China's Second Revolution
Chinese teenagers are spearheading a cultural revolution that's modernizing China. Many young adults within the emerging generation are primarily interested in reaping profit from the nation's newly bustling economy.
Like other Beijing ninthgraders, Zuo Yilu, 15, dutifully takes notes for his required course in politics: Private property is bad. Revolution is good. Capitalism is exploitation.
But when class ends, he admits that he considers the course a farce. "In our eyes, we don't think capitalism is bad," he says. "With capitalism, you are more prosperous."
"The teachers know we don't believe it," adds his classmate Zhou Yinan, 15.
"Socialism causes people to be lazy," says Liang Yu, 16. "We can't accept the ideas of the writers of the textbook. We learn it just for the tests."
In some ways, the divide between what's taught in schools and what people actually believe reflects the rapid pace of change in China. While almost every aspect of the economy used to be government-controlled, today Chinese people can open their own factories, sell their own crops, and go into business for themselves. China now has one of the world's fastestgrowing economies, and is poised to become a global economic superpower.
And today's teenagers can't wait. "This generation will realize their dreams," says Zuo.
At the turn of the century, China's teenagers have been shaped by an era of relative economic prosperity and social stability In contrast, the last 100 years of China's history have been mostly turbulent: the fall of the emperor in 1911, an invasion by Japan during World War II, a civil war and famine in the 1950s, and a tumultuous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
THE ME GENERATION
Chinese youth hit the nightclub circuit at 2 a.m. in the city of Shenzhen, ground zero for the economic boom that's transforming and modernizing China.Chairman Mao Zedong's 1949 revolution introduced Communism, a system that promised equal distribution of wealth, achieved through a rigid, government-controlled economy. But for decades, the world's most populous nation languished economically. Chinese now joke that they were equal-equally poor.After Mao's death in 1976, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, brought economic reforms that have slowly opened China's borders to investments, ideas, and individuals. McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft now have an immense presence in China's cities.Despite the new openness, the government maintained dictatorial political control. In 1989 it cracked down on a massive pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese army killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student demonstrators.So the 160 million teenagers who will lead the country in the new century have become more pragmatic and less ideological. Politics is on the back burner, while students focus on learning critical skills for their future-such as English, technology, and business.
"Our parents' generation cared about politics," says Zuo. "Our generation cares about economics."Zuo, Liang, and Zhou are all only children of upper-middle-class parents. They are technologically and culturally savvy. Almost every day, they log onto the Internet at home and use the popular instant messaging program ICQ to chat in English with friends in the United States. All regularly watch pirated copies of Hollywood movies and download MP3s of Western songs. They hope to attend graduate school in America. They have definite opinions on American brands (they prefer Timberlands, for example, because Nike and Adidas are too "mainstream").Their sophisticated grasp of American politics allows them to debate the virtues and weaknesses of the new U.S. President, whom they call "Little Bush," Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton. And they are more individualistic than previous generations, who were taught to place family, community, and country ahead of self.Instead of the Mao generation, today's teens could be called the Me generation. "They are less willing to accept traditional sacrifice for greater good," says Martin Whyte, a Harvard sociologist who has studied China. "They are more amenable to the idea that individual pursuit for self-interest will generate greater good."
IT'S ALL ABOUT ME
This spreading individuality is clear from the proliferation of fashions. Chinese fashion once looked like a dull Gap outlet: a homogenous sea of blues, grays, and browns. Now you can see skater-wear to urban hip-hop to Japanese gothic on China's streets.
But the flip side of individualism is selfishness, a trait teenagers also exhibit more than before, critics say. One reason for the self-centeredness is that these teens were born during the age of China's one-child-per-family policy, meant to control population growth. The policy has created a generation of only children, often spoiled by doting parents. A source of frequent concern in the media, the effects have been dubbed "Little Emperor" syndrome.
Another reason for the increased individualism is the growing sense of competition as China moves toward a market economy. As the government slowly dismantles the cradle-to-grave social welfare system, teenagers understand they will have to fend for themselves. Until recently, jobs and homes were government-assigned. Now, the emphasis has gone from the Communist doctrine of "each according to one's need" to "each according to one's ability." Millions have lost their jobs in this economic upheaval.
"They see a lot of unemployment, so students feel they need to prepare themselves," says Fu Jing Liang, vice principal at Beijing No. 101 High School.
Shenzhen, a bustling city bordering Hong Kong, has been a magnet for young people in search of the capitalist dream. Once a nondescript town, it was designated a special economic zone by the Chinese government in 1980, a status that permitted foreign investment. Since then, the city has become a center of China's economic boom.
The flood of young migrants from across the country has lowered the city's average age to 29, and the government has resorted to drastic measures to stem illegal migration-- enclosing the surrounding area with electric fences and requiring identification for those entering the zone.
FLEEING THE FARM
Two years ago, Wang Shaoxia, 18, took a four-hour bus ride from her rural village in Guangdong Province to Shenzhen. Had she stayed at home, she would likely be a farm wife by now. "I don't want to plow, plant, and take care of children," says Wang. "I can't stand being home for more than a few days. There are field laborers working all day. When you walk out the door, there's dog and chicken excrement."
Economic opportunities, she says, have given Chinese women greater independence: "If a woman has money, she doesn't have to worry about a husband."
Wang, who has only an elementary-school education, tried to start her own business, selling clothing for a year. When that failed, she found a job as a clerk in a mall selling purses to tourists: Guccis, Chanels, and Pradas, all fake. She works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, bargaining with customers and trying to coax them to buy just one more bag. "Sometimes just to earn 5 yuan [63 cents], you have to talk until your mouth is dry," she says.
But she sees the job as a maturing experience, where she can learn the mechanics of business before striking out on her own again. "Now I understand money much better," she says. "If you don't have capital, you can't do anything."
Her friends all plan on owning their own businesses. "We get things done in this generation," she says. "My friends here all want to work, succeed, earn money, own a house. It's a form of self-actualization. In the future, you can do whatever you want to do. It didn't used to be that way."
Despite its recent economic growth, China remains an overwhelmingly agrarian society, with almost threequarters of the population living in rural regions. For those who live outside China's dynamic urban areas and attend inferior rural schools, the recent reforms are a double-edged sword. "The pressure on our generation is greater since you can't depend on the government anymore," says Chu Chen Deng, 19, who lives with his parents on a small farm in Yangshuo, in the southern Guanxi province. "With the new economy, if you have no culture and no skills, it's hard to earn a living."
COUNTRY OF HONOR
Though Chinese teenagers may be influenced by Western ideas more than earlier generations, they consider themselves no less Chinese than their elders. "There are very strong feelings of nationalism and patriotism," says Whyte. "There is a strong sense of personal responsibility for the state of the nation."
"Our parents sacrificed themselves for China," says Zuo, whose father labored in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. "But our generation will succeed for China."
"You can do whatever you! want to do. It didn't used to be that way." -Wang Shaoxia