If millenials in the U.S. are painted with a broad brush of unflattering descriptions – “spoiled,” “demanding” and “entitled” to name a few — their counterparts in China aren’t viewed much more favorably, says author Eric Fish.
In his new book, “China’s Millennials: The Want Generation,” Mr. Fish draws on his years spent working as a teacher and journalist in China from 2007 to 2014 to give a multi-faceted look at the country’s complicated younger generation. Through interviews with struggling factory workers, beleaguered recent graduates, social activists and others, he introduces readers to the generation born during the 1980s and ‘90s and coming of age at a time when China is newly ascendant on the world stage.
In an interview with China Real Time, Mr. Fish discussed the myths and reality facing China’s millenials:
What’s the biggest misconception about young generation?
From abroad, the stereotype seems to be that this generation is nationalistic and very materialistic — that there’s been good economic growth, and at the same time they’ve had this really nationalistic education, so they’ve been pacified away from pushing for any kind of social change.
I think that is still a fair statement broadly. But I think we’re moving away from that in that young people are starting to care about social issues, environmental issues — all kinds of things that go beyond money.
You’ve written about Li Maizi, one of the five feminists in China whose recent detention made world headlines. How well-known are these activists inside China? Are you surprised that they have attracted the authorities’ attention in this way?
Given the political atmosphere and how it had regressed since the time I’d talked with her, I wasn’t that surprised. I guess it was pretty surprising how the government views people like her as a threat. But you look at the big picture, that’s pretty common.
These people don’t represent their generation but they very much are of their generation. You didn’t see this kind of thing 10 years ago. It’s true, most people didn’t know what was going on with these activists. But a lot of people did. That petition that was signed, more than 1,000 people signed it.
I think you do see this grassroots movement happening on all sorts of issues, where people are less afraid of speaking up. I think it’s very small still, but it’s undeniable that it’s growing and growing quite quickly, this kind of mindset.
The number of Chinese students at U.S. universities has been growing at a staggering rate. How do you see the experience of studying abroad impacting China’s younger generation?
It’s hard to paint with broad strokes. A lot of people do become much more critical of their own country. The guy who wrote that open letter on Tiananmen, he went quite clearly in the other direction (from where he started). I think what’s most interesting is how diverse voices are in China now.
What’s interesting, too, about the students that come over and are intensely patriotic – a lot of these people who are sensitive about their country when it’s criticized internationally can be just as critical of their own leaders at home. There are so many nationalistic outbursts in Chinese history that quickly shifted against domestic leaders at home. I think that’s one big mistake that a lot of people make.
With how quickly China’s economy has grown in recent years, do you see the generation gap manifesting itself in any particular ways?
I definitely recognized this generation gap before, but (religion) is one place that really drove it home. One Christian convert I talked to, I asked her, “Why did you become interested in Christianity?” She related going to these underground house churches where they sang songs, held hands, talked about unconditional love. She said, “I just don’t feel that connection with my parents. The world they grew up in is so vastly different. They don’t understand me; I don’t understand them.” So, this generation gap actually led her to religion.
Generation gaps, they’re not even between parents and kids anymore. You have generation gaps that are five years wide now. Things change so quickly.
What role do you see technology – particularly social media such as Weibo — playing in shaping the lives of China’s younger generation?
I think what Weibo did is it highlighted a lot of these issues that if you’re outside China you take for granted – censorship, land grabs, pollution, poisoned food, forced abortions, petty corruption. I think a lot of people in China didn’t appreciate these issues and how serious they are. When Weibo took off, I heard people less often defending censorship. This is what censorship has been hiding from them. The last few years, Weibo has been really clamped down on. But even if it’s been subdued, I think the cat’s out of the bag, and it’s going to be hard to stuff that cat back in the bag and get people used to the old way of looking at things.
Are there other misconceptions that you think people have about China’s young generation?
One thing I think is interesting is the various gaps developing that are affecting young people today. One stereotype is that kids these days don’t appreciate the hardship older people went through — which is hard to refute on the face of it. How can you compare kids today to adults who starved under Mao?
But I think there are legitimate complaints this generation has. Wealth inequality is getting bigger. The rural-urban gap is getting bigger. The gap between men and women is getting bigger. For this generation, a lot of people are having a hard time finding a job; there’s a feeling they missed the boat — that a lot of wealth and power that’s being accumulated is with this group that’s already got it.
What do you make of the fact that many young people in mainland China have voiced opposition to the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong?
One message the government has delivered pretty well is that China can’t handle Western-style democracy and free elections and separation of powers. I think even after the Weibo heyday, most young Chinese I talked to still said, “Yeah, the American system is great. I hope one day China can have that. But right now, I don’t think we’re ready. I think that would be chaos.”
But, at the same time, people overwhelmingly think the press should have more freedom than it does, officials should be more accountable than they are, officials should declare their assets. These practical issues that would help transparency and help fight corruption seem to be broadly popular. So, I don’t think people should be so discouraged by young people looking at Hong Kong and shrugging their shoulders.