By James Palmer, Aeon, 7 March 2013
In 2004, fresh off the plane in Beijing, I was asked to judge an English competition for high-school seniors. My two co-judges were pleasantly cynical middle-aged sociologists, both professors at Tsinghua University. After listening to the umpteenth speech about how China used to be poor, but was now rich and powerful, I remarked to one of them that the students seemed a little sheltered.
‘They don’t know anything!’ she spat. ‘They don’t have any idea about how people live. None of this generation do. They’re all so spoilt.’
It’s a view I’ve heard time and again over the past eight years, and one of which the Chinese media never tire. The young get it from left and right. This January alone, the jingoistic Major General and media commentator Luo Yuan condemned the young for being physically and mentally unfit, ranting: ‘Femininity is on the rise, and masculinity is on the decline. With such a lack of character and determination and such physical weakness, how can they shoulder the heavy responsibility?’ Meanwhile the writer and social critic Murong Xuecun blasted them in the US magazine Foreign Policy because ‘fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers [ …] the young generation only believes official pronouncements; some even think contradicting the official line is heretical. They do not bother to check the details’.
There’s a measure of truth in these criticisms. The year I arrived, when I was going through the near-obligatory expat period as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer and editor, I had to forcibly drag a 19-year-old out of a classroom after he threw a temper tantrum, drummed the floor and refused to leave. Murong’s claim that the young unwittingly swallow government statements doesn’t stand up in an era where official credibility has been shattered by social media tools, but one can see where Luo’s claims are coming from. Ironically, the children of army officers seem especially pudgy. The teachers at a senior academy attached to an army base held private competitions as to which student was the most ‘sausagey’.
Food metaphors are telling—older Chinese want to know: ‘Why do they have it so easy, when we had it so hard?’ The main target of this slating has been what the Chinese call the balinghou—young people who were born after 1980, who never knew food rationing and were raised after China’s ‘reform and opening’ began. I’m talking here of the urban middle class, who dominate Chinese media both as purchasers and consumers. The raft of criticisms being levelled has very little to do with the actual failings of the young, but is a symptom of the yawning, and unprecedented gulf between young urban Chinese and their parents.
Zhang Jun, a 26-year-old PhD student, described the situation: ‘It’s not just a generation gap. It’s a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap.’ Lin Meilian, 30, and a journalist, bluntly stated: ‘I have nothing in common with my mother. We can’t talk about anything. She doesn’t understand how I choose to live my life.’
This kind of distance is not unique to China. But most other countries can claim far greater continuity between generations. My adolescence in Manchester in the 1990s was different in degree, not in kind, from that of my parents in Bristol and Sydney in the 1960s. But the parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties labouring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones and casual dates.
Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp, and of clinging to little alcoves of their own kind. In their relationships with their children, they remind me of the parents of the Indian and Bangladeshi kids I grew up with, struggling to advise their children about choices they never had to make. Yet for all the dissonance that geographical dislocation creates, the distance between a Bangladeshi village and a Manchester suburb is, if anything, smaller than that between rural China in the 1970s and modern Beijing.
Immigrants often have a stable set of values from their home culture from which to draw sustenance, whether religious or cultural. But for the children of the Cultural Revolution in China, there’s been no such continuity. They were raised to believe in the revolutionary Maoism of the 1960s and ’70s, and then told as young adults in the late 1970s that everything drilled into them in their adolescence had been a terrible mistake. Then they were fed a trickle of socialism, rapidly belied by the rush to get rich, and finally offered the hint of a liberal counter-culture in the 1980s before Tiananmen snatched it away. In the meantime, traditional values condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ in their youth are being given a quick polish and propped up as the new backbone of society by the authorities.
The young get slammed for their supposed materialism, but it’s a set of values their parents hold more dearly still, since the one constant source of security for their generation has been money. Money—at least the fantasy of it—has never abandoned them. ‘The Chinese love money,’ the PhD student Zhang told me, ‘because it has no history’. Having gone through the gangster capitalism of China’s rush to wealth, the older generation’s bleakly amoral attitude toward how to get by can shock their children. Huang Nubo, a poet, rock-climber and billionaire property developer, now in his fifties, has been one of the few people to talk about this openly, speaking of the ‘devastated social ecology’ in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin. But Huang is a rarity, and cushioned by his own wealth; far more parents are concerned that their children aren’t doing enough to get on.
While immigrants dream of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, or professors, domestic Chinese ambitions mostly lie elsewhere. Doctors are poorly paid, overworked, and unpopular, thanks to a flailing and corruption-ridden medical system. Lawyers are bound to the vagaries of the ever-shifting judicial system. Professors earn marginal incomes and rely on outside work to get by. The priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.
