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China’s Post-1980s Generation, Between the Nation and the World

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

China’s post-1980s generation—around 240 million people born between 1980 and 1990—has received greater media coverage in China than any previous generation; moreover, assessments of this generation have varied widely. Often called the “me generation” and noted for an addiction to online games, Western fast food chains and Hollywood films, they have also received high praise for their selflessness and altruism after their response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Such a diversity of perceptions is not surprising since this generation, which is crucial to China’s continuing economic success and international rise, clearly holds values that are far more contradictory than earlier generations. For example, while coverage of the post-1960s generation often stresses their “idealism” and the post-1970s generation is seen as “hard-working,” the values of post-1980s youth are harder to generalize. Their overt patriotism and nationalism is tempered by their enthusiasm for Western popular culture, which also is manifested in their consumerism and pursuit of brand name luxury goods.

Given these contradictions, reports in the Chinese media have indirectly acknowledged that the Chinese state is in competition with the West and the global marketplace for the loyalty of this generation. In an internal report published in a journal intended for Chinese leaders, one researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) warned that even though it appears that post-1980s youth have no particular ideology, they do react politically. As he noted, “they can manifest a defense of Communist Party (CCP) leadership, enthusiastically support Western multiparty politics, or take part in patriotic activities. But the bottom line is their concern for their own benefits. . . . It doesn’t matter which political system, so long as it can ensure their development it will gain their support; if it doesn’t, they will oppose it. They are increasingly ‘worldly.’” Surveys have often shown this generation’s lack of belief in socialist values and an instrumental mentality; thus, although joining the Communist Party is considered highly desirable by many post-1980s youth, by far the most important reason to join is the enhanced opportunities membership brings for those on the job market or seeking promotion.

It was in this context that China’s then-top leader Hu Jintao gave an internal speech in October 2011 warning against the West’s assault on China’s culture and ideology, which carried “the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.” When his speech was openly published in a leading Chinese ideological journal early in 2012, it signaled a major policy initiative to promote Chinese soft power at home and abroad to combat “long-term infiltration” from the West. This initiative has continued under Xi Jinping. In an internal memo known as Document No. 9, which was distributed to party officials throughout the country in 2013, “seven perils” were noted that if left unchecked could result in the downfall of the Communist Party. Among the perils were Western constitutional democracy, the promotion of “universal values” such as human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, and ardently pro-market “neoliberalism.” In early 2014, a People’s Liberation Army colonel noted that the recently established National Security Committee would plan responses to “extremists, online agitators and the West’s cultural influence,” again suggesting the importance of the threat from Western culture.

The key targets for these campaigns to contain the influence of Western culture are post-1980s and post-1990s youth. But are the Chinese leadership’s fears warranted? In what arenas has this struggle for the hearts and minds of the post-1980s generation been manifested, and what are the prospects for Chinese government success in holding back the rising tide of globalization? Survey data from the Chinese government and Chinese social scientists directly address these questions and show a clear trend of youth receptiveness to foreign, particularly Western, culture, as well as the difficulties the Chinese state has faced in adopting a successful counterresponse to these trends toward globalization.

One recent survey that has received a considerable amount of attention within China focused on those Chinese who have already become “internationalized,” the so-called Generation of International Floaters. Conducted in 2013 and covering 4,900 people in 62 cities, the study found that the post-1980s generation constituted 59.3 percent of these “floaters,” while the post-1990s generation made up 18.6 percent. By comparison, those from the post-1970s generation made up 13.8 percent, with earlier generations making up only 8.1 percent. It is not surprising that almost 80 percent of this new group consists of young people, since educational attainment is an important criterion, with the large majority either having already studied abroad or with future plans to do so. Among this group, 29.9 percent plan to go abroad for a vacation each year, with Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the United States the most popular destinations. As many as 53.3 percent like to watch English-language films without Chinese subtitles and to use foreign websites such as Facebook and Twitter, which are banned in China. They favor international brand-name products because of their high quality and durability. They prefer to drink Starbucks and Chivas Regal and to drive Volkswagens, Audis and Fords. Recognizing the attractiveness of the foreign, as a recent article in The New York Times noted, Chinese entrepreneurs have built hotels in China with names like Marvelot (using the same Chinese characters as the Marriott), Haiyatt and Peninsula.

