#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 19
China boasts an energized, under-40 population of more than one half billion people. This group of young men and women is and will have far-reaching impacts within China and throughout the world. Today’s Issue looks more closely at China’s youth.
China’s Youth and the Future of China
China names its generations by decade. The Post 90’s Generation (Jiuling hou) were born after 1990. The first children of the new century are the Post 00’s Generation (Lingling hou). And so on. These Chinese youth and younger citizens total in excess of 500,000,000 people. They represent more than one-third of China’s overall population as well as approximately six percent of the world’s ENTIRE population.
They are not their parents’ generations. As Zak Dychtwald, author of Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World (2018), writes:
“The young people I describe here [pre-Covid] were born into a country brimming with ambition and aspiration. Now, the post-90 and post-2000 generations are part of the world’s middle class, the first modern Chinese generations less preoccupied with needs and more involved with wants”
Zak gave a hybrid presentation this month at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies as part of the Critical Issues Confronting China Series. His talk was entitled, “What Do China’s Youth Want?”
He began by asking all of the participants to take thirty seconds to answer the question on his or her own. I wrote down “a better, more stable life.” Zak’s answer, which he acknowledged can seem to change often for these young people, is “freedom and opportunity.”
His principal goal was to impress upon his audience that we need to understand the impact that the evolving answer to this simple question has (and will have) on all of our lives. Zak stresses five points in explicating why this is so.
photo by Joshua Fernandez, www.unsplash.com
First, this mass of Chinese youth presents a real and immediate Scale of Impact in a new world:
China’s economy has exploded from 1% of global GDP in 1990 to 19% in 2020
46% of the world’s electric vehicles are in China
75% of all passport holders in China are under the age of forty
The Chinese dominate [pre-Covid] global travel and luxury markets.
Young people in both America and China set trends. However, whereas it is the Boomers who move markets in America, the young are also the market movers in China.
photo by Joshua Fernandez, www.unsplash.com
Second, China’s incredible Speed of Change impacts Chinese youths’ view of the world.
According to his self-created Lived Change Index (measuring lifetime per capita GDP to track how much economic change a country has experienced over time, China has been on a speed-track for three decades. Specifically, since 1990, the indexed expansion in Germany (1.9x), United States (2.7x), Brazil (3.2x), and India (5.0x) pale in relation to China’s 33x explosion.
Such dramatic, overarching societal and economic change impacts youthful expectations towards jobs, parents, and life opportunities. Zak speaks of “generation gulfs,” not mere “generation gaps.”
Third, Demography is a societal, economic, and political issue.
Because of the now-terminated One-Child Policy begun in 1979, China has a 4-2-1 society. Four grandparents-two parents-one child. Setting aside the fact (for these purposes) that China’s population declined last year and that procreating is a low priority for many of China’s youth, the 4-2-1 dynamic has resulted in both staggering pressure on and grand opportunity for China’s Little Emperors and Empresses.
China’s “project of childhood” makes American helicopter parenting seem quaint. Chinese parents know that getting their newborn babies into the right university is the key to getting a good job and that every stage of the way toward that goal is critical. The right university guarantees life stability and success. Nothing else matters. This is the genesis of the infamous (at least in the West) Laohu Tiger parents and now Jiwa Chicken (blood) parents phenomena.
According to Zak, the impact of this unrelentless competition on China’s youth cannot be underestimated. Their future adulthood cannot escape such an upbringing.
photo by Markus Winkler, www.unsplash.com
Fourth, China is a highly Adaptive and Adoptive nation used to and receptive of innovation.
Steeped in Deng Xiaoping’s now famous exhortation that a new, modern China will be reached by methodically “crossing the river by feeling the stones” (摸着石头过河), Chinese people adapt on a dime. Zak enjoys the story of Old Yang, the panhandler, to illustrate this. Old Yang makes his living begging for money. Before 2015, he accepted cash donations from passersby. When China seemingly overnight became a cashless society economy, he bought a cheap cell phone, downloaded a mobile payment app (Alipay or Wechatpay), and began accepting payments via QR code. The amounts he takes in remain small, but they keep him afloat.
Zak’s takeaway here is that the values, attitudes, and world view in China change faster than outside of China because of this adaptability.
Fifth, China’s youth are a generational cohort that has strong Pride in China.
The lived experience of these young people is unlike anything witnessed in China in centuries. China today is an equivalent power with America. China is rich and powerful and a presence to be reckoned with throughout the world. China two weeks ago brokered a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Xi Jinping is in Russia this week and may also speak with Ukraine’s president in a potential attempt to mediate the ongoing war.
This being said, Zak also pointed out that since the devastating Shanghai Covid lockdown of Spring 2022, there is now an asterisk on this point within China. He has witnessed a new level of uncertainty toward the future that simply did not previously exist for these youthful generations. Their perception towards the government has changed. The bank of good will that the CCP has developed and nurtured since the Reform and Opening Movement began in the 1980’s is being pressed like never before.
Zak returned to his thesis question, What Do Chinese Youth Want, at the end of his presentation. He had told us that freedom and opportunity were the current answer. But what do these mean? Certainly not what an American might envision. No, in China, the answer is an increasingly challenged, yet no less fervent, desire for freedom from an oppressive set of expectations and the corollary opportunity to get the job one wants and to live life as one sees fit.
Postscript. The five-year leadership cycle transitions of both China’s Communist Party and State Government were completed recently. In a subsequent email exchange, Zak noted that China’s leadership remains firmly in the hands of China’s elders and he wonders when the effects of the massive youth population in China will move from pressuring the government to becoming the government.