China – The generation gap

Whilst every society has a generational gap there are few places where this is more pronounced today than in China. Young people in China today are growing up in a society completely different from their parents. The older generation grew up in the days of communism, Mao and little red books but now the era of Mao is over and even the Chinese government admit mistakes about the past. ‘70% good 30% bad’ is the official line on Mao and many young Chinese people are now taught about the horrors of the cultural revolution.

The dominant ideology for young people in China today is that of Deng Xiao Ping and his slogan ‘to get rich is glorious’. Young people aspire to join the ever growing middle class or to become businessmen and become part of China’s super rich. The desire to undertake white collar work is particularly apparent in the fashion of both boys and girls of growing one finger nail extra long to demonstrate that they don’t do manual labour.

There has subsequently been an increase in the numbers of Chinese going into higher education as many see education as important in securing a prosperous future. This is in great contrast to the older generation whose educational opportunities were damaged by Mao’s cultural revolution and the closing of schools. However, young people dislike the traditional strict teaching methods, feeling envious of what they see as the freer, more lively classroom environment in the West. A particular hatred is reserved for the Gaokao, the university entrance exam system that piles so much pressure on students. The increase in higher education participation has created difficulties for students as they face a competitive graduate market as China’s undeveloped service economy still provides insufficient white collar jobs to meet demand.

Another great difference between the generations is the young people of China have a much more international outlook, especially evident in the large numbers who desire to learn English. Whereas their parents’ generation grew up in an inward looking communist country, under threat from various external forces, young Chinese people today are much more aware of the wider world. A key element in this has been the internet as young Chinese people go online to enjoy western entertainment, films and songs. Another important change is the number of people engaging in social media, exchanging ideas and opinions in a way that would have been impossible in the older days. Even the firewall offers few obstacles with the more tech-savy young Chinese using special software to access blocked websites.

The young Chinese of today will inherit a country that has a booming economy and is becoming one of world’s rising superpowers, but they also will inherit a country that faces many challenges, from increasing environmental degradation, corrupt governance, demographic pressures and growing inequality. But what are political ideals of young people and how will they respond to these challenges? On a positive notes they recognise the great damage done to their country from pollution and there is a strong recognition of the need for environmental protection. However, there is also a growing nationalism still stoked by rivalry with Japan. Despite an increasing enjoyment of western culture there is still generally strong support for socialist forms of government, and a scepticism of western democracy and freedoms which is often believed would lead to chaos. But for much of the younger generation politics doesn’t matter so much as long as there is a growing economy and increasing wealth. The great challenge will come if the economic juggernaut eventually runs out of steam and there isn’t enough wealth created to sustain the lifestyles that many Chinese aspire to.