What the Media won’t to tell you about China’s Youth.

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Is this China’s Woodstock?

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The beginning of May each year marks the start of the festival season in Beijing. During the 3-day May holiday in China, Beijing is host to a number of cultural events, from live music, theatre, and visual arts.

This past May holiday I spent three straight days at Modern Sky’s Strawberry Music Festival. Modern Sky is one of China’s most successful and pioneering independent music labels. They have, over the course of over 10 years, built a portfolio of some of the most influential, original and popular Chinese indie bands. The Strawberry Festival is an assembly of many of Modern Sky’s own bands, plus a number of international music acts. This was the second year they’ve done the Strawberry Festival, billed as a ‘Folksy’ music and art festival. And indeed it was.

I attended with my partners at China Youthology. As we took in the entire experience, we made many observations. Here are some snippets of what we discussed:

1. The music scene is alive and kicking, and in a big way that only China can do. The most obvious observation is the sheer number of people attending these festivals. While it does not compare to the reportedly 500,000 people that showed up to Woodstock, the Strawberry Fest had about 20,000 to 30,000 attendees each day for 3 days. Some people may scoff at Strawberry Fest’s paltry numbers when compared to Woodstock, but here’s an extra detail: Strawberry Fest was only one of three music festivals going on in Beijing simultaneously during that long weekend. Each of the other music festivals MIDI, Ditan also had thousands of attendees, and in MIDI’s case, tens of thousands of attendees like Strawberry Fest. For a country where to many foreigners the only image of mass public gathering also involves tanks to suppress, having three outdoor festivals with tens of thousands of participants is no small feat.

2. Strawberry v. MIDI: Shifting cultural tastes. MIDI is a hardcore punk rock and metal music festival. It has been the premier music festival in Beijing for over ten years. Strawberry, an Indie-pop, music and art festival, emerged just two years ago and has already equaled if not surpassed MIDI in numbers. What does this say about the changing tastes of Chinese youth? Or perhaps more insightfully, are we seeing a new wave of young people discovering the music of their generation, in juxtaposition to the music of the youth that preceded them? Even while at the music festivals, we met many patrons who would swear by one of these festivals while shunning the other. It is clear that Indie-Pop, with the free-flowing hippy fashions, funky retro-electro-rock influences, and geeky, cute, graphic designs are on the rise, while Angst-Rockers, black shirts, and grunge may have an uncertain future. Only successive music festivals will reveal.

3. Rising quality: It was immensely impressive the quality displayed by some of the bands. Aside from the fact that a number of the bands are multi-ethnic, these contemporary Chinese indie bands are showing an intense exposure to world influences. They are incorporating innovative elements that define the best of world-class musicians. These bands are also exhibiting a refinement in sound quality and production that only comes from long experience touring overseas. Indeed, many of these groups have toured Europe, North America and other important musical melting pots, multiple times. They come back with best-in-class musical standards. One aspect that surprised me the most was the large majority of original songs by Chinese indie bands that are all written and performed in English. In contemplating why this is, I could think of two reasons: 1) The bands are so highly influenced by international music standards that they are creating, processing original music in the same language, 2) The bands are strategic-enough to expect their music has the ability to cross over to other international markets, thus making English songs would improve the probability of success exponentially. I think the reason is a combination of both, but I’d like to believe it is the former that drives this phenomenon.

4. Performance-ship: Another outcome of Chinese bands touring abroad is that their performances become more sophisticated. Understanding the power of audience interaction, the best bands are intimately conscious of their performance. They understand their performance experience is intricately related to their brand. From costumes to props to audience participation, Chinese bands are creating interactive experiences with their patrons never seen before in China.

5. Commercialization: Strawberry Festival was also impressive because of the strides it took in commercialization. While there wasn’t any new commercial inventions, the pervasiveness of commercialization within the festival was impressive. From Volkswagen cars enjoying product placement on the performance stages, to a fully-branded vodka bar beside the electronica stage, sponsorship and product placements were fully optimized at every opportunity. What is more though, it was not overbearing or intrusive to the experience, in fact, all the attendees accepted the brand presence and took it as part of the identity of Strawberry Fest. What does this say about the Chinese and their acceptance and embracing of brands as an integral part of the cultural experience? I think many marketers and media specialists are thinking actively about this question today.

6. Creating shared collective memories: Perhaps the most important take-away from these cultural festivals, in their size, experience and novelty for this young generation, is that they are creative key milestones of shared collective memories. Sooner or later some of the youth that attended these events will realize, recognize, or characterize some aspect of the experience and it will germinate into an artifact of this generation’s identity. What this artifact will stand for, what it will mean for the constituents at ascribe to this generation, and what it signifies for everyone else, is the job of researchers and anthropologists. Much like Woodstock, Beatle-Mania, or Elvis on national TV, it is these events and experiences that are happening right now, molding the mindsets and perspectives of China’s youth.