In terms of popular culture, as many as 67.4 percent prefer English and American TV series, with only 20.8 percent choosing Chinese domestic shows. American shows that were particularly popular included “The Big Bang Theory” (likely the most popular show since it has reportedly been streamed more than 1.3 billion times over the past five years), “The Vampire Diaries” and “2 Broke Girls.” Other recent popular shows include “House of Cards,” the British show “Sherlock” and “Masters of Sex.” It is important to note that many of the most popular shows are legally licensed and are shown on streaming sites, which have been less subject to censorship than regular TV. According to the Chinese entertainment research firm Entgroup, in 2012 Sohu had 144 American and British TV shows available for streaming, Tencent had 123 shows and Youku Tudou had 109, suggesting that the influence of these channels of distribution are even more important in introducing Western culture to China than regular TV or theatrical films. This “loophole” in the censorship system has allowed Chinese viewers to watch shows with the type of violence, scandal, superstition or other sensitive themes that would not otherwise be approved. However, as will be noted below, this loophole is now beginning to close.

Perhaps equally telling is the impact of globalization on even the most popular Chinese TV programs among post-1980s youth and other international floaters. Five of the top 10 TV shows revealed by the 2013 survey mentioned above, including the top three, are Chinese versions of foreign programs for which copyrights have been purchased. And even some of the “pure” Chinese programs on the list have foreign components, for example a South Korean host, a program introducing foreign culture, or an obvious rip-off of a foreign show that did not receive copyright approval. By far the most popular program—chosen by over 40 percent of respondents, with 75 million viewers per episode and a number one national ranking—is the Hunan Provincial TV reality travel show “Where Are We Going, Dad?”, a Chinese remake of a Korean show. The No. 2 show is the Zhejiang Provincial TV program “The Voice of China,” a reality talent show based on the Dutch program “The Voice of Holland.”

The success of Hollywood films in China, which has become the second-largest market in the world and is likely to surpass the North American market before the end of the decade, is well-known. Despite a quota that only allows 34 revenue-sharing foreign films each year, 14 of which must be 3-D or IMAX films, Hollywood films make up around 50 percent of the Chinese box office, a figure which would be higher if there were not various administrative restrictions such as blackout dates to help ensure the success of competing Chinese films. Thus far in 2014, six of the top 10 box office hits have been Hollywood blockbusters, with several making over $100 million. “Transformers 4” took in just under $100 million in its first three days and is widely expected to bring in over $200 million in the Chinese market. In 2013, 13 of the top 21 films were from Hollywood.

However, even these impressive figures do not reveal the full impact of globalization on the Chinese film market. For example, the fourth-largest hit this year was the Chinese film version of the Korean-derived TV show “Where Are We Going, Dad?” In addition, among the top 10 Chinese films in 2013 were “Finding Mr. Right,” loosely based on “Sleepless in Seattle,” in which the leading characters successfully pursue the American dream by leaving China for Seattle; “Tiny Times,” which has been compared to a Chinese version of “Sex and the City,” without the sex; and “American Dreams in China,” which is based on the true story of a successful Beijing school set up to teach English to Chinese who wanted to study in the U.S. Surveys have shown that 40 percent of the film audience is under 30 years old.

Some surveys published only in restricted-circulation journals—because the results were too sensitive to be made available to the general public—suggest the depth of the problem faced by propaganda authorities. For example, in one survey of students in university history departments by the World History Institute of CASS, more than 94 percent acknowledged that they had been influenced by Western culture, and even though more than 82 percent agreed that Western video products propagated Western political ideas and a Western lifestyle, fewer than 12 percent expressed a willingness to avoid such products. Most directly, more than 51 percent identified themselves with American cultural concepts; 32 percent said it was a “non-issue”; and only 17 percent did not identify with these concepts.

Among other findings that surprised the surveyors, they discovered that more than 61 percent of history students identified with “liberalism” and found it to be a concept of universal moral significance, despite the fact that, as the surveyors put it, everyone knows that liberalism is part of Western political thought and the basis of the “democratic system” associated with Western capitalism. More-recent surveys published openly in social science journals have documented the support for “neoliberalism” among China’s youth, and some surveys have shown over 50 percent of post-1980s youth agreeing that individual interests should take precedence over state or collective interests. Other surveys, again not published openly, have revealed a preference among elite university students for the American political system over the Chinese model, with the separation of powers—seen as the only effective method to fight corruption—drawing a particularly favorable response. It is therefore not surprising that the Netflix series “House of Cards” is so popular, despite its highly negative depiction of the American political system, which has helped ensure government approval for it to be shown in China. Perhaps propaganda officials do not see the irony in some online comments about the show, such as, “How could the American Ministry of Propaganda have allowed such a program to be shown?”

