Contemporary Chinese Youth and the State

In the new edition of the Journal of Asian Studies, Stanley Rosen writes about Chinese youth culture and politics:

Reflecting the increasing pluralization of Chinese society after thirty years of reform, Chinese youth in 2009 are far from unified in their belief systems or behaviors. At the same time, a more general understanding of the attitudes and behaviors of Chinese youth has proved elusive for observers, both inside and outside China. Up until mid-2008, it was common to find youth under attack in the Chinese media, characterized as the “me generation” and criticized for being “reliant and rebellious, cynical and pragmatic, self-centered and equality-obsessed,” as well as “China’s first generation of couch potatoes, addicts of online games, patrons of fast food chains, and loyal audiences of Hollywood movies.”6 The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, however, seemingly changed everything: The same media outlets that had written off such youth now reversed themselves to extol their virtues, while noting, not just in passing, that their altruistic behavior was not surprising because they had learned the virtues of “great compassion, benevolence, and gallantness” from imbibing traditional Chinese culture, and that, after all, they had “fully enjoyed the achievements of China’s 30 years of reform and opening up.”7 Still, it is difficult to reconcile these compassionate youth with those who are angry. Indeed, reflecting the continuing influence of the recent past, some Chinese critics have referred to Internet-savvy nationalists as “online Red Guards” infected by a “populist virus.”8

It seems clear that there are competing and often contradictory influences shaping the attitudes and values of young Chinese today, particularly in the wealthy coastal areas. They have become very internationalist in their outlook, and they are strongly affected by global trends. Likewise, they are very pragmatic and materialistic, largely concerned with living the good life and making money. The third competing influence, most often called nationalism in its more extreme form, represents a broader impulse and encompasses not only the defense of China against perceived enemies from abroad, but also the kind of love of country and self-sacrifice in support of those most in need that was evident in the volunteerism that followed the earthquake. Chinese youth have shown that they are capable of exhibiting all of these tendencies at different times, depending on the circumstances, or even at the same time.

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