Off the square

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-6-2 21:23:01

People crowd the Nanjing Road during the National Day holidays in Shanghai, on October 3, 2012. Photo: IC

Realizing she would be competing with international peers in the global job market, Luo Tingxuan, a third-year student of the Communication University of China, has been actively participating in international activities, such as volunteering at Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots, a hands-on environmental and humanitarian education program, and Lean In Beijing, an organization that encourages women to pursue their own definition of success and happiness.

During a summer vacation two years ago, she went to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, to teach children English and mathematics for two weeks.

"Those international experiences helped me stand out among my peers, who only participate in clubs and organizations on campus, and made me feel more confident," Luo told the Global Times.

It is no longer unusual for Chinese college students to volunteer at NGOs to gain firsthand experience and better understand their country.

Such enthusiasm defies the almost clichéd trademark of China's post-90s generation as being "self-centered, lazy and irresponsible." Those born in the 1990s are not indifferent to how their country is developing and society is evolving, they are just apolitical, according to observers.

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, calls those - mostly young people - who have gathered in city squares from Cairo to Kiev, and Istanbul to Tehran, to demand a voice in their future and better governance, the "Square People."

However, China's post-90s generation, with no memory of the turbulence in China's recent past, is not a generation of "Square People," experts said. This is because this generation has been brought up in a period when China's economy has been booming, and they have not experienced the political turmoil familiar to their fathers and grandfathers, which has had a big impact on their attitudes toward politics.

"Today's young people were born in a more material world; they pursue material things and are less eager about politics," Chen Shengluo, a youth studies professor at the Chinese Youth University of Political Studies, told the Global Times.

If politics simply means taking to the street and shouting out slogans as occurred in the past, many young people said they feel politics has nothing to do with them.

Amanda Yang, 23, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has the chance to see events that mainland students cannot, such as the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen incident in 1989, but she said she has no intention of going to any of them.

"I am not interested in discussing politics in that way," Yang told the Global Times. "I am more interested in finding a job in Hong Kong."

Making their mark

This may not be due to indifference to politics. Many post-90s young people told the Global Times that they are making their mark in their own way by making smaller changes around them.

Zhang Qi, 22, the chairman of the student union at the School of International Studies under the Communication University of China, said he believes personal development is linked with the fate of the country.

"We grew up believing every individual can make a difference in society," Zhang told the Global Times.

Zhang always pays attention to hot social issues. He wants to raise public awareness about problems affecting the children of migrant workers, who are denied education in big cities due to their rural hukou, or household registration. So he went to neighboring Hebei Province to film their lives and made a presentation in class.

Some resorted to more radical ways. In some protests around the country in recent years, young people's participation has played a considerable role, such as in Shifang, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, where people marched to halt the construction of a copper plant. Many of the protesters were post-90s students.

"People's civil awareness is rising as the economy develops," said Lau Yui Siu, a Hong Kong-based political commentator. However, even in those more aggressive protests, the young participants were not giving out political prescriptions, but instead targeting specific problems they faced, such as an unwanted chemical plant near their community, or a factory that discharges pollutants to a local river.

The days when students had to take to the streets to have their voices heard have gone. The Internet has become a major social hangout and platform for the post-90s generation for self-expression.

Studies have found this generation tends to use the Internet more often than older people. An estimated 61.7 percent of 16 million members of the post-90s generation surf the Internet every day, according to China Internet Watch, an online marketing blog.

To better communicate with young people, the government has opened over 100,000 official Weibo accounts, China's equivalent of Twitter, a platform where people can voice opinions and expose the wrongdoing of officials.

In 2012, the official Nanjing government Weibo account "Nanjing Fabu" interacted with Nanjing residents when it saw an online post which said that a 9-year-old child in the Yuhuatai district couldn't go to school and instead swept the streets with his mother. The people who run the Weibo account contacted the district government at once. Within an hour, workers were sent to search for the child.

The government is also changing its official language. In August 2011, the official Weibo account of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a recruitment notice using a more popular Internet writing style. It came as a surprise for many netizens.

The number of mass incidents across the country has been increasing. Despite this, it is difficult to find any young revolutionaries in the Chinese mainland today, said Alec Ash, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

"Despite the historical legacy of youth in this country, one is hard pressed to find a young revolutionary in mainland China today. Those who directly criticize the state tend to be in the Chinese diaspora, part of an aggrieved ethnic minority, or to have lived or studied abroad," he wrote in online publication Dissent Magazine.

Chen defined politics as "big" and "small." The politics on a large scale is concerning the nation or government and on a smaller scale concerns daily relationships around an individual.

People in the past might have been interested in street politics, he said, or more concerned with the government or general policies, but were more obedient at work. The young people nowadays are more concerned with personal development. For example, if someone doesn't like his boss at work, he can always quit, but that wasn't the way in the old days, Chen said.

The majority of young people believe a stable environment is necessary for personal development. Hu Yang, 22, a student at China's renowned Tsinghua University, is eagerly awaiting a new chapter of his life. This summer, he will fly across the ocean to begin his studies into network security at the US-based Northwestern University.

Each year hundreds of thousands like Hu flock to universities in the US and UK. According to the Ministry of Education, 413,900 Chinese students went to study abroad in 2013. Among 819,644 international students in the US last year, 28.7 percent were from China - the largest single group.

But some have expressed concerns that a generation that exposes themselves to the West might be "brainwashed." But Zhang argues that his generation has the ability to see the world critically.

Many China observers are paying close attention to this generation, in particular, how they are going to change China in the future, and they are wondering what will happen if more conflicts arise in society, and how these young people will react.

"The young people will not prompt social movements," said Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at the Shanghai Normal University, adding that the younger generation's apathy coincides with the official line that "Stability is of overriding importance."

Shying away from square politics

In the past three decades, China has witnessed a radical makeover, growing from a country afflicted by poverty to the world's second largest economy. The country's younger generation is also facing different challenges from those born before them.

It is difficult to find a good job as the number of college graduates has reached over seven million, eight times more than the number in 1998. It is also difficult to buy a house due to rising prices in the real-estate market. And the pressure to be successful is higher as the majority of them are single children.

Hu said two thirds of his 30 classmates are avoiding looking for a job right after graduation.

"Sometimes it is frustrating when you come out from college and see that the world is different than you expected," Hu told the Global Times.

But now the young people tend to be apolitical when viewing and resolving everyday issues. Chen said people tend to care more about politics in periods when the country is highly politicized. "For example, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), most people were drawn into the disturbance and needed to care about politics," he said. "Back then, if you cared about personal development, you were looked down upon or considered non-mainstream. But since the Reform and Opening-up, a more individualistic value started to form and young people could openly pursue their own development."

Young people still see problems in an increasingly prosperous China, like corruption, the income gap and bureaucratic practices. When it comes to solutions, unlike the older generation in the 1980s, the young today who grew up with the booming economy tend to solve them in pragmatic ways: from small steps to big change, they eventually make a difference in society.

Zhang Yiqian contributed to the story

Newspaper headline: Young generation combines personal development and country’s stability

Posted in: In-Depth

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