The quiet revolution: China’s millennial backlash
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Faye Lu, a Beijing-based businesswoman, chose the Chinese new year after her 30th birthday to come clean to her family. At the biggest social gathering in the Chinese calendar, she prepared a New Year’s Eve feast for her parents and 20 relatives — more than 10 dishes including roast fatty pork, pork ribs and fried pickled cabbage. The feast, she knew, would give her the right to make a speech.
“You have taken care of me for 30 years,” she told her guests seated at the table. “I am very grateful to you all. I have had the opportunity to travel and to get to know many different cultures, who have different attitudes to marriage. And I can see that despite their differences to us, they are still happy . . . ”
Lu was circling around a problem: as an unmarried 30-year-old, she is seen by her parents and their contemporaries as a “leftover woman”. At the end of her speech, she presented a veiled request: “I am so grateful to you for not bothering my parents too much to ask when I am getting married.”
When she had confided in friends what she planned to say at the dinner, they did their best to dissuade her. She was hoping for the impossible: to convince her family she could be 30, single and happy. When Lu had discussed her ideas about the future before, her parents said she had been “poisoned by foreigners” while studying abroad. But she was determined to carve out a different life for herself.
Across China, millennials like her are committing small acts of rebellion. Society puts pressure on young people in China to find a good job, buy an apartment and get married — in that order, before the age of 30. But economic restructuring, soaring house prices and increasing numbers of students in higher education are making those goals harder for millennials than they were for their parents. At the same time, millennials have developed different visions of the “good life” to their parents. This generation wants something new from China, and in pursuing it they are changing China, too. A quiet revolution is under way.
Behind a stall in Beijing’s central business district, a barista offers drinks with names such as “Can’t-Afford-To-Buy-A-House Iced Lemon Tea”. Another stall of the same chain sells “My Ex-Girlfriend’s Marrying Someone With Rich Parents Fruit Juice”. This is the brand Sang Tea (sang meaning “dejected, dispirited”) — a business that began in Shanghai last year, initially meant to be a temporary pop-up stall to mock the brand “Lucky Tea”, but whose dark comedy and deadpan presentation resounded with millennials, and prompted franchises to open across the country.
“A cup of negative energy a day,” promises a logo on Sang Tea’s website. The phrase is a pun on the slogan of “positive energy” that President Xi Jinping likes to use to exhort young people to support their country’s development.
The success of Sang Tea rests on the growth of sang culture — the millennial self-mocking, semi-ironic embrace of giving up, which has launched viral internet picture-memes, videos and fiction. The 28-year-old writer Zhao Zengliang, who is often associated with sang culture through her dry-humoured internet presence, says of the phenomenon: “Sang culture is where you can take a breather [from the pressures of competition], and where everyone can honestly just admit, ‘I don’t feel I’m good enough.’ ”
Despite being born into a relatively prosperous period, well-educated millennials in big cities not only face unprecedented competition in the labour market but are also finding it harder to buy what Chinese people tend to see as the most fundamental asset: an apartment. For young men, owning a property is seen as a prerequisite for marriage, and it is said to be unlucky to give birth to a child while living in a rented flat. Some 70 per cent of Chinese millennials achieve home-ownership, according to research by HSBC — compared with 35 per cent in the US. But house price rises have far outstripped most people’s salary increases. The average price per sq metre in China’s major cities has almost doubled over the past eight years, according to Wind, a data company.
For the previous generation, who grew up in a planned economy, being part of a large state-owned enterprise or a government department meant the system would take care of you for life, offering rudimentary healthcare, a pension, and even a house. This bargain was called the “iron rice bowl”, and Lu’s parents ate from it, being factory workers.
Today, those who are not fortunate enough to have family homes in China’s big cities, where professional jobs accumulate, will start shelling out the world’s most unaffordable rents upon graduation. A study last year by real estate research company E-house China R&D Institute found that in Beijing the average tenant spends 58 per cent of their income on rent; in Shenzhen the figure is 54 per cent, and in Shanghai 48 per cent. By comparison, the UK’s Office for National Statistics reckons that as of 2016, the average rent-to-income ratio in London was 49 per cent. China’s millennials are starting to experience the economic precarity of their western peers.
