chapter  7
19 Pages

Chinese youth and state–society relations stanley rosen

Reflecting the increasing pluralization of Chinese society after more than thirty years of reform, Chinese youth today are far from unified in belief systems or behaviors. A broad understanding of the attitudes and behaviors of Chinese youth has thus proved elusive for observers, both inside and outside China. Up until mid-2008, it was common to find youth under attack in the Chinese media, characterized as the “me generation” (wo shidai ) and criticized for being “reliant and rebellious, cynical and pragmatic, selfcentered and equality-obsessed,” as well as “China’s first generation of couch potatoes, addicts of online games, patrons of fast food chains, and loyal audiences of Hollywood movies.”2 The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 seemingly changed everything: The same media outlets that had written off such youth now reversed themselves to extol their virtues, while noting, not just in passing, that their altruistic behavior was not surprising because they had learned the virtues of “great compassion, benevolence, and gallantness” from imbibing traditional Chinese culture, and that, after all, they had “fully enjoyed the achievements of China’s 30 years of reform and opening up.”3 Still, it is difficult to reconcile these compassionate youth with those who have been labeled anything from “angry youth” ( fenqing ) to “neocon nationalists.”4 Indeed, reflecting the continuing influence of the recent past, some Chinese critics have referred to Internet-savvy nationalists as “online Red Guards” (wangluo hongweibing ) infected by a “populist virus”5

(mincuizhuyi bingdu ). It seems clear that there are competing and often contradictory influences

shaping the attitudes and values of young Chinese today, particularly in the wealthy coastal areas. They have become very internationalist in their outlook, and are strongly affected by global trends. Likewise, they are very pragmatic and materialistic, largely concerned with living the good life and making money. The third competing influence, most often called nationalism in its more extreme form, represents a broader impulse and encompasses not only the defense of China against perceived enemies from abroad, but also the kind of love of country and self-sacrifice in support of those most in need that was evident in the volunteerism that followed the earthquake. Chinese youth have shown that they are capable of exhibiting all of these

tendencies at different times, depending on the circumstances, or even at the same time. As some interviewees noted, even those youth who felt they had to “show patriotism” by honoring the short-lived attempt to boycott Carrefour, the French superstore, in response to French interference with the Olympic torch relay during its Paris run, made sure to use up all their discount coupons and finish their shopping prior to the May 1 boycott.6