To be sure, a fuller understanding of post-1980s youth must also take account of their nationalism, which has been widely reported in the Western media, and comes through clearly in the survey data. There is a widespread belief in China, shared by the younger generation, that the United States is actively committed to maintaining itself as the world’s only superpower and will do everything it can to keep China both from taking its rightful place in Asia and from rising as a global competitor. These two images of America—the positive attractiveness of its culture, society and political system, and the negative hegemon refusing to share power with any rival—appear to have been reconciled in the minds of the post-1980s generation. Indeed, one key difference between the United States and China, and a major reason why American soft power has succeeded while Chinese soft power has not, is the distance between the American government and private enterprise. Hollywood films can succeed in China in part because the Chinese public recognizes this separation. The American government spends very little on the promotion of American culture abroad. What the Chinese government has sought to do is to persuade Chinese youth that the American government is intimately involved in the promotion of American culture abroad, and that Hollywood movies are an instrument of American government policy, but this argument has not been notably successful.

Their best opportunity occurred in May 1999, when NATO forces, led by the U.S., accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia during the war in Kosovo, killing three Chinese citizens. The Chinese media went into overdrive trying to link the hegemonist U.S. with the cultural U.S., asserting that everything from American blockbuster films to the promotion of human rights and globalization, as well as Western civilization more generally, was part of a deliberate conspiracy by America to control the world. This analysis had an immediate impact in the aftermath of the bombing, with busloads of university students driven to the American Embassy in Beijing to throw rocks, student calls to boycott McDonald’s and KFC, and students publicly tearing up their admission letters to American universities. However, surveys conducted not long afterward revealed that while the anger at the hegemonist U.S. continued, the spillover effect into cultural issues was short-lived, and the concept of what the surveyors called “the two Americas” was still applicable.

Chinese authorities have continually sought to walk a fine line of allowing popular Western culture into the country while trying to minimize its impact on the values of youth. However, all too often the government’s heavy-handed management of this dilemma has backfired. For example, in April, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) ordered leading video-streaming websites to stop showing such popular American shows as “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Good Wife,” “NCIS” and “The Practice,” without providing a reason, although SAPPRFT had noted earlier that it planned to increase censorship of foreign content. Given its popularity, there were reports in the Chinese media that “The Big Bang Theory” would eventually be resurrected and shown by the behemoth state broadcaster Chinese Central Television (CCTV) in a “cleaner” version. However, rather than mollify fans, this has only inflamed them, with literally millions of online posts angrily protesting. Some referred to China as “West North Korea,” a term that was quickly banned by online censors. Ironically, CCTV in the past had told those who complain about Chinese censorship to be glad they weren’t living in North Korea, which lacks email access, iPads, software downloads and other things Chinese take for granted. Predictably, Chinese Netizens mocked that argument as well. Indeed, justifying Chinese censorship through comparisons to North Korea can only lead to a credibility problem with sophisticated post-1980s and post-1990s youth.

The most ambitious attempt to compete with the “American Dream,” and Western culture more generally, is Xi Jinping’s articulation in late 2012 of a “China Dream,” a collectivist counterpart to the individualistic American version. Although often left vague enough to incorporate diverse individual aspirations under one big tent, editorials and commentaries in the Chinese media suggest an interpretation that emphasizes China’s past humiliation by the Western powers and calls for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, including an improvement in livelihood and quality of life for Chinese citizens, a more just society and a stronger military that can defend China’s rights against potentially hostile nations so China will never again be bullied. Needless to say, the realization of this dream is linked with belief in the Communist Party and the socialist system. It is in this context that leading Western multinational corporations that have been highly successful in the Chinese market, such as Apple, have been publicly criticized on CCTV and in the Chinese press for treating Chinese customers less well than their foreign counterparts and made to apologize publicly, thus invoking parallels to earlier periods of humiliation by arrogant foreigners.

Will the China Dream narrative be able to reverse the trends toward individualism and globalization that have become such important components of the lifestyle of post-1980s and post-1990s youth? The early evidence suggests a measure of pessimism. Unlike the Mao years, there is no residual support for Chinese-style socialism, particularly given the problems with housing, employment, environmental and food safety, and corruption, as well as the lack of any real sign of political reform. There is widespread skepticism that the current system can provide sustainable solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The implications are of course enormous, both for China and the world. Only two nations have been bold enough to promote a national “dream,” with the China Dream primarily intended for domestic consumption and the American Dream meant to be a beacon to nations and individuals everywhere. It remains to be seen which reforms will be necessary to realize the China Dream, and whether such reforms can be enacted without loosening the Communist Party’s hold on power. That could go a long way to determining which of the two dreams will prove more attractive to post-1980s youth and their successors.     

Stanley Rosen is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California.  He is the co-editor of the translation journal, Chinese Education and Society (with Gerard Postiglione), and the co-editor of “Art, Politics and Commerce in Chinese Cinema” (Hong Kong University Press, 2010, with Ying Zhu) and “Chinese Politics: State, Society and the Market” (Routledge, 2010, with Peter Hays Gries). 

Photo: Movie theather in Beijing, China, Dec. 31, 2008 (photo by Fickr user flippy whale licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license).

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