With the growth of the private sector and university education, so too has grown the pressure to accumulate internships (often for little pay), overseas experiences and other such CV-boosting exercises. In 2017, almost half of all new labour market entrants were university graduates — a record 8m, up from roughly 4m a decade ago. Amid this competition and a slowing economy, the average monthly income for new graduates fell 16 per cent to Rmb4,014 ($590) in 2017, continuing the decline of the previous year, according to recruitment website Zhaopin.
Despite having a solid career as the head of international development for a major Chinese company, Lu longs to do something more creative: to become a documentary-maker. She is not alone: over 82 per cent of post-1990s kids in China would choose a different job to the one they have if they could, according to a survey of 1.2m people by Wonder Technology, a tech start-up that uses voice-based psychological assessments to help millennials find their ideal date and career.
“Chinese students mostly select a university degree by choosing the most prestigious degree course that will accept their score. That score has little to do with what they value,” says Wendy Wu of Wonder Technology. “They largely chose their career based on their university degrees, which in turn they chose based on their entrance exam scores,” she adds. “I call these the ‘lost millennials’.”
Unsurprisingly, sang culture has attracted hand-wringing from the online edition of the government mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, who called it “spiritual opium”. Ironically, such diatribes are written in the chest-thumping revolutionary language that often sounds dated to millennials. “The thoughts and ideas of young people will determine the future values of the Chinese people,” wrote The People’s Daily, “Smile, get up, be brave, refuse to drink Sang Tea”.
The People’s Daily editorial probably made the Sang Tea phenomenon more, rather than less, popular online. The rise of microblogging website Weibo in the early 2010s raised a generation of netizens attuned to online drama. Millennials dominate the irreverent social-media discourse that has flourished in a nation of 753m mobile internet users. They enjoy internet freedoms that, though curtailed by the government, expose them to ideas their parents would never have entertained during the more strictly propagandist era of television and radio broadcasting.
But millennials wanting freedom in their private or social lives, particularly online, are starting to find that the political often infringes on the personal. Over the past two years President Xi, who likes to be termed “Papa Xi”, has tightly restricted millennials’ access to their natural habitat — the online world — shutting down Weibo accounts, clamping down on live-streaming platforms, and increasing the censorship of articles and videos across China’s flourishing “self-publishing” online space.
“The post-1990s generation are masters of online mobilisation via social media. Despite censorship, they know how to ‘grab eyeballs’ through creating and circulating visually arresting photos and slogans,” says Diana Fu, assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto. (Although in the west, millennials are generally defined as those born between the early 80s and the late 90s, in China people tend to split generations more narrowly, speaking of the “post-1990s” generation in the same way English speakers say “millennial”.)
However, as Fu cautions, there is a difference between getting hits online — sometimes derided as “slacktivism” — and getting people committed to a cause.
While China’s online tribes include factions in favour of universal rights, equality and democracy, there is also a growing wave of young nationalists and authoritarians, known domestically as “little pinks”. The Party is trying to get internet-savvy, hiring private designers and film studios to create millennial-friendly propaganda.
“There are more nationalists among the younger generation, because of the influence of Communist party education, and because of the increasing social and economic pressures they face,” says political commentator Qiao Mu. A study by think-tank Merics found that nationalists, who love to vent their opinions as part of China’s growing army of online trolls, were more likely to be dissatisfied with their personal economic situation compared with other online tribes.
Working-class millennials in smaller towns, and rural millennials, have less freedom to beat their own path. The 17-year-old student interns assembling iPhones at Foxconn’s factory in Zhengzhou, for example, accepted whatever jobs their vocational-school teachers gave them. Their socialisation by China’s rigid education system, to accept authority figures dictating their personal lives, may also explain why so many young Chinese also accept the government’s authoritarian over-reach into their private spaces.
