A new Economist series takes a close look at the rising generation of Chinese youth, who are “both patriotic and socially progressive.” That combination might seem like an oxymoron, but young Chinese appear to be picking and choosing the parts of their country and government that work for them and finding ways to circumvent the ones that don’t. (The Economist)
NH: This article is from the latest Economist special report, which is all about young adults in China. Specifically, it examines the cohort born from 1990 to 1999, who are known as the jiulinghou.
In several respects, the trends associated with Chinese 20-somethings mirror trends among U.S. Millennials: They’re the most educated young people the country has ever seen. They’re getting married later and later; in Shanghai, the average age of marriage among women is now 29. And they're finding ways around online censorship to champion progressive causes, including feminism, LGBT rights, and environmentalism.
One more thing: Despite being both more educated and more socially liberal, Chinese youth are also more nationalistic than older generations.
This strikes most western observers as an inversion of the usual generational divide. In the post-Tiananmen 1990s, China's leadership doubled down on patriotic education and on long-term investment in China's public infrastructure and national prestige. These initiatives resonated with the children who are just now coming of age.
Young people are impressed by China’s emphasis on social order and by all the resources their government has poured into China's future--that is, their future. In my conversations and reading, Chinese youth speak proudly of major Chinese breakthroughs in infotech, clean energy, urban planning, and public transportation.
They also take pride in Xi Jinping’s efforts to crack down on corruption. China’s clean and efficient cities look great, and they seem to be free of the crime and unrest that has plagued other countries.
These messages have no doubt been reinforced (indeed, often exaggerated) by the official media. We’ve talked elsewhere about how, even among westerners, young people view China more favorably than older people for similar reasons. They admire China's enthusiasm about building a better national future, something they just don’t see in their own countries where the focus of political debate is so often the affordability of legacy entitlements to seniors. (See “Are Millennials Giving Up on Democracy?”)
China’s leadership has also been very deft at structuring its pop culture and biggest brands in a way that funnels the best and brightest to serve the country. Pop megastars are recruited to sing patriotic anthems.
A propaganda app called Study the Great Nation has become the most downloaded app in China, with high scorers winning praise and access to special events. Xi’s regime has tightened membership policies for the Communist Party, favoring the highly educated and those with white-collar credentials. All told, the message is: Patriotism and party loyalty is hard work--but it’s also rewarding.
In 2001, just 14% of Chinese youth who studied overseas returned home. But since 2013, China has welcomed back at least four out of five graduates. That’s a huge shift. It may be due, in part, to other countries becoming less welcoming: Young Chinese’s views of America in particular soured under the Trump administration.
Most recently, they’ve been further disenchanted by how Western countries have handled Covid-19. A survey conducted last year by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, found that university-educated Chinese youths saw the largest jump in support for Xi’s leadership during the pandemic.
The intense nationalism and social liberalism of Chinese youth may seem to be in conflict. But I get the sense that young people are able to render them mutually compatible because, well, real wages keep rising, the streets remain safe, and the trains run on time--and here we're talking about 23K miles of high-speed rail. When asked about censorship or freedom of speech, the issue isn’t top-of-mind unless they’re working in a creative field and feel its effects. Under Xi, those who do protest have been quickly silenced.
The experiences of today’s youth have been markedly different from those of their parents (many of them Gen-Xers who came of age with the Tiananmen Square revolt), who were granted far fewer personal freedoms in their 20s and lived in what might as well have been a different country.
China’s economic transformation and its success at containing Covid-19 have been central to strengthening faith in its leadership, even as the regime becomes ever-more repressive. Hong Kongers? They're affluent, complain a lot, and should get with the program.
Detention of Uighurs? The government is simply coping with organized terrorism, like a lot of other countries. The social credit system? Hey, if you follow the rules you have nothing to worry about.
Certainly not all of the jiulinghou hold a positive view of the party. But the key difference, as this piece puts it, is that they “do not intend to challenge [its] legitimacy.”
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.