You are here

Stanley Rosen on China’s Youth

USC political scientist speaks at Brookings Institution symposium on China’s angry youth.
June 10, 2009

The Brookings Institution held its discussion of  "Understanding China's Angry Youth" in Washington, DC on April 29, 2009. It featured presentations by Kai-fu Lee of Google, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, Professor Rosen (who is also director of USC’s East Asian Studies Center), Teresa Wright of California State University Long Beach, and Xu Wu of Arizona State University. Cheng Li and Ken Lieberthal served as hosts and moderators for the event. The following transcript was prepared by Anderson Court Reporting. Click here to read the full transcript of the event.

Prof. Rosen discussed some of these themes in his just published article "Contemporary Chinese Youth and the State" in the Journal of Asian Studies (vol. 68, no. 2, May 2009 pages 359-369). Prof. Rosen has published extensively on Chinese youth and education. In addition to the current JAS article, he's the author or editor of numerous books two forthcoming volumes, The Interplay Among Art, Politics and Commerce in Chinese Film (co-edited with Ying Zhu) and Chinese Politics: State, Society and the Market (co-edited with Peter Gries). He is also co-editor of the journal Chinese Education and Society. Prof. Rosen discussed cultural and intellectual trends at USCI's 2007 conference on the future of U.S.-China relations and on the political impact of the Beijing Games at our 2009 conference. 


I think my comments will resonate very closely with what all of the previous speakers have talked about. I recently did a paper on whether the many anniversaries of the significant events -- the anniversaries that fall in 2009 -- will likely have an effect on mobilizing segments of the youth population in any kind of anti- regime protest, and I wanted to discuss my simple conclusion to that but to get there in a kind of round-about way by discussing Chinese youth more generally.

Starting with the question, since it's been raised in a sense -- [by] Lee Kai-Fu and others -- we have all these images of Chinese youth, can they be reconciled? Up until mid-2008, for example, it was common to find youth under attack in the Chinese media characterized primarily as the "me generation," criticized for -- and I'm quoting here -- "being reliant and rebellious, cynical and pragmatic, self-centered and equality obsessed." Also in the Chinese media they talked about -- again I'm quoting -- "China's first generation of couch potatoes, addicts of online games, patrons of fast food chains, and loyal audiences for Hollywood movies."

Then all of a sudden, we have the Sichuan earthquake on May 12th, 2008. And the Chinese media changed completely. The same media outlets that had published these earlier assessments and written off these youth suddenly reversed themselves and began to extol their virtues while noting, not just in passing, that all this altruistic behavior was not surprising, because "they had learned the virtues of great compassion, benevolence, and gallantness from imbibing traditional Chinese culture." "After all," as the media said, "they have fully enjoyed the achievements of China's 30 years of reform and opening up." So, in effect, when they were bad it's because they were going against the Party state; when they were good, it's because they had grown up in the party state. So, the media was shifting quite a bit, and it's hard to reconcile these different images. Also, these are compassionate youth now, but they have also been seen as the angry youth.

Moreover, reflecting the continuing influence of the recent past, some of the Chinese critics have referred to these internet savvy nationalists as, quote, "online Red Guards infected by a populist virus." So, you have all of these images flying around. You have these competing, contradictory influences shaping the attitudes and values of the young Chinese today, particularly in wealthy coastal areas. They become very internationalistic in their outlook, strongly affected by global trends. At the same time, they're very pragmatic and materialistic, largely concerned with living the good life and making money. So, you see in both of these values -- the internationalist and the materialistic -- the influence of the West is very strong. But then you have the third competing influence, most often called nationalism, in its more extreme form. That represents a broader impulse, and to me it 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 you saw in the volunteerism that followed the earthquake. And I think China's youth have shown they are capable of exhibiting all of these tendencies at different times, depending on circumstances, or even at the same time.

I would give just one example. I was interviewing people in China about some of these different images, and some interviewees noted even those youth who felt they had to show patriotism by honoring that short-lived attempt to boycott Carrefour, the French superstore, which Lee Kai-Fu noted in his presentation, made sure that before the boycott began on May 1st that they used all the discount coupons they had for Carrefour and went there and got everything they needed. Then they could go ahead and honor the boycott. So you see, the internationalist, the materialistic, and the patriotic or nationalistic all combined in the same case.

