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.