Squeezed Middle Kingdom Come

Young people in China are under immense burdens, but their generation is individualistic, innovative, and hopeful

Graham Hutchings

At a time when the future of China is so important, it is surprising that so little is understood, outside the world of specialised studies, about the hopes and fears of those most likely to shape it: the roughly 200 million people in the People’s Republic currently between the ages of 15 to 24.

It is this conspicuous lacuna that Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China seeks to fill. He does so by telling the stories of six young Chinese born between 1985 and 1990 from the time that they entered the world practically up to the present day. His deft style, welcome restraint (he writes the lives of his subjects but does not comment on them or, with a couple of exceptions, appear himself) yet discreet sympathy for the travails of those who have plainly become close friends, make the stories more compelling than they might otherwise have been.

Some idea of the predicament of China’s young makes this book more valuable still. This should probably begin with the understanding that few societies impose so many burdens on their young people as Chinese society in general and the People’s Republic of China in particular. The heaviest of them can perhaps best be described as the “thrall of the past”. China’s long history is a source of strength and an object of pride. Yet for young people in particular it imposes a straitjacket that tends to confine moral and social behaviour to patterns acceptable to the older generation, traditionally the object of veneration since the very foundation of Chinese society. No wonder that reformers and revolutionaries of every stripe have appealed to China’s youth to rise up and overthrow the old order, for national rejuvenation would not be possible without it.

No one understood this better than Chairman Mao. Sixty years ago, he shook off the shackles imposed by rivals at the top of the Communist Party to urge the Red Guards (his own creation, most of them in their late teens or early twenties) to destroy the “old society”. His targets were “feudalism” (by which he meant much that captured what it was to be Chinese in everything from manners to morality), and the “revisionists” whom he alleged had seized control of the Communist Party. The resulting ten years of terror and mayhem ruined the country. It also left many of the Red Guard generation — the parents of Ash’s young lives — embittered, cynical, and understandably uninterested in politics.

Those who followed came to maturity (the term is applied here only in respect of the number of years reached) in an age of economic reform championed by Deng Xiaoping. The changes wrought have been even greater than those under Mao and, for the most part, they have been much more positive. Yet they have also been deeply unsettling, especially for China’s young.

There has been a lot more money about but also many more pointless and harmful things to spend it on. Educational opportunity has expanded, but competition has intensified exponentially. Pressures to find a partner, secure a job, and buy a home in contemporary China are such as to make the agonies of the “squeezed middle” in Britain or the United States seem little more than hypochondria.

More fundamental changes still make life harder than it might be for China’s young. Chief among them is the one-child policy, introduced in the years immediately before Ash’s subjects were born and recently relaxed though not abolished entirely.

This has made the only-child generation the object of all their parents’ hopes and fears. It will soon require them to repay the debt in the form of financial and other support for a rapidly ageing society with inadequate provision for the elderly. Indeed, many of China’s young, as was the case with several of Ash’s lives, have not only been brought up by their grandparents (while their parents were at work) but may at some stage have to support some of them, too. In other words, they are victims of the “4-2-1 trap”: a typical Chinese of working age will have to look after two parents and perhaps four grandparents.

But being young in China is more than just burdens, as Ash makes plain. His subjects, from different backgrounds and very different parts of the country, have in common (if not in equal amounts) striking energy, determination, and entrepreneurial instincts. There is a good deal of hope about, too.

Some (notably the girl called “Fred”) are extremely well educated. “Lucifer” pursues the dream of stardom in the rock and TV quiz-show worlds with remarkable single-mindedness. The romance between Xiaoxiao and Dahai is touching and somehow consoling in its ordinariness — marriage and parental aspirations for their own child (children?) when he or she arrives.

China’s current young generation is plainly much better educated than its predecessors. It is composed of individualistic, innovatory men and women who, like many of their counterparts elsewhere, spend much of their lives roaming the digital universe — for pleasure as well as profit. There is genuine “space” to be found here, despite tight control over the internet. And by virtue of their number and their strong desire for material improvement, China’s young present a mouth-watering prospect for investors and providers of services, domestic or foreign.    

What else do we learn of China’s future from these closely and affectionately observed young lives?

Those keen to understand whether political changes might be in store as this generation takes the stage will not find ready answers in this book. If the young lives examined here have anything in common it is that for them the seemingly seminal events of 1989, when troops suppressed the student-led pro-democracy uprisings in Beijing and other cities, are far from framing episodes. Several of them chafe against the “system” in general and the Party in particular, especially its turn towards greater social repression under Xi Jinping. But there are no budding revolutionaries among Ash’s subjects or, seemingly, among those with whom they associate.

None of this, of course, means, that China’s young do not want change, and will not pursue it with the zeal shown by their predecessors when circumstances allow. For the time being, the need to get an education, keep a job and, if possible, buy a property encourages the young to keep their heads down and work within the system.

But it would be a different matter if (or when) the Party proves unable to make that system work well enough for enough of its people. Then, the “wish lanterns”, traditionally released at the end of Lunar New Year festivities, and nicely chosen by Ash as a metaphor for the subjects of his book, might convey very different messages. 

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