China’s Millennials challenges the idea that this generation has been pacified by material comfort and nationalism.
Eric is currently working on his next book, dedicated to Chinese students studying in American universities.
Interview by Matteo Damiani
China-underground: Why did you decide to write a book about Chinese young generations?
Eric Fish: It kind of started with an article I wrote in 2011 on the annual junxun 军训 military training that all incoming college freshman have to do.
The training went large-scale after the 1989 Tiananmen Movement and massacre, and I was intrigued by the messaging it appeared to be trying to send to the students: be collectivist, patriotic, loyal to the Communist Party, and obedient to authority.
And I was equally intrigued by how some of that messaging seemed to stick, but how much of it was subtly (sometimes overtly) resisted by students.
Doing that article got me interested in Chinese youth and their relationship with the Party more broadly.
Chinese millennials (born from around the mid-80s to the mid-90s as I defined them) were either in diapers or not yet born when the events of 1989 happened. Though most don’t realize it, those events had a pretty profound influence in shaping the world they grew up in.
After the events, the national narrative—and the Communist Party’s justification for maintaining power—shifted from just using socialist ideology to pushing a much more nationalistic narrative of historical exceptionalism, victimhood, and then finally “national rejuvenation” led by the Party.
The other big thing to transpire after Tiananmen was the rapid privatization and international integration of the economy in the 1990s-2000s, which yielded incredible growth, the collapse of the danwei work unit system, the retreat of the state from the private lives of its citizens, and a massive influx in outside information and influences.
A tacit bargain emerged between the Communist Party and the people: We’ll give you unprecedented social and economic freedom, as long as you don’t push for political freedom.
For the book, I wanted to look at the generation that was born into that bargain and that national narrative to explore whether it can continue to hold among youth who grew up taking economic stability and personal freedom for granted.
I don’t attempt to definitively answer that question—nobody could—but I tried to tell the stories of a lot of diverse youth from around China to try to give some food for thought. What I came away with was a story much more complicated than one of a generation pacified by nationalism and materialism—which is how they’re often portrayed.
Where to begin? They were promised that surviving the spirit-crushing gaokao 高考 college entrance exam and getting an education would open doors, but every year the employment landscape for graduates becomes bleaker and bleaker.
And for those from rural areas, discrimination, nepotism, and the government’s hukou 户口 residency system continue to limit education and employment opportunities; in many ways those inequalities are becoming worse.
This generation is also on the losing end of one of the world’s most extreme demographic imbalances, thanks to the “one-child policy.”
They’re an artificially small population bottleneck now tasked with supporting the artificially large Mao-era Baby Boomer generation as it rapidly ages.
The family planning policy, along with sex selective abortion, has also yielded tens of millions of surplus young men that will never find a female partner, and about a million more join their ranks every year.
Then there’s the housing problem: buying even a modest home in a second or third-tier city can cost decades of an average income.
Combine all these things, and it results in huge pressures on young people to study hard, make a lot of money, buy a house, get married, and have children as soon as possible to secure their (and their parents’) future.
But that’s becoming more difficult—hopeless even—for many. And this comes at a time when young people are wanting and expecting more out of life than pure economic security; they’re increasingly wanting a sense of meaning and spiritual satisfaction.
But when it’s getting harder to meet even basic needs and desires, that’s a recipe for disillusionment and heartbreak. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges facing Chinese youth—and the Communist Party that’s trying to govern them.
This generation is also on the losing end of one of the world’s most extreme demographic imbalances, thanks to the “one-child policy.”
Has the 1989 movement left any trace in the memory of young people?
I interviewed in-depth somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 young Chinese in the course of researching the book—in addition to countless more informal chats—and I was surprised by how many actually did express some knowledge and opinions about 1989 once I’d spent some time building rapport with them.
Opinions ran the gamut: some thought it was an unmitigated travesty, some thought the victims must have done something wrong if they got themselves shot, some didn’t really care enough to have an opinion.
Then there were some who thought it’s a shame so many died, but that the decades of “stability” the massacre bought justified it in the end. Most were pretty sketchy on the details of exactly what happened though, and there’s little direct emotional connection to the events among a generation that didn’t experience them directly.
I’ll add though that the bulk of these interviews were done around 2011 to 2014. I do get the impression that knowledge of the events is fading more each year.
It used to sometimes be touched upon in schools, if only to point out how misguided the protestors were.
But under the present political environment, that seems to have all but disappeared.
I’m now working on a project about Chinese students in the United States, and when I interview 18 and 19-year-olds here, I’m finding it pretty common that they knew next to nothing about 1989 prior to coming overseas.
But I think there’s a side-effect of this historical “amnesia” that’s often overlooked. The whole point of the massacre was to stop in its tracks the boisterous protest movements and challenges to the government that had been building up from around 1985 up until 1989.
The Tiananmen Movement could have been stopped with non-deadly force—as many protests before it had been—but Deng Xiaoping allegedly rationalized a massacre, saying, “Two-hundred dead could bring 20 years of peace to China.”
He got almost that. It wasn’t until 2007 that the next large demonstration involving tens of thousands of people happened: an environmental protest in Xiamen.
Since then, there have been several movements—many online, some on the streets—driven by youth that suggest the instinctive fear of protest that the 1989 massacre was meant to instill is ebbing.
