consciousness, exacerbating a difference in values found in the generation gap. As Professor Fong of Amherst College notes: “Older Chinese generations admire millenials for having accomplished many of the goals that older generations had set for themselves but not realized, at both the individual level and the national level. But older generations also fear that millenials will not have the strong family ties, willingness to defer to elders, supervisors, and superiors, and ability to deal with adversity that their parents’ generation had.”

Meanwhile, Professor Moore of Rollins College sees some Chinese millennials turning to alternative sources of higher meaning: “There is also a widespread sense that China lacks a moral or spiritual foundation. Since the Communist Party doesn’t have any credibility as a source of values, a surprising number of young Chinese are turning to religion. Christianity, which has never been very successful in propagating itself in China, is now finding that more young Chinese than ever are ready to join a church. This is still a minority, but a bigger minority than ever before.”

There are many prominent social trends found throughout Chinese youth culture. Nevertheless, when discussing Chinese millennials, it is important to avoid over-generalizations. Many of the Western ideas about contemporary Chinese youth are based on stereotypes of “Little Emperors” born under the “One Child Policy”. Officially there never was a univerisal One Child Policy, but rather the Family Planning Policy, which only restricted couples to have one child if they were official urban residents of the ethnic Han Chinese majority. In 2007, government figures showed that only 35.9% of couples  were restricted to the one-child limit. These conditions have been further relaxed in recent years, as China faces a problem of an aging population.

Media focus on spoiled, only-child Little Emperors is based largely on the fact that Western reporters have greater access and experience in China’s most developed cities, where the Family Planning Policy is more strictly enforced. According to demographer Yi Fuxian, in the 1980s 19% of families had only one child. However, due to both family planning policies and a rising cost of urban living, in 2005 fully 64% children lived in one-child families.

Lumping together balinghou (“After 1980”) and jiulinghou (“After 1990”) as a single group of “Chinese millennials” makes sense to a large degree due to shared experiences with technology, society, and individual economic opportunity. However, it is still worthwhile to point out the perceived disparities between the two groups. According to commonly accepted ideas, balinghou tend to be “idealistic”, “worried about jobs” and “trendsetters” while jiulinghou are “individualized”, “want to start businesses” and “trend followers”.

A Fujianese taxi driver born in 1981, when asked about the differences between balinghou and jiulinghou, complained, “the After 1980s have the heaviest burden. It is easier for the After 1990s.” Such gripes about the a spoiled younger generation may be found throughout the world, but what is unique in China is that even the After 1990s recognize their relatively privileged position.

Miss Zhang, born in a semi-rural area of Guangdong in 1990, freely admitted the advantages enjoyed by her generation. “We say the After 1980 are a kengdie (坑爹literally “crater father”, a humorous term originating from online gaming that roughly translates as “unfortunate”, or “cheated by life”) generation, because many of their parents were born in the 1950s and didn’t have much money. They have no ‘background’; they have to start from scratch. Many of the parents of the After 1990s were born in the 60s, so they had more background, more money…. The After 1990s are the pindie(‘拼爹’literally “fight father”, meaning “competition of family background”) generation. If the parents have money, they needn’t do anything.”
The economic boom that has transformed China has brought about an entirely new sociological phenomenon – the fu’erdai, (富二代 “Rich Second Generation”). This very visible minority of the Chinese millennials are the first Chinese people in living memory to have the chance to coast of their parent’s wealth. During the Maoist days, rich Chinese who didn’t flee the country were either killed or stripped of their assets, and there were virtually no opportunities for accumulating riches. Babies born to fortunate – or well-connected – Chinese in the 1980s and 1990s now stand to benefit from inherited, rather than earned, wealth for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A survey of fu’erdai found that 37% hope to start their own business, and 45% doubt that they have the necessary qualities to carry on their parent’s businesses.

The fu’erdai live in conditions that are a stark contrast to the children of migrant workers. Many of these poorer youth have spent their entire lives in China’s booming cities, but because of the inherited hukou (household registration) system, they are officially “rural” residents and have no access to free public education and healthcare. In Beijing, only about 70% of the children of migrant workers attend official schooling. These young Chinese might be exposed to the same technology and popular culture as the fu’erdai, but their economic prospects are quite different.

This wealth gap amongst Chinese millennials has major social and political implications, because most of the ambitions of Chinese millennials are related to economic success. Growing up in the relative prosperity of the last three decades, Chinese millennials compare themselves to their (sometimes quite wealthy) peers, rather than the impoverished conditions of the previous generations. Steve Papermaster, CEO of Powershift Group, says Chinese millennials “hope that they will achieve the ‘Chinese dream’, that they will have great jobs and strong incomes and wealth …So they expect that, and they want that, and they want it bad. They can get jealous, competitive, and obsessed. And at the same time, they can also get very disappointed, because even if you’re one in a million in China, that means you’re one of about 14 or 15 thousand people just like you. So it’s harder to stand out, it’s harder to get that job, it’s harder to get that promotion, it’s harder to get that raise, it’s harder to meet these expectations that you have of yourself and that you’ve gotten from the media.”

Meanwhile, Professor Fong also defines the aspirations of Chinese millennials largely in economic terms: “They hope for their lives to keep improving and become as similar as possible to the lives of the middle and upper classes of developed countries, and they fear that this will not happen if they do not succeed in increasingly and extremely competitive Chinese and global markets. .. They want their children to have even better education, incomes, and opportunities than they had, and enjoy the same wealth, prestige, and environmental cleanliness that the middle and upper classes of the developed world enjoy.”

There is something of a contradiction in these goals. It is hard to see how China can achieve the same level of material prosperity as the West without catastrophic environmental effects. Chinese youth have shown a greater willingness than older generations to protest (and even riot) over both environmental concerns  and labour disputes.

Despite these localized expressions of popular rage, the relative peace and stability experienced by the Chinese millennials is unprecedented in recent Chinese history. Along with exposure to foreign ideas and culture is an enduring sense of Chinese nationalism, as Professor Moore explains: “there is that nationalistic sense that China must assume its rightful place as one of the world’s greatest powers… There is a kind “hurt feelings” quality to the way many Chinese, old and young, view their recent history. Of course, it’s true that Western nations and the Japanese did bully and exploit China mercilessly for about 100 years, but, partly because of government propaganda, the wounds that this left are not healing with time. There is a strong sense that China is really about to arrive on the world stage in a big way and will finally get the respect and admiration it deserves and of which it has been so long deprived. The nationalism of the millennial generation has more of an ‘OK, now we’ll show everyone how great we are,’ quality that is not typical of most countries with which I’m familiar.”

Chinese millennials do not know the horror and uncertainty of war. China hasn’t had a major armed conflict since a border clash with Vietnam in 1979. On the other hand, almost every member of the older generations of Chinese knows political instability, violence and hardship firsthand – even Xi Jinping was forced to live in the Chinese countryside for seven years during the Cultural Revolution, and his father was imprisoned.

China now has major territorial disputes with many of its neighbours, and there are signs that Chinese millennials may push for a more assertive foreign policy. How the world deals with the nationalistic aspirations of the Chinese millennials may be as important as how the Chinese government handles their economic and environmental aspirations.
Mr. Liu, born Northern China’s Heilongjiang in 1982, explained the popular mood towards the Philippines in rather stark terms: “Everyone wants to go to war with the Philippines. They say the government is being too weak… Chinese people care much about face, and the Philippines is a small country.” Nevertheless, he had faith in the peaceful intentions of China’s current generation of leadership – a generation largely born in the ‘40s and ‘50s: “The people are angry, but the government leaders know war will have no benefit.”


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