7. Cultural trends, nuisances, icons will start here: If these festivals continue, you’ll see that these events will be the genesis for new trends, icons and generational habits. The Strawberry Festival invites and encourages an open market where independent shop owners, artists, and aspiring entrepreneurs can set up shop to sell and exhibit their wares. This year we already saw white ‘Jabawaki’ style face mask become virally popular. I can foresee that as these festivals and markets grow bigger, the markets will become just as important if not perhaps more, than the musical performances. Certainly for trend watchers, the markets may be where the real insights will be.

Of course, this is all dependant on the government’s good graces in allowing these mass congregation of young people continue to happen. It is always a risky endeavour, and China’s track record with these kinds of events has been haphazard to say the least.

So is Strawberry Festival China’s own Woodstock. It could be. Or perhaps more accurately the whole consortium of festivals together, their compounded effect on this generation, could be the beginning of an experience that helps anchor a generation’s identity and provides a place for new generational artifacts to emerge. If you haven’t yet been to one of China’s music festivals, maybe you should thinking about coming next time. If you missed America’s Woodstock, make sure you don’t miss China’s.

Update: Archie from China Music Radar wrote a wonderful post on the music festivals as well, draw different conclusions. I encourage you to read his post. I understand there are a lot of people with differing points of view, especially on such a passionate subject such as music. I say, Good! Lets keep discussing and debating!

Is pragmatism killing China”s future potential?

Posted: April 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

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Recently I have been reading a lot of literature about America”s historical and present advantage; namely its ability to innovate and create in all disciplines: military, industry, business, art & music, process, thought, identity, etc. Popular perception at the moment is that innovation is the name of the game for competing countries and economies (a big reason why America is so concerned with young graduates and general brain drain to developing countries with hot economies).

Innovation and creation in any context first requires a culture of optimism, dreams, risk-taking, and perhaps a good amount of naivety. Even before talking about whether a society/economy has the right industry cluster, or entrepreneurial & intellectual excellence, or incubation & venture capital ecosystem, I feel the first fundamental question is whether the culture has elements of dreaming, risk-taking and naivety. Without these elements in the soil of a society, no-matter what kind of structures you build on top of it, nothing will grow out.

So how do you tell if a culture has these elements? I think there are many ways, but one way I would propose is to look at a society”s Arts culture. To me, the Arts demands the greatest amount of risk-taking, naivety, and commitment, but also represents innovation and creation in its most purest form. Look at a society”s arts culture, and see how far it integrates and influences general culture. I don”t propose that there is a direct correlation between a society”s Arts and its innovative industries. But the Arts speaks, reflects and cultivates the general society””s aptitude and tolerance for risk-taking, inspiration, dreams and courage.

Recently I was speaking to some friends who are doing in-depth research in China”s 3rd and 4th tier cities. Before they could process their analysis and key findings, I asked them what were their gut feelings from the first leg of their trip. One of the head researchers mentioned that he was impressed by the depth of realism the Chinese youth in these hinterland cities had about industry, business, and the real world. My researcher friend said he felt these young people, still in their teens and early twenties, could see just as clearly the risks and rewards in the working world as he could, he more than 10 years their senior. The discussion then moved to observing how these 3rd & 4th tier city youth would dabble in the arts (visual, music, design, theatre, and general hobbies), but never commit. They would try many things, but never embrace one thing, and allow that hobby/art-form define them or their identity process. The reason being that many can see how difficult and risky a life pursuing the Arts would be, and therefore decide it best not to invest time exploring the arts further, even when they feel the most engaged, enthralled and energized in that art-form.

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It is normal that a large majority of people never enter the arts full-time, even though they are highly exposed to the arts as an adolescent. But in most innovative societies, there is still a significant culture of trial and error, a balance of dreams and realities, of success stories and successful failures. Most of us know at least a handful of childhood friends who tried their hand at being an artist of some kind. Some made it, and some didn”t. But we have that expectation, and count that the norm. As my friends and I are starting to see in China, Chinese youth stop their role in the creative process even before they start, because they are so aware of the real risks and rewards of pursuing their artistic dreams. What does this mean for China””s innovative industries, and at a macro level, China””s future competitive advantages?

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If you take any course in international studies or cross-cultural communications, inevitably you”ll hear the Chinese, or China, as described as ”Pragmatic”. Its true. The Chinese pride themselves in being rational, reasonable, and seeing the situation as clearly as possible, weighing all the options, risks and rewards. But as we”re seeing in today”s Chinese youth, maybe pragmatism has entrenched itself to the point where it is inhibiting risk-taking, dreams, and healthy naivety. China has only in the past few years developed to the point where per capita disposable income, greater access to information, and life/occupation choice allowed enough room for creative industries and entrepreneurial start-ups grow. But, even with room to grow and structures being (marginally) developed to encourage creative growth, the soil of China””s society may not be ready to embrace it.

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