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Contemporary Chinese Youth and the State

  • Stanley Rosen

Having put a very successful Olympics in the rearview mirror, China entered 2009 with a set of new challenges, brought on in part by the worldwide economic crisis and the resulting demands to ensure necessary employment levels and in part by the familiar issue of maintaining social stability. While the hope, presumably, was to move reasonably smoothly from the Olympics of August 2008 to the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 2009, the Chinese media has instead become proactive in alerting local officials and the general public that China is entering “a peak period for mass incidents” (quntixing shijian, 群体性事件), with further warnings that a single national-level event, handled poorly, could “resonate” (gongzhen, 共振) into a threat to overall social stability and a serious political crisis.

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1 Ruifeng, Dong, “Early Warning about Mass Incidents,” Liaowang xinwen zhoukan [Outlook Weekly], no. 1, 2009; Cha, Ariana Eunjung, “As China's Jobless Numbers Mount, Protests Grow Bolder: Economic Woes Shining a Light on Social Issues,” Washington Post, January 13, 2009; “The Year of Living Dissidently,” The Economist, January 17, 2009, 42–43.

2 Dong, “Early Warning about Mass Incidents.”

3 “Charter 08,” a document released on December 10, 2008, and signed by more than 2,000 Chinese citizens, including some mid-level government officials, advocated the elimination of one-party rule and its replacement by a democratic system that would protect human rights. The party's strong reaction suggested that it saw this document, and the willingness of so many individuals to sign their names openly, as a warning of additional challenges to come in 2009. For a translation of the charter and government reaction, see Link, Perry, “China's Charter 08,” New York Review of Books, January 15, 2009, 5456.

4 Osnos, Evan, “Angry Youth: The New Generation's Neocon Nationalists,” New Yorker, July 28, 2008, 2837.

5 In an important sense, these three anniversaries are linked in that both the 1989 and 1999 demonstrations occurred in the shadow of May Fourth, which always elicits discussions of patriotism and the defense of China.

6 “The ‘Me Generation,’” Beijing Review, February 28, 2008. A similarly titled article, written by Simon Elegant, appeared in Time magazine on June 26, 2007, and attracted considerable attention on Chinese blogs. See the original article and translations of several blog posts on the blog EastSouthNorthWest, August 1, 2007.

7 “Complete New Appraisal of the Post-80's Generation,” People's Daily (English ed.), June 4, 2008. Presumably, the publication of this favorable appraisal of contemporary Chinese youth on June 4 was not coincidental.

8 “Why Grandpa Wen Has to Care; Populist Politics in China,” The Economist, June 14, 2008. The original source is a long two-part article by Wu Jiaxiang in Zhongguo qingnian bao [China Youth Daily], April 2, 2008.

9 On the struggle among Chinese youth to forge an identity, see Weber, Ian, “‘Shanghai Baby’: Negotiating Youth Self-Identity in Urban China,” Social Identities 8, no. 2 (2002): 347–68.

10 Zhong, Shi, “Chinese Nationalism and the Future of China,” translated in Rosen, Stanley, ed., “Nationalism and Neoconservatism in China in the 1990s,” Chinese Law and Government 30, no. 6 (November–December 1997): 827. A shorter version of this article appeared in Hong Kong's Mingbao yuekan [Mingbao Monthly], no. 9, September 1996. Shi Zhong is the penname of Wang Xiaodong, who led criticism of the film Lust, Caution (色 ◦ 戒) for its defamation of patriotic students, among other ills.

11 This assessment is based on travel and interviews throughout China, particularly on college campuses, throughout the 1980s.

12 Yongming Zhou, “Understanding Chinese Internet Politics,” in China and Democracy: A Contradiction in Terms? Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Asia Program Special Report no. 131, June 2006, 21–25.

13 The expression is now used in virtually all areas of Chinese life to refer to individuals (e.g., “a post-1980s poet”) or phenomena (e.g., “a post-1980s Web site or magazine”). See Zhao Feng, “The Evolution from ‘Generations’ to ‘Post,’” Zhongguo qingnian bao, July 6, 2008, 3.

14 Wei, Zhang, “The War between Two Labels: A True Record of the ‘Post-80's’ and ‘Post-90's’ Attacks,” Zhongguo qingnian bao, May 7, 2008, 10.

15 Beijing qingnian fazhan baogao [Report on the Development of Beijing Youth], 2005–2006 ed. (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2007), 331–38. There were 742 respondents for this part of the survey.

16 Rosen, Stanley, “The Victory of Materialism: Aspirations to Join China's Urban Moneyed Classes and the Commercialization of Education,” China Journal, no. 51 (January 2004): 4246.

17 Xingjia, Wang, “An Investigation and Analysis of the Ideological and Political Situation of Young Students,” Zhongguo qingnian yanjiu [China Youth Study], no. 7, July 2007, 5456. For a study in Beijing that points up a wide variety of “erroneous views” with regard to motivation for party membership, see Haiyan, Feng, “An Investigation into the Motivations for Party Membership among Contemporary University Students,” Zhongguo qingnian yanjiu, no. 6, June 2008, 5557.

18 CASS Institute of World History Special Topics Group, “A Brief Analysis of a Survey of Young Students with Regard to Belief Systems on 21 Important Questions,” Lingdao canyue [Reference reading for leaders], July 5, 2007, 24–28. The other great thinkers chosen, in order, were Mencius, Albert Einstein, Emmanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, and Émile Durkheim.

19 “American Holidays: They're Only a Reason to Pass on Good Wishes,” Di yishou (第一手), June 24, 2008, [accessed February 2, 2009].

20 Recent surveys by CASS suggest that there are about 4 percent to 5 percent of Chinese currently in the middle class (meeting the criteria from several different indicators), with about 10 percent in the cities and 12 percent to 15 percent in the large cities. Perhaps most importantly, many more people subjectively view themselves as middle class than the objective indicators would suggest, a sign of government success. See Lingdao canyue [Reference reading for leaders], December 5, 2007, 16–20. One survey found that although more than 80 percent did not currently view themselves as middle class, more than 43 percent thought there was a very real possibility that they would enter the middle class in the next ten years. See Zhongguo qingnian bao, December 24, 2007, 2.

21 On the controversy over high school history textbooks, see Joseph Kahn, “Where's Mao? Chinese Revise History Books,” New York Times, September 1, 2006. For the backlash against this new emphasis, see “Shanghai History Textbook Controversy, Revisited,” Shanghaiist, September 14, 2007, [accessed January 26, 2009].

22 South China Morning Post, September 9, 2008.

23 Ni, Ching-Ching, “Will China's Youth Play Virtuous Virtual Game?Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2005.

24 Surveys and discussions on “idol worship” and spoofing are featured heavily in academic journals and the mainstream press. On spoofing, see Esarey, Ashley and Qiang, Xiao, “Political Expression in the Chinese Blogosphere,” Asian Survey 48, no. 5 (September–October 2008): 764–65. The influence of blogs, including Tencent's Q Zone, Douban,, 80 Hoo, and the Sina and Sohu blog portals on Chinese youth, could form the basis of a separate article. I am grateful to Rebecca Mackinnon and Xiao Qiang for introducing me to some of these blogs. See also Yan, Yunxiang, “Little Emperors or Frail Pragmatists? China's ‘80ers Generation,” Current History, September 2006, 255–62.

25 Pew Global Attitudes Project: China Survey, July 22, 2008, 19–20.

Stanley Rosen () is Director of the East Asian Studies Center and Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern California.

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  • EISSN: 1752-0401
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