Now, public opinion surveys, which I look at extensively in China, certainly reveal the importance of money, the importance of material things in the lives of Chinese youth, but at the same time to me -- as Ken Lieberthal said -- I've been doing this for, what, 50 or 60 years, I don't know -- they suggest a young generation desperate to believe in something and very willing to make sacrifices if they are persuaded that the cause is just. So, when an opportunity like the Sichuan earthquake comes up, it gives an occasion to demonstrate this idealism, an idealism I would say that is not new. It was there in the Maoist period when I was doing my research on the Cultural Revolution, interviewing Red Guards. It was there at that time. It was there in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Now these are very different generations of youth, with very different belief systems. But the idealism is there in all of these cases. In the mid- and late 1980s, when I was traveling around China, internationalism was far stronger than nationalism, and one of my conservative friends, who I used to talk to a lot back in those days, named Wang Xiaodong, labeled student attitudes in the late '80s as "reverse racism". The students often dismissed much of Chinese culture and much of government policy, and adapted what I viewed as a very naïve pro-Western outlook ranging from almost total belief in the Western media, including reports from the BBC and the Voice of America, and fascination with Western philosophers like Sartre, Nietzsche, and Freud. I traveled to different parts of China back in those days talking to university students, so it was quite striking to me.

It seemed clear that, in an ironic sense, the more the Chinese government had limited information about the West entering into China, the more the students, who knew their government was lying about so many things within China, assumed they were also lying about the West. This is the same Wang Xiaodong, by the way, who's one of the authors of the book, *China's Not Happy*, and who was in the forefront of the attack on the film "Lust, Caution" because of the issue of patriotism.

Now, to get at something that Evan [Osnos] and others have talked about, the unabashed, uncritical internationalism of the late 1980s has been replaced by what Yongming Zhou, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has called the new interpretive framework that acknowledges the pursuit of national interest as the ultimate goal of international relations. Within this reception context -- national interest -- any information that is emanating from Western media sources is viewed skeptically by well-educated, well-informed young Chinese who assume that this kind of reporting must be done because it's furthering a pro-Western agenda. Just as we Chinese are pursuing national interests, all Western countries are also pursuing national interests. Anything that comes in from the West has to be assumed -- whether it's human rights issues or anything else -- to be somehow furthering Western interests, i.e., American interests.

Now, it's also common in the Chinese media to refer to age groups, as Lee Kai-Fu again talked about in generational terms, and most of those I want to talk about in the time I have left are the so- called post-'80s generation, the balinghou, the people born between 1980 and 1989. That's about 200 million Chinese. They have been discussed endlessly in the Chinese media. I left a handout of four pages at the reception desk. I doubt that many people picked it up, but I have a lot of survey data on this group in that handout. The first two pages of the handout -- you can pick it up later if you don't have it now -- look at what the post-'60s and post-'70s generations, those born between '60 and '69, and '70 and '79, have to say about the post-'80s youth and how these post-'80s youth see themselves. It's very clear these earlier generations see the post-'80s generation as far more superficial, self-centered, and materialistic than the post-'80s generation sees itself. And this is common in many other surveys, as well.

On page three of the handout which, again, you may not have, there is a cartoon where the post-'80s youth and the post-'90s youth -- and this gets to something that Ken talked about, how these generations are changing so rapidly -- are basically attacking each other, based on blogs. If you look at the blogs between the post-'80s and the post-'90s group you'll find some fascinating invective.

Now either this is a validation of the familiar Chinese expression "Each generation is worse than the last," or more likely, it seems quite common that each generation is very eager to push its reluctant predecessors off the center stage.

So in this context of inter generational criticism, I think, it's not surprising that previous generations of youth -- whether the 1950s generation of docile tools of the Communist Party, the Maoist Red Guards of the mid-'60s, or the 1989 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square -- none of these generations have much support from current youth, who see them as foolish in many ways, if not worse.

Now, I think I've used up, by my count, about nine minutes. So in the time I have left, I want to talk about some survey data that relates to issues of political participation, attitudes towards Western culture, and the Western political system in comparison to China's political system. The results, I think, are surprising, and it also gets to my conclusion. Moreover, it suggests -- as Professor Lieberthal mentioned -- the complexity of youth attitudes and behavior.

The last page of my handout, which is somewhere outside, reports on an internal survey, or restricted-circulation survey, conducted among history students at 33 Chinese universities by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It's not surprising that it was not published in the open press. It's only in their internal journal. There are 21 question asked. On that table I have outside, I've given the results from three of the questions.

One was on belief systems, which found that about 73 percent chose "individual struggle" as their belief system. Another 10 percent said they didn't know their belief system. And about 17 percent said "struggle to achieve communism." This is not particularly surprising. In addition, more than 94 percent acknowledged they had been influenced by Western culture, even though more than 82 percent agree that Western video products propagate Western political ideas and a Western lifestyle. But fewer than 12 percent expressed a willingness to negate such products.

