Young people at the airport in Martin Parr’s ‘Hong Kong’ (2013)
Young people at the airport in Martin Parr’s ‘Hong Kong’ (2013) © Magnum Photos

Alongside the flow of books on China’s politics, economy, history and international relations, a considerable literature has grown up in recent years describing the lives of the people who inhabit the new superpower. Young Chinese have come in for particular attention in works about and sometimes by the country’s millennials, the generation born after the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s that transformed the country — and the world. They did not know the privations and terror of the Mao Zedong years and were only infants when the tanks rolled through Beijing in 1989 to suppress the student demonstrators, and kill many more of the residents living along the route to Tiananmen Square.

As Xi Jinping tries to impose a new conformity on the nation, one key question is of the reaction from people in their twenties and early thirties who are accustomed to a way of life very different from that preached by Communist party orthodoxy, one that values a large degree of individual freedom of thought, internal mobility, foreign travel and access to the internet.

Alec Ash’s book is a fine addition to the field, one of the best I have read about the individuals who make up a country that is all too often regarded as a monolith, but which abounds in diversity on multiple levels. Fluently written with nice touches of humour, Wish Lanterns focuses on six members of the younger generation, contemporaries of Ash himself. Some are identified by unexpected English names such as Lucifer, Snail and, for a woman academic, Fred, but all are recognisably part of the new China.

Their lives are skilfully interweaved with the course of events in modern China, from the revolution that overthrew the empire to Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella protests, along with glimpses into such varied spheres as karaoke parlours, the far western territory of Xinjiang and the stultifying rote education system. The half-dozen characters are all interesting in their different ways, be it the aspiring punk rock star who goes to London to win a “global competition” that does not fulfil his dreams, the deeply serious Fred, who moves through successive political stages and concludes that “the only ideology left was pragmatism”, or the tattooed fashionista who carries a knuckle duster and whose mobile phone case is inscribed “BITCH: Beautiful Independent That Can Handle anything”.

This is not a complete picture; there are no factory workers or migrants labouring in menial jobs, nor any representatives of the plutocratic families who have prospered so enormously from their country’s growth. But generalising about China is a dangerous game, as shown by the way in which forecasts of boom or bust have repeatedly come unstuck. There are many Chinas, divided by regions, sectors and by individuals, nowhere more so than among the country’s 300m inhabitants aged between 16 and 30. Eschewing generalities, Ash hopes that “single dots can form an image, and six notes can make a melody”.

Politics as such plays little part in the narrative, except for in the switches and ruminations of Fred, who ends up in a boring teaching job, with a Taiwanese boyfriend who gives courses in classical Chinese culture. But the book inevitably provokes the reader to ponder how this restless, ambitious generation can be contained by the mantras offered by Xi Jinping.

Ash’s subjects grew up in a privileged time. Economic expansion was strong in the early part of this century and was then bolstered by a huge credit programme launched at the end of 2008. The hangover is now kicking in, with the state-sponsored press in disarray about how to respond given the need to preserve party power.

In contrast to that top-down ethos, the people whose lives are charted in this book have retained their individuality within the system, able to duck and weave to make their way in life.

Ash recalls that, watching the television broadcasts of the National Day ceremony in Tiananmen Square in 2014, “many of the elder generations shed a patriotic tear [but] among young Chinese there was a combination of cynicism and genuine pride in their country — often at the same time”. His subjects are apolitical in the sense that they have been brought up to accept the party’s post-1989 bargain that it will ensure people get richer so long as they leave the power politics to it. But the real scope of politics reaches far more widely in today’s China, where people have become liberalised in their everyday lives in many ways, even if the regime continues to lock up human rights lawyers and dissidents. Growth and job creation comes mainly from private companies; meanwhile, Xi calls for innovation but defends the state.

The people in this book are not rebels in the classic sense; even Lucifer, the punk musician, has an eye for the main chance in the system. But they display a degree of free-spiritedness that may surprise those who believe conformity must rule in the last major Leninist state on earth. How those spirits will coexist with the preservation of a People’s Republic that bears distinct resemblances to the empires of old is a major question for our times, for which this book supplies much food for thought, informing the wider debate while retaining its value as a closely observed picture of how some Chinese live today.

Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, by Alec Ash, Picador, RRP£16.99, 336 pages

Jonathan Fenby is author of ‘Will China Dominate the 21st Century?’ (Polity) and ‘The Penguin History of Modern China’

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article