Zhang is a fast-tracked young academic who regularly attends high-level diplomatic and security conferences. She said: ‘My mother can’t understand anything of what I do, especially since it doesn’t come with any “perks”. Last new year, I was home and my cousin was there too. He’s a pharmaceutical rep. What that means is that he sells fake or overpriced drugs to hospitals, with the collusion of the doctors, and they split the profits. And my mom kept saying: “Oh, why don’t you go into business with your cousin! He makes so much money!” She knows what his job involves but she never thinks of it as wrong.’
Chinese parents pour money into their children’s education, but they also spend on short cuts. Most can’t afford to do what one acquaintance’s billionaire mining family did when he failed to get into Tsinghua University: buy him citizenship in the Dominican Republic so that he could attend Tsinghua as a ‘foreign student’, with cash as his only qualification. But they could do as Zhang’s mother did, and bribe her teachers every term to sit her at the front of the class, so that she wouldn’t be lost among the other 50 or 60 students.
It’s still possible to forge a career in China based on merit, though that’s becoming harder as the rich and well-connected pull the ladders away. Take the arts, where just participating in a national-level dance competition requires a minimum payment of 20,000 or 30,000 yuan (approximately $3,000 to $5,000, in a country where average incomes for urban residents are around $500 per month).
‘The actual winner is chosen by talent. But you need to fork over the money to the judges to be in the running. So the girls either have to rely on their daddies, or they have to find new “daddies”,’ a 21-year-old dancer told me. In music, one of the country’s top conservatories, once an incubator for greatness, now requires students to buy private classes from the director at 5,000 yuan ($800) a time. If everyone else is playing dirty, even the most honest parents are left with little choice for their children’s future, and some rue their own idealism. Han Suzhen, 57, a retired schoolteacher, commented: ‘We didn’t raise them in a way that adapts well to this world. We taught them ideals that were instilled in us, a kind of innocence. But today everybody is chasing the things we were taught not to value: we were taught to give to society, now they’re taught to get for themselves in any way possible. It’s the exact opposite. There’s nobody talking about ideas or freedom.’
As has been the case for much of China’s history, the most attractive prospect is an official job. On paper the salaries are low, but even an unimportant job in the extended hierarchies of officialdom comes with guaranteed benefits and security for life, known as the ‘iron rice bowl’. A midlevel position is a licence for extortion and string-pulling. Zhang told me: ‘My cousin, the drug dealer, keeps pestering me. “Why don’t you become an official? Then I can tell my business partners I have a relative who’s an official, and we can both make money.”’
Many of the post-1980 generation—contrary to their reputation for greedy materialism—want to help others. Levels of volunteering are higher than ever, though still significantly lower than in the West, and college students or young white-collar workers are the primary founders of NGOs. But to their parents, charity can be a dirty word. ‘One of my friends has a sick wife, and very little money,’ said Zhang, the PhD student. ‘I wanted to give him 500 yuan to help him, but while I was waiting to meet him, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me I was a fool.’ Another person I interviewed said: ‘If I tell my mum I gave money, she berates me because I don’t even have an apartment of my own yet.’
Trying to resist parental directives is tough. Ironically, one of the few consistent ideas to survive all of China’s years of chaos has been the extreme debt owed by children to parents, most clearly articulated in Confucian philosophy but drummed in by a thousand aphorisms and pious tales. ‘Filial piety is the root of all virtues,’ as the saying goes. ‘Love what your parents love, respect what they respect,’ instructs another. This burden weighs particularly hard upon daughters. One typical morality manual issued by a Confucian nationalist organisation in 1935 taught that ‘women are born with filial famine and ethical debt. So the purpose of their lives is to clear that debt.’
Family pressure is exacerbated by demographics. In the past, the burden of parental expectations was spread between several siblings. Today, the one-child policy has left the post-1980 generation at the bottom of a suddenly inverted pyramid. This has hit the marginally prosperous urban middle class the worst. In the countryside, family planning was lax enough that most twentysomethings have one or two siblings, while the rich were able to afford the fines to have a second or third child, although sometimes widely spaced apart. But among young white-collar workers, each couple has to bear the burden of two sets of ageing parents, plus any grandparents tough enough to still be around. And with social security shaky at best, parents look to their children for security in old age.
‘Look at these,’ exclaimed a friend as we visited a book shop, gesturing at the racks directed toward advice for the young. ‘All of them say the same thing; marry and get an apartment by 27, settle down, have kids. They’re a trap laid by our parents to get us to do what they want.’
However, while the relationships between the post-1980 generation and their parents are fraught with bitterness—whether over careers, houses or marriage—the distance between them and their grandparents is, curiously, much smaller. ‘My grandmother took my ambitions to be a journalist seriously,’ said Lin Meilian. ‘And she was the first person to teach me English, from when I was very small. I had so much more in common with her than my mother.’
Lin continued: ‘My grandmother grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, when China was much closer to the world, and so she understood how I see things.’ The cosmopolitanism and potential of a time before China closed its gates bridged generations.