Over 50 percent identify themselves with American cultural concepts, and only 17 percent did not identify with them. Even in terms of a question like liberalism," 61 percent identified with liberalism, and found it to be a concept of universal moral significance, despite the fact that they knew that liberalism is part of Western political thought and the basis of democratic systems associated with Western capitalism. Thirty-six percent endorse the concept of separation of powers associated with Western political and legal systems, while more than 20 percent said they were "uncertain" as to whether they endorsed it. Only 44 percent expressed opposition to the concept.


[Conducted by the Institute of World History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]

“DON’T KNOW”: 10.0%
"YES": 82.2%
"NO": 11.6%
“IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE” (wusuowei) 31.7%
SOURCE: “Dui woguo qingnian xuesheng zai xinyang deng 21 ge zhongda wentishang de wenzhuan diaocha ji jianyao fenxi” [A Brief Analysis of Responses to a Survey Questionnaire on Belief Systems and 21 other Important Questions given by Young Chinese
Students], in Lingdao canyue [Reference Reading for Leaders] No. 19, July 5, 2007, pp. 24-28. The title of the survey was “The Influence of Western ‘Cultural Penetration’ and our Countermeasures”.

One more survey -- I don't have lot of time, but I have a lot of friends who do surveys in China, many of which do not get published for obvious reasons. But I just got one, a long survey, in the mail that a friend of mine who does survey research sent me, reporting on the initial results of his survey at five of the most elite universities in Beijing. And he is somebody who trains political workers, so he was quite surprised at the results.

It supported the basic characteristics of the American political system far more than the Chinese political model. For example, around 75 percent of the sample either greatly liked or comparatively liked the Western political model of separation of powers. Only about 4.2 percent comparatively disliked it. Not a single student of the 505 in the sample said they completely disliked the separation of powers concept.

It was very clear to him, in analyzing his survey data -- and this gets to some of the questions that Evan was talking about, as well -- that the students see this model from the United States as necessary, or at least particularly helpful, in fighting official corruption, because they see the CCP as simply unable to do it because of the monopoly of power. He also discusses the limitations on the Patriotic Education Campaign. In terms of political participation, I could talk about the Communist Party, including motivations for joining, but I'm going to skip that.

I'll give one survey on participation, because I think it's very revealing. The Beijing Municipal Communist Youth League does an annual survey which covers a wide variety of questions. And in 2005/2006, they found around 75 percent of youth expressed a willingness to participate in politics. Now, in previous years, that number participating in politics, or willingness to do so, was not as high as 50 percent. So they were very excited about that.

But when you look at their data more closely and start disaggregating the findings, you find that only 10 percent actually were enthusiastic about such participation. And even more telling was what "participation" actually meant, when you defined it. When they were asked what form their participation had taken, 72 and 1/2 percent said they had not actually participated at all, despite the fact that their attitude was they wanted to, they simply didn't do it. The behavior was very different. Eleven percent said, "When I participate in politics, it means I express my opinion to family members or friends." About 6 percent said, "I participate in politics by expressing opinions in internet discussions." And only about half a percent said they would ever contact a party or youth league organization to express an opinion.

So those kinds of surveys show very clearly to me that the Party State apparatus has really retreated very far in the daily lives of most youths.

Okay, my last point, and my last minute -- so, my conclusion is, despite all the multiple anniversaries of significant events in 2009, it appears unlikely that Chinese youth are going to pose any immediate threat to the regime because they're pursuing a pragmatic, success oriented approach. This post-'80s generation has ensured that their public lives are placed in service to their private ambitions. So participation in politics, in effect, is private participation, through friends, family, and anonymous internet activities. Pursuing party membership is merely a necessary investment to increase their chances of getting a good job and leading a comfortable life.

There are very few indications that this generation will take any overt political risks, particularly if the leadership remains unified.

Now, that's 15 minutes. If I had five more minutes, I would qualify pretty much everything I've said and give you a different argument, including what Evan concluded at the end -- how things could become dangerous for the leadership. But I don't have the time to do that.


Note: Images used under Creative Commons license. The photo thumbnail for this story is by Antonis Shen.





March 27, 2019 - 4:30pm
Los Angeles, California

Michael Dunne, author of American Wheels: Chinese Roads, will focus on General Motors in China since 1989. The discussion will be followed by a short introduction to the Mark L. Moody collection at the USC East Asian Library. 

April 9, 2019 - 4:00pm
Los Angeles, California

Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute for a screening of an episode of the Assignment: China series on American media coverage of China. This episode focuses on the work of journalists covering the massive demonstrations that rocked Beijing in spring 1989. Followed by a Q&A with USCI's Mike Chinoy, who covered the demonstrations for CNN.