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Giant babies, rebels or new nationalists

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

China’s youth call themselves the “post-2000 born” generation (Lingling-Hou – 00后). Once spoiled as only children, they grew up privileged in times of double-digit growth and tourist travel, they were the Internet generation, and at the same time, they were mindlessly grinded through the mills of rigorous school education. While Millennials have been studied abroad for years, China’s Generation Z, now coming of age, is still a blank slate. Are they dependent little emperors, savvy high-tech nerds, cosmopolitan globetrotters, rebels – or internationally courted consumer freaks? Has the pandemic led them to be squeezed into Xi Jinping’s corset of narrow-minded patriotism and Leninist party doctrines? China is also puzzled by this question.

Beijing’s opening ceremony for the 2022 Winter Olympics will draw all eyes on Friday. This also goes for state director Zhang Yimou, who has the PR project staged in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, where he already staged the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Games. China’s propaganda praises Zhang in advance. Its social media, however, also reminds us that he once fell out of favor for dodging the one-child family policy. Zhang already had a daughter when he brought three more children into the world in 2001, 2004, and 2008. In 2013, he was fined ¥7.48 million (just over €900,000 at the time).

The scandal of times past has been largely forgotten, especially since Beijing is pushing its population to have children again. Bloggers are jokingly calling for the star artist’s fine to be repaid with interest and with a medal to boot. After all, Beijing had stopped its own birth planning and allowed all families to have two children again in 2015 and three children since May 2021. Zhang would have been just a little ahead of his time.

That’s the taunt of China’s millennials, the young people born between 2000 and today. They are reacting to Beijing’s abrupt stop of its 35-year one-child policy. There were good reasons for this. In 2021, with a drop to 0.75 percent, the nation of 1.4 billion recorded its lowest birth rate since its founding. With a death rate of 0.72 percent, the population increased by only 480,000 people. At the same time, the number of people aged over 65 rose to more than 14 percent of all Chinese. The “Middle Kingdom” will soon have to rename itself the new “Kingdom of Old Age.”

Illustration to the new report on China’s Generation Z, the “Lingling-Hou”, or the youth born after 2000, in the Zhongguo Qingnianbao at the end of January.

To iron out the mistakes of its birth planning, Beijing is calling on its youngest generation for assistance. News agency Xinhua urges: Starting in 2022, the “Lingling-Hou” will enter the legal marriage age of 20 for women and 22 for men. They should finally get married and have babies. But the post-2000 generation has no desire to do so. Beijing wants to force them. It’s time to “fit them into society and hammer them into place,” ( 现在,轮到00后进入社会 “受锤 “了) Shanghai’s online news “Thepaper” urged.

After all, statistically, we are talking about 146 million Chinese, most of whom were born as only children between 2000 and 2010 and are now coming of age. Together with their parents’ generations of the “post-80s” (born 1980 – 89) and the “post-90s” youth (born 1999 to 2000), that’s more than half a billion people. They were deeply influenced by China’s reform and opening-up period. After Mao’s death in 1976, the terms “post-80s” and “post-90s” generation came into vogue as the transformation of the economy, society, Internet, and first-ever freedom of movement shaped the lives of each individual in ten-year leaps.

China’s CP under party leader Xi Jinping is struggling to influence their souls. In his Spring Festival speech to young CP successors, published by the theory magazine “Qiushi,” he calls for obedience. “Do everything the Party asks of you and go where the Party sends you.”

What the polyglot-raised “Lingling-Hou” think, feel, and will do in the future is also a mystery outside China. China’s Generation Z is “faster and deeper immersed in the digital age than young people elsewhere, even by international standards. They are no longer creatures of their country’s past, but shapers of its future,” writes one of the United States’ leading China experts and Brookings Institute Director Cheng Li in his introduction to a collection of essays by Beijing Academy of Social Sciences youth researcher Li Chunling (Li Chunling: China’s Youth Increasing Diversity amid Persistent Inequality).

Li analyzes a generation that, as part of China’s new middle class, is full of inner contradictions – between old and new, modern and traditional values, rebellion, and adaptation. It would remain to be seen whether the change in their lifestyles will also be reflected in their views on politics. Cheng Li also writes: The question is open whether China’s youth will be as or less nationalistic today than previous generations.

Mao’s slogan (right edge of the picture), coined in 1957, flattered China’s youth: “This world is yours!” During the Cultural Revolution, he then rallied youth against the established party with another legendary slogan: “Rebellion is justified!” Successor Xi now wants the youth to follow the party unconditionally.

Since the pandemic and Beijing’s heightened ideological indoctrination of society, this has been on the minds of many. Surprisingly, the left-wing patriotic and well-known dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies, Yan Xuetong, now worries that China’s “post-2000s” generation has become overconfident. His observation among freshmen is that China’s role as the world’s second most powerful economy has gone to their heads. “[They] look at international affairs with a make-believe mindset, thinking it’s very easy for China to achieve its foreign policy goals,” are prone to conspiracy theories and agitational rhetoric on the Internet. Yan took issue with their “narrow-minded nationalism (狭隘民族主义), which must be countered through education.”

This issue is also haunting the China Youth Daily, which has printed more than 180 surveys on the behavior of Generation Z since 2015 and recently published its most comprehensive survey. Eighty percent of the college students surveyed called on the People’s Congress (China’s socialist parliament) convening in March to put their personal and social problems on the agenda. They also fear for their jobs after China’s rigid education system and the consequences of the one-child policy led to an unprecedented flood of graduates. The Ministry of Education projects a record 10.76 million college graduates in 2022, up from 9.09 million in 2021, and sees academic unemployment as a potential source of social unrest. The stronger patriotic tone is also interesting. Nearly 80 percent of respondents intend to buy domestic products over foreign ones, partly guided by their feelings.

It was different before the pandemic and re-ideologization. The “Lingling-Hou” became the darling of advertising agencies as a new generation of consumers. Although they make up only 15 percent of the Chinese population, they account for 25 percent of the consumption of mainly Western brand products. Their demands of today will become a mass trend tomorrow, as e-commerce giant Alibaba and its B2C marketplaces Tmall and Taobao have learned.

But that is about to change. The biggest change in the lifestyle and thinking of Generation Z was brought about by the abrupt end of foreign tourism, something in which they were once world champions. That’s what the first systematic survey of 15,000 “Lingling-Hou” by China’s internet company Tencent revealed in mid-2019.

Cover of the book by Wu Zhihong: “The Land of Giant Babies”. The Canton psychologist’s criticism of the consequences of the one-child family on China’s youth was censored.

Other certainties are also being put to the test. More than 35 years of strict birth planning had shaped a youth in China that was described as coddled “little emperors” and incapable of surviving. Canton psychologist Wu Zhihong critically detailed this in 2016 in his sensational book, The Nation of Giant Babies. “At home, they had to listen to their parents; at school, to their teachers; in society, to their leaders, party and government.” But Wu also recognized how the new generation was trying to emancipate itself from that. His 480-page book was quickly banned by censors, as he argued for the expansion of legal systems and freedom in China to break the “vicious cycle” of a youth stuck in immaturity and a childlike mind.

Today, such demands are not allowed to be discussed anymore. Beijing is trying to patriotically assimilate the “Lingling-Hou”, to tie them into ideological corsets. But only time will tell whether they comply, adapt, or even outright refuse.

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