China’s youth can get a bad press. In most accounts, they are the “Little Emperors” or the “Me Generation”, the spoilt and apolitical offspring of one-child families who are interested in fast cars, video games and designer goods but little else. At the main Shanghai store of Louis Vuitton there is a queue to get in at weekends – young women wait patiently in the rope line, as if they were trying to get into the hottest new LA club.
Yet the Me Generation is beginning to show its teeth. Simmering discontent about soaring house prices and the recent wave of strikes at car plants and other factories both speak of the rising and sometimes frustrated expectations of younger Chinese, who want more from their lives than their parents could dream of. It is a phenomenon that could have all sorts of consequences for China’s future.
There are lots of good explanations for the strikes of the past two months, including low pay and a demographic shift that is reducing the number of young people entering the workforce. But there is also a generational shift at play. Chinese often talk about their capacity to chi ku, or “eat bitterness”, which helps explain their resilience amid the chaos and privations of the past century. But the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s has grown up among much wider prosperity, even in poor parts of the countryside.
Twenty years ago, the main goal of many migrant workers in city factories was to send money home to struggling village families. Now they see the factory as part of a personal project, a first step towards an urban life. Internet access has made them more worldly and since a labour law passed in 2008 they have a stronger sense of their rights.