As China continues its emergence on the world stage and gains evermore influence and power, more and more interest is being cast upon today’s China youth – a segment of the population that controls a growing portion of China’s domestic economy and will in the coming years control China’s industrial and economic agendas.
With such importance placed on the youth, the media, both international and domestic, are trying their best to help us understand who these people really are, and what we can expect from them. However in the media’s never-ending quest for the perfect sound-bite/headline that will turn heads and provoke public reaction, they skew the portrayal of China’s youth and miss the point.
Often media will begin an article by saying “China has over 400 million young people. These youth are…” and start using adjectives or an individual’s story to describe this whole group. Next time you’re reading any article on China youth, try to remember some of these points so you don’t get misled:
1) Is the media talking about China’s wealthy youth or the rest?
If you read an article that describes young Chinese’s consumption power, or the fact that these youth have ‘grown up only knowing prosperity’, remember that like in every country, the Have versus Have-Nots is a reality. In China this fact is hyper inflated. Do Chinese youth drive expensive Italian sports cars and buy luxury brands? Yes. Does this segment of the Chinese youth make up a very tiny small percentage of the whole group? Yes. While the large majority of young Chinese have indeed experienced prosperity for much of their lives, the term ‘prosperity’ takes on a different meaning for different Chinese youth. To some prosperity means having more than one set of clothing. To others it means owning their first digital mobile phone. To others it means buying a separate apartment for their dog. When the media is telling you Chinese youth have consumption power, put it into context and think of an upside-down funnel. Which part of the funnel are they talking about? Because it certainly isn’t the whole thing.
2) Is the media talking about big city youth or small city youth? Edgy youth or mainstream youth?
Media will find fantastic stories of some really inspirational Chinese youth who have a unique view of life, sense of style, and sub-culture group they belong to. While they are authentic Chinese young people with authentic stories, again we need to put it in the correct context. Big cities, like all big cities in the world, offer more opportunities for subcultures to develop. Access to disparate international and domestic music, movies, literature, and ideas are greater in big cities than in small. Entrepreneurs and grass-roots initiatives have greater acceptance and greater support in big cities versus small. So it is no surprise that we find greater variety and most pioneering youth in bigger cities. Again, do they make up a very small percentage of the total China youth population? Yes. Edgy youth have a similar, but uncorrelated upside funnel to China youth’s consumption power distribution. Which part of this funnel is the media showing you?
3) The majority of Chinese youth are happy – or at least content
Media focus a lot on stories of angst or stories that cause panic or shock. They do this primarily because that””s what mostly constitutes ‘news’. Unfortunately that means we get stories about Chinese youth that seek to illustrate how different they are from the rest of us, or make us very concerned about them. The fact is, the large majority of Chinese youth are happy, or at least content. There is no burning desire or excruciating pain being experienced. When we interact with youth, when our researchers and ethnographers do deep-dive immersions, time and again we find stories and personal accounts of young people who can’t come up with too many complaints. Fairly irregardless of their economic status or whether they are living in a 1st or 4th tier city, we find many youth who are patiently living in the roles and positions allotted to them. Many accept and do not question their current path in life; many, while indulging in some misdemeanors or escapes, are not driven by negative impulses. Certainly the caveat to this lack of discontentment is that through our research we also find there is a lack of excitement as well. But, for the media, a majority that is neither discontent nor excited is not compelling enough to be reported.
4) The majority of Chinese youth are not rebellious
Those youth stories that the media does find about discontentment or frustration is often implied to as instigation for rebelliousness. Not true. Most Chinese youth, while having many frustrations (but still content), do not naturally resolve to rebel when engaging their frustrations. Although having different values than their parents, teachers, or older generation, this does not mean Chinese youth will rebel. This has to do in part with contemporary Chinese culture and the social + societal construct that youth find themselves. Responsibility to the family unit still holds extreme importance to Chinese youth. It is an intrinsic part of their character. The acts that result from discontentment or frustration are not in reaction to the family, the parents or to authority. It is an engagement and exploration of a different value system. Rebellion and exercising a different value system are very separate and distinct things. The actions of Chinese youth are the latter. Media, especially international media, likes to characterize Chinese youth as rebellious because this is the context, culture and experience of those foreign nations. And when the viewers/readers of the story are primarily from that foreign culture, it is much easier to write to something they can understand and relate to. However this minute but important discrepancy has already been seeded.
5) Chinese youth do not want rebellion
Another instance of foreign context and understanding being superimposed onto the Chinese youth experience, media will sometimes talk or wonder about this generation having the potential for open rebellion. In the years I’ve been in China, in the numerous projects our teams have conducted, I have not once met a Chinese youth who has mentioned, let alone contemplated mass rebellion. Then again, I’ve never personally met any Chinese citizen who has entertained the idea. While rebellions have been in the legacies and histories of almost all nations, including China, it is not in the thought processes of today’s Chinese, and especially the youth.
6) There is no longer ‘mass’ Chinese youth
Part of the reason why mass rebellion is not an option for Chinese youth, is because ‘mass’ youth is no longer valid. The concept of banding together as one glorious generation or group of people to stand up and make one common statement does not hold sway with this generation of young people. It is also not attractive to this group if one leader were to rise up and call for everyone’s support. Chinese youth today are experiencing a rapidly evolving sense of individuality and identity. We do see multitudes of youth taking part in causes, such as leaving school and work to volunteer in aid of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake victims, or volunteering to support the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But it is not for a common cause or a group statement that they do these things. When asked why they volunteered, young people commonly responded it was first and foremost because they personally felt they could learn and explore something new in themselves from the experience. The fact that there are so many young people following their own self-motivated direction speaks to the strength and reality of this generation’s evolving individuality. The subcultures that have emerged, the creative and edgy youth that share their unique stories, the different ways which youth are engaging their frustrations; these are all examples of individual youth wrestling and trying to resolve who they are in their world. Media won’t tell you about this, because it doesn’t make for compelling news. Media will use one individual youth’s story to draw out one thematic experience that they use to represent the entire China Youth generation. It makes for good sensation, but couldn’t be farther from the truth.