Terri Yang, a 24-year-old from a small town in Hunan, one of China’s poorer central-southern provinces, quit high school to move to Beijing. “I had a dream one night I was in Beijing, and so I went,” she says. At her parents’ request she enrolled in a vocational college to become a masseuse and acupuncturist. After a bout of illness last year she took time off work and reflected on how she had ended up in what she called a “tiresome” job, dealing with complaining patients as a hospital intern for Rmb2,000 ($320) per month, 80 per cent of which she had to spend on rent.
“Chinese parents are conservative: they want you to respect the plans they’ve made for you. My parents think I have no ideals,” she says. But then during her sick leave, she realised that as a young teenager, she had plenty of ideals — just not the ones her parents had hoped for.
Yang is now working towards her ambition to open a café in her hometown, and to give it a queer-themed name. Currently her hometown has no cafés — and no “out” lesbians, she says.
“When I was 13 I watched a TV programme set in the UK about someone opening a café, how he designed and planned it all,” she says. Despite speaking no English, the image stuck with her for more than 10 years. She is now working and training in Beijing at the Korean café chain Caffe Bene to pursue her dream. Before starting, she had not even tasted coffee, which is only popular in China’s big cities.
Her parents accept her café-opening plan because it accommodates their desire for her to have a stable career with another common Chinese parental desire — that she return to her hometown.
Like Terri, Baoyi Liang, a 25-year-old theatre set designer, also found her childhood hopes clashing with those of her parents. She recalls telling them she wanted to be an artist at the age of eight. “You’ll end up on the street drawing people’s portraits,” they warned her. Eventually they agreed to support her through six years of living and studying in London, where she graduated from Central Saint Martins. After graduation, she worked as a waitress in Islington, north London, while doing design projects on the side. “It sounds silly, but it was then that I first realised being a waitress wasn’t humiliating,” she says, sitting in a sushi restaurant in Beijing while uniformed waitresses circle us. “If I had been a waitress in China, it would have been considered an ‘indecent’ job — all that education for nothing. But in that café in Islington, my colleagues were all really happy. They were all working evenings and being actors or scriptwriters in their spare time.”
This broadening of ideas of a good career is exemplified by Han Han, the 35-year-old novelist most celebrated by millennials, who wrote on his Weibo microblog earlier this month, “Success isn’t about how many millions you earn. From a billionaire to a gardener, art editor or a programmer . . . everyone has their role and their destiny, each has their own kind of happiness.”
Han was reacting to what he called the “anxiety peddling” of an article headlined “Your Contemporaries Are Leaving You Behind”, about another influential millennial, Hu Weiwei, the 36-year-old founder of bike-sharing tech start-up Mobike. The piece contrasts the careers of Hu with what it calls the “mediocre” lives of her peers who fall short of such success. “You said we’d walk the paths of our youth together,” the author writes, imagining a dialogue between two classmates, “but you went and bought a car.”
Perhaps one of China’s most well-known millennial rebels is the 29-year-old student Li Maizi, part of the so-called “Feminist Five” who were jailed for a month for planning to protest against sexual harassment on subways. What could have been a non-governmental issue became an international scandal as the result of her jailing.
But over the Chinese new year festival two years ago, she made her mark on the subway system in Beijing. Li was part of an “anti-marriage-pressure alliance” who used social media to crowdfund an advert warning against nagging one’s children at the annual familial gathering. It stayed up for a month in Dongzhimen station, one of Beijing’s busiest, and roughly 40,000 people donated.
“Dear mums and dads, the world is so big, there are so many types of people, it’s possible to be happy and single,” the poster read.
Lu’s parents have not fully got the message, and are still trying to set her up on blind dates — the latest with a young employee at Beijing Capital Airport, whom they had thought eligible based on the criteria that “an airport won’t ever go out of business”. But at least one of her uncles understood what she was asking for at the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner.
“Don’t worry, I know exactly what you mean, and I won’t bother your parents about when you’re getting married,” he said. And then he added: “If the others don’t understand what you mean, they can come talk to me about it.”
Yuan Yang is the FT’s Beijing correspondent
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu
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