Earlier this month I had the good fortune of visiting China – a place I’m deeply curious about and – aside from some second year university courses, the reporting from the Economist, and the occasional trip over to Tea Leaf Nation – remains too foreign to me for comfort given its enormous importance.
As always China – or to be specific – Beijing is overwhelming. The pollution, the people, the energy, the scale. It can be hard to grasp or describe. But I want to talk about my conversations which were overwhelming in other, equally fantastic ways.
As an indirect result of the trip I just posted a piece up on the WeGov section of TechPresident asking “Is Sina Weibo a Means of Free Speech or a Means of Social Control.” The post comes out of a dinner conversation I had in Beijing with Michael Anti, an exceedingly smart and engaging Chinese journalist, political blogger and former Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard who has a very interesting analysis about Weibo (Chinese twitter) as a means to enhance the power of the central government. The piece is worth reading largely because of the thoughts he has that are embedded in it.
There was another interesting thread that came out of our dinner conversation – one that was equally sobering. Michael described himself as part of the “Generation 70,” those who, if it isn’t obvious, were born in the 70s. For him, the defining trait or esprit, of that generation was a sense of possibility. As he noted “I’m from a humble family and fairly unimportant city in China, and I got to end up at Harvard.” For him and his peers as China grew, so did many of their opportunities. He argues that they were able to dream big in ways the almost no previous generation of Chinese could.
He contrasts that with the “Generation 90,” those now in mid teens to mid twenties and he sees a generation with small dreams and growing frustration. Forget about access to the top international universities in the world. Indeed, forget about access to top Chinese universities. Such opportunities are now reserved for the super rich and the super connected. What many have felt was a system that was relatively meritocratic is now flagrantly not. According to Anti, the result is that Generation 90 does not have big dreams. Forget about become a world class scientist, founding a leading company, leading an interesting organization. Many do not even dream of owning an apartment. This evolution (devolution?) in moods was summed up succinctly in a poster Anti saw at a demonstration a few months earlier which nihilistic read “We are Generation 90: Sacrifice Us.”
A few days later I had the good fortune of being in Soho (a very upscale neighborhood in Beijing) with a group of Generation 90ers. Eating at a very nice Chinese restaurant above a Nike and Apple store I discretely asked a few them if they agreed with Anti’s assessment about Generation 90.
Were they optimistic about their future? What were their dreams? Did they feel like opportunities for them were shrinking?
I was stunned.
They agreed with Anti. Here I was, in the nation’s capital, sitting in an upper middle class restaurant, with a vibrant, intelligent, bilingual group of young Chinese. This is a group that would easily fit in the top 5% in terms of education, opportunity and income, and most probably in the 1%. And they felt that opportunity for their generation were limited. Their dreams, were more limited than the generation before them.
Maybe this is a sort of Gen X syndrome Chinese style, but if I were the Chinese government, such sentiment would have me worried. There is an acceptance – from what I observed – in China that the system is rigged – but there was clearly a sense that before the benefits were more widely distributed, or at least available on a limited meritocratic basis.
I’ve never been as bullish on China as some of my peers. Between the demographic time bomb that is about to explode, the fact the state spends more on internal security than the military and the weak sense of the rule of law (essential for any effective market) I’ve felt that China’s problems are deeper and ultimately harder to address than say those in India or Brazil. But this conversation has given me new pause. If the 5% or worse, the 1% don’t feel like China can make room for them, where does that leave everyone else not in the .1%? These are, of course, problems many societies must face. But public discourse in China on a subject like this is almost certainly much harder to engage in than in say, Brazil, India or America.
China is a wonderfully complex and nuanced place. So maybe this all means nothing. Maybe it is a sort of Gen X funk. But it has given me a whole lot more to think about.
Hmm. I’ve worked with hundreds of Generation 80 and 90 people. I can confirm the impression – many of the Gen 80/90s were overseas in order to work around some of the internal barriers to advancement (particularly education but also career) that were in place 5-10 years ago. Non-seq – find the categorization by decade more useful than Gen X, Y, zero, etc.
Hello David. Things are moving incredibly fast in China, and there’s a tremendous potential for open data and government transparency (despite the daunting reputation of China). You might be interested in what my recently former employer is doing from Hong Kong, for instance with a Google-funded data journalism program and the Data China project: http://jmsc.hku.hk/datachina/
I’m with you on the impossibility of getting any good feel for China. It’s so big, in terms of physical size and population, that unless you’re undergoing some serious extended treks you’re only getting a tiny glimpse.
It’s been some years since I was there, now, but I just remember the frustration that even I as an outsider had at the arbitrary ceilings people my age and younger had to deal with. For example, people we knew who spoke perfect English couldn’t get certified as English-speakers in order to qualify for low-level jobs. Meanwhile, people in positions that required them to interact with English-speakers could barely have a basic conversation. As you can imagine, this was much more frustrating for the people who couldn’t get work.
The other thing that struck me is that as much as there seems to be an international conversation about whether or not China should convert to a democracy (ie. whether it would be good for the country), most people I met under the age of thirty were pretty much equivocal that it should happen. They weren’t worried about the economics of the situation– they wanted more control over their lives.
I remember hearing somewhere that you can get a real sense of how free a country is by how its people feel about America– in free countries, they tend to disparage it as imperialist. But in unfree countries, it’s still seen as some sort of beacon, an ideal of meritocracy. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know there were a lot of young people that I met in China who had very positive ideas about the United States and the opportunities it might give them.
Pingback: The China Fall? » Random Dispatches