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.
Wikipedia describes the TV event as such: “The CCTV New Year’s Gala is currently the most watched annual Arts and Performance event anywhere in the world, and as such, its importance has reached over to political, economic, and ethical territory. As the Eve of Chinese New Year is a time where the family gathers, the typical situation involves a large 3-generation family gathered in front of their TV set while making dumplings for the first New Year’s meal. The Gala adds a mood of celebration in the house as people laugh, discuss and enjoy the performance. It has become an ingrained tradition on Mainland China to watch the New Year’s Gala on New Year’s Eve, and the audience numbers over 700 million people (est.).”
My gracious hosts for the New Years festivities this year said they remember the first annual gala televised in 1984, but Wiki says it started in 1982. Most likely the difference is a result of my hosts not owning a television set until 1984.
Which brings me to my first conclusion about China’s most important national cultural program: It’s rise in popularity and entrenchment in contemporary Chinese culture is in large part connected to the spread and rise of mass-media technology (namely television).
As Chinese families celebrated their rising disposable incomes with the purchase of their first televisions, they proudly displayed their new expression of wealth to all their neighbours and family members during the most important holiday of the year. (Very much like what Chinese families do now with new homes, or new cars. And as an interesting side-note, the majority of Chinese’ first television set was already a colour TV, as their entrants as buyers in this category was comparably late.)
And so showing the New Year’s Gala each year on their ever-expanding screen size was and is a must. China’s National Cultural Program became ingrained in China’s culture at the most rapid rate. A census conducted in 2007 said that about 93.6% of Chinese families watched the annual television spectacle.
Yesterday while I was watching the 2009 show, one specific part of the show caught my attention. One of the emcees of the evening came up at one point and spoke into the camera, telling the audience (the entire population of China) to find their parents wherever they were and hug them, thank them for their lives, show some kind of gratitude. And then he went on to ask the viewers to find their friends and show them gratitude, and then finally that we should all thank ourselves and love ourselves.
I found it odd, and the Chinese people around me listened intently. Later I asked more friends and each had their own reactions to the national ‘call to love one another’. Some thought it was ridiculous, some found it very moving. I am sure there will be more chatter in the China blogosphere in the next few days about it.
But what that moment and the entire show got me to thinking was how China has a national cultural program, and how, to my knowledge, America and other nations do not. Last night’s little blurb and annual production in general has the effect of mobilizing China’s populace into a unifying, uniting and common mode of thought, perspective and heritage.
I know many people, especially from the West, will call such a program Nationalist Propaganda, but what I want to ask here is not whether this should be classified as propoganda, and I do not want to ask whether it is good or bad. Instead I want to ask and understand why this type of National Cultural Program can become so popular and prevalent in a culture such as China and not be found in Western cultures like America.
While a portion of the American population might make it a tradition to watch the Santa Claus Parade, or watch the Count Down in Times Square, the viewership is nowhere near the 94% of the entire nation as it is in China. As well, none is as engaging.
The day, week and month after the annual Chinese New Year show airs, there is talk around many preverbial watercoolers in China about what transpired during that 3 hour show. Often, a new word or slang is invented during one of the comedy skits that inevitably makes it into popular Chinese vernacular. Everyone replays, recites or reminices about some joke or witty remark made in the program. My friends have already fully reinacted the final comedy skit to the T in less than 24 hours of seeing it for the first time.
I never hear anyone reciting lines from Dick Clark’s New Year’s Program, and I never hear anyone reinacting scenes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Scrooged. America does not have a central place that enjoys upwards to 100% mass populace appeal where the American government, or the American people, can enunciate a singular message for all to conceptualize. So where is America’s national cultural program? Where is any country’s?
A lot of the explanation for China’s ability to have such a national cultural program easily comes from The Chinese’ culture of accepting and respecting national initiatives/propaganda. That comes from the familial, collegial, collaborative characteristics rooted in a Confucian past. Another part of the equation may be how today’s China has a state religion of Atheism. Whereas in America where big holidays like Christmas and Easter are still primarily Christian holidays that result in local religious communities gathering to find meaning and celebration, China has none of that. With the state religion as atheism, many people mockingly say China’s actual official religion is the worship of the state itself. If that is the case, then the New Years Gala can see as the largest televised worship service in the world.
But the main questions remain: 1) Does America need a national cultural program? And 2) What does a national cultural program mean for China’s influence in the world moving forward?
For Question 1), America has been ingenius in the past century in nationalistic and cultural agenda through decentralized programs, such as the numerous products that come out of Hollywood and Broadway. And I think that America is too critical of any ‘nationalized’ program for it to ever gain traction. Additionally, with the media environment as fractured as it is, and with the attention of Americans so fractionalized, I think it will be near impossible for America to have a national cultural program as China has it.
There is one American program in recent history that I think comes close to being a national cultural program — the Inauguration of Barack Obama.
For Question 2), A national cultural program will continue to shape China’s own contemporary culture for the foreseeable future. And depending on how quickly China rises in political and economic leadership on the global stage, perhaps other nations will need to start paying more attention to this Chinese New Year Gala. Or perhaps China will start exporting it, or a version of it, translated into other languages, to neighbouring or partner countries it hopes to influence.
The other way to look at it is if we look at American broadcast history and remember that America did actually have national cultural programs, only they reached their apex on radio before the invention of the television. At that time America also had famous variety shows that each family would turn into and listen each evening. National messages motivating and unifying the nation was disseminated using this method to great success. Sounds awful familiar to China’s experience with the New Years Gala today. If this is the case, then perhaps we will see the decline of the national cultural program in China as well. As the nation grows in media sophistication and its population becomes even-more culturally fragmented with each generation, will we see China follow America’s path of decentralizing its cultural programs?
What I know for sure is that come February 14 2010, I’ll likely be sitting in front of another television screen, with another Chinese family, watching another Chinese New Year Gala and watching intently for the subtle, or not-so-subtle nationalistic messages that come through.
(Caveat: I am not American, I am Canadian. But I use America just because it is most approachable to a larger group of readers. This particular blog post is applicable to all nations, not only America.)