The most recent manifestation of that is the self-professed Marxist students who have been demonstrating on behalf of workers.
It seems that slowly but surely, many young Chinese are again showing a willingness to stick their necks out for social change. I think the huge ramp-up in repression the past several years has been partly a reaction to that.
It seems that slowly but surely, many young Chinese are again showing a willingness to stick their necks out for social change.
How have Chinese youth changed since that of the eighties?
Chinese youth of today are certainly more educated overall, more individualistic, and, as counter-intuitive as it seems, probably less nationalistic.
As much attention as there has been on the “Patriotic Education Campaign,” I think a raft of sociocultural influences ranging from Hollywood and K-pop to Weibo and online countercultures have left a bigger mark in shaping young people’s worldviews and identities.
It’s ok to be different, weird and explore alternative lifestyles, beliefs, and sexualities in a way that it just wasn’t back in the 80s.
I also don’t buy the idea that this generation is any more apathetic or materialistic than youth in the 80s. There were a lot of political and economic factors—and some totally random events—that yielded the Tiananmen Movement.
There are likewise a lot of things preventing a similar event from happening today, but I wouldn’t assume that the attitudes of youth are one of them.
I always remember UC Irvine Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s story of going to China in 1986 with an interest in studying youth movements.
He was told it was too bad he’d come at such a dull time, because students were supposedly “too focused on frivolous things and concerned with getting ahead to engage in any sort of idealist collective action.”
I also don’t buy the idea that this generation is any more apathetic or materialistic than youth in the 80s
Do Chinese millennials have a political conscience? Do average young people care about human rights?
It’s so hard to generalize. But if you ask, most young people in China will probably say they don’t care about politics. But when you probe deeper, it seems a lot care a lot about things that seem pretty political to me: wealth inequality, social injustice, international relations, Taiwan, gender equality…you name it.
“Human rights” tends to be a loaded concept in China. It’s been pretty successfully portrayed in state-controlled education and media as an instrument of hypocrisy by Western countries—particularly by the United States.
The Communist Party has presented itself as a champion of human rights by crediting itself with “lifting” hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, “civilizing” outer regions, and developing the country economically—and it seems that message has been somewhat well-received.
Some of the young people I interviewed said things along the lines of “Sure, the rights of some individuals had to be trampled to make it happen, but the collective country is better off for the way the Communist Party has ruled. Look at how much better off we are than the democracy next door in India.”
It seems a lot of people abroad can’t accept the idea that many—probably most—young Chinese are fundamentally ok with the overall political system the way it is now, although many would like to see substantial reforms within that system.
It’s true that the picture would likely look very different if there wasn’t such tight censorship and repression of dissent, but there are a lot of very well-informed non-brainwashed young people who nevertheless support one-party rule.
So far, it has indeed delivered consistent growth and the “stability” that’s so valued in the country, and has been so rare throughout its history.
The million-dollar question though is whether that support will continue if the economy takes a sharp dive.
Without economic growth, the only tools the Party really seems to have left are nationalism and raw coercion, and both of those can backfire spectacularly. Nationalism has directly fueled almost all of China’s past youth movements when domestic leaders were seen to be failing to defend China’s interests.
And as the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement showed, attempts to forcefully disperse protests can actually help to rally more sympathy and support for them.
There are a lot of very serious social, economic, and environmental issues brewing, and I don’t think it’s at all far-fetched that conditions could align in a way that yields another major youth-led movement at some point.
That’s not to say the Communist Party wouldn’t survive it, or that people would go so far as to call for its overthrow, but youth movements can crop up pretty quickly and seemingly out of nowhere.
Without economic growth, the only tools the Party really seems to have left are nationalism and raw coercion, and both of those can backfire spectacularly
Is there any story that particularly impressed you?
One of the most interesting stories I found was that of a young civil servant. She had been a brilliant student, was once very idealistic, and had wanted to go into law.
But once she began studying the field in college, she got really disillusioned. “It’s ridiculous to talk about law in China,” she told me. “What determines the winner of a case isn’t the law.”
She ended up taking the civil service exam instead and got a much-coveted job in the Beijing customs bureau.
She was essentially a paper pusher, but the benefits were good and the “golden rice bowl” job was seen as very secure, with lots of opportunities for “supplemental” income.
There was all kinds of corruption, nepotism, and sketchy favor-trading around her at the bureau.
She refused to partake, which she felt meant she’d be shut out of the various office cliques and she’d never get promoted. Before long, she had become totally disillusioned, not just with her work, but the country around her.
“The more idealistic you are, the more painful it is,” she told me. “
Some people don’t want to change society because they benefit from it. I don’t like society and do want to change it, but I can’t, so what’s the point of thinking about it?”
Eventually, she was lulled into complacency.
On one hand, it seemed hopeless to change anything or live out her ideal career, and on the other, she could just keep punching in to a ridiculously easy job for a good paycheck and great benefits.
I thought her story was so telling about how the Party keeps some of the best and brightest in the country from stirring the pot.
After a few years, this brilliant, once idealistic aspiring lawyer had been almost completely co-opted by the system and given an incentive to perpetuate it.
She told me: “I used to worry about losing my job because of the regime changing. But the chances of that are small.
Maybe the Communist Party won’t collapse, but maybe China will become really good and no longer need this ridiculous job.”
Photos courtesy of Eric Fish