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What do Chinese millennials want?

by Paul French
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Eric Fish

By Paul French

In his book, China’s Millennials: The Want Generation, Kansas City native Eric Fish draws on his years spent working as a teacher and journalist in China to examine the country’s complicated younger generation. Through extensive interviews with young workers and recent graduates, Fish introduces us to the generation that was born during the 1980s and ‘90s. This is a generation born into a China that is very different from their parents’ experiences and who have come of age at a time when China is newly ascendant on the world stage. Nevertheless, there are still many things – from finding a fulfilling career to starting a family, to buying a flat and choosing where to go on holiday – that can seem impossibly difficult.

PF: Could you give us a brief description of who falls into the category of being a Chinese millennial?

EF: In my book I define them as those born roughly between the early 1980s and late 1990s, regardless of other demographics. Depending on where you put the cutoffs, that’s anywhere from around 250 to 400 million millennials. Within that cohort you obviously have massive disparities in life experiences. There are rural farmers who still live simple rustic lives, migrant workers who’ve undertaken the transformational move from countryside to city, and urban natives who sip Starbucks and live very comfortably.

Because of regional and socioeconomic disparities, it’s very difficult to answer questions about “what Chinese millennials think.” Through the hundreds of interviews I did, one of the most notable things was just how diverse opinions were on just about anything – from thinking on other countries to the most sensitive domestic political issues. It was also interesting to see how radically different attitudes could range between people just a few years apart. Some in China define a generation in terms of a five-year span (i.e. post-80s, post-85s, post-90s) because of how quickly things have changed since reforms began, and my interviews certainly bore that out.

PF: In what major ways do these Chinese millennials differ from their counterparts in the US or UK? What’s their view of us compared to their parents?

EF: The most interesting difference I found was that young Americans and Brits are fleeing from religion in large numbers, while young Chinese are flocking to it. I think that speaks to how, since the de facto death of socialism as a belief system in China, many young people are looking for meaning and moral guidance in a chaotic hyper-capitalist society.

In many ways, Chinese millennials are very similar to their Western counterparts. There’s been an explosion of individualism, and many of the sub-cultures and counter-cultures that you’d recognise in the West have begun to flourish.

As for their view of us, a Pew survey found that 60 percent of Chinese people aged 18-29 have a favorable view of the US. For those over 50, it was only 35 percent. Chinese millennials tend to have more complicated views of the US and UK compared to the more black-and-white impressions that are prevalent amongst the older generation. Western culture, fashion and entertainment are still very appealing, but the adoration of anything foreign that was common ten years ago is subsiding. Many young Chinese still admire the West, but they also want to be proud of China, and they increasingly feel they have reason to be.

Are Chinese millennials, as the stereotype often goes, significantly more nationalistic and materialistic?

EF: That’s the stereotype, but I think there’s often a bias toward the loudest and most extreme – the screaming nationalist counter-protestors at Hong Kong rallies, or the materialists who “would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.” Those certainly aren’t representative.

The surveys I’ve seen suggest younger Chinese are getting gradually less materialistic – caring less about money and more about experiences and personal fulfillment, which makes sense. For their parents’ generation coming out of poverty, materialism and gaining status through wealth was a big thing, but for millennials, it tends to be less impressive.

‘Nationalism’ is trickier to pin down. Millennials grew up with the ‘Patriotic Education’, which gives a very nationalistic worldview. But they also grew up with exponentially more sources of information, entertainment and ideas than their parents. Government narratives are one influence, but only one of many, and usually not the most compelling. Surveys trying to gauge nationalism suggest Chinese youth are getting less nationalistic in many ways, but maybe not so much on foreign policy issues.

Nationalistic rhetoric has been ramped up lately though. Those voices are being amplified while skeptical voices are being repressed, either directly or through social pressure. It’s very hard to accurately judge public opinion overall.

PF: We see millennials here in the UK as being very concerned and involved in environmental issues, ethical consumption, food sourcing and so on. What issues most concern Chinese millennials?

EF: Housing and job prospects are among the top concerns. House prices in most major Chinese cities make even London look reasonable by comparison. And the job market is very bleak for many young Chinese – especially college degree holders, who’ve seen their wages depressed year after year as universities continue to pump out underprepared graduates that the economy isn’t ready for.

These things are made worse by the legacy of the One-Child Policy. Most Chinese millennials are only children tasked with caring for elders – something putting enormous stress on their generation. And because of sex selective abortion exacerbated by the One-Child Policy, there’s a surplus of men numbering in the tens of millions, which puts intense pressure to accumulate assets on those young men who are looking to get married.

Before Xi Jinping came to power, there were bourgeoning activist movements on issues like feminism, environmentalism, social justice and workers’ rights, but those have been greatly suppressed under Xi. It’s not that young people don’t care about those issues – many do – but the space for them to speak up has shrunk dramatically. And for most, the overwhelming concerns of daily life preclude much time for more idealistic activist pursuits.

PF: There are still large number of Chinese millennials coming to study in the UK. What can UK universities do to keep on attracting Chinese students and what, if anything, puts them off us?

EF: That number is actually growing much slower than in the past, and it will likely peak soon. Universities that once had a seemingly bottomless pool of Chinese applicants are now having to compete aggressively for them.

Two reasons for this are visa policies and work prospects. Though more are opting to eventually go home rather than immigrate, many would still prefer a few years of work experience before returning. Recent visa delays and arbitrary rejections in the US, along with tightening restrictions on post-graduation work authorisation, have sent many flocking to the UK. As long as visa policy stays welcoming – or better yet, opens even more – the UK will be attractive.

Students (or more accurately, their parents) are also very concerned about safety. Perceptions of gun violence and crime in the US is an oft-cited reason why students opt for destinations like the UK. They’re also paying more attention to which schools do better at integrating international students into a very different educational and social atmosphere (most have dropped the ball on this front). Schools that appear safe and show they care about Chinese students’ success, rather than view them as cash cows, will do much better at attracting them.

PF: As China’s millennials marry, have kids, settle into careers and become more middle aged and middle class how do you think they’ll form as a group?

EF: Chinese millennials overall are certainly more socially liberal than their elders, and probably more politically liberal. But it’s hard to say how that will actually manifest politically. No matter how liberal and idealistic they are collectively, it’s those who play the game and perpetuate the system that rise to actual positions of power.

However, as countries grow a sizeable middle-class, people tend to start demanding more from leaders, and that’s indeed what appears to be happening from around ten years ago. There was a series of (mostly millennial-led) environmental street protests, labour movements, social movements, social media activism and so on. That was probably one of the things that prompted the ongoing crackdown which begun around 2013. Those movements have been mostly subdued for now, but I’m sceptical that can last indefinitely.

The big wild card is the economy. The tacit bargain for the last 30 years has been acquiescence to one-party rule in exchange for rapid economic growth. That bargain is less compelling for a young generation that takes growth for granted, and in any case, the government will have a harder time holding up its side of the bargain. It’s already leaning more heavily on nationalism to compensate, but how much heavy lifting can that do? What if the economy takes a sharp dive? I know better than to make any predictions.

China’s Millennials: The Want Generation is out now

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