China: Better Rich Than Red

A Spoiled Generation?

Chinese girls drink Pepsi in Beijing
Chinese girls at the Wangfuging shopping district of Beijing, April 11, 2002 (Photo: Mark Ralston/South China Morning Post).

Sun Qianwen knows that many older Chinese think of her generation as spoiled brats. The 25-year-old postgraduate student can see where they are coming from. “These kids are the only kids at home, so they tend to get spoiled a bit.” But, she points out, the so-called “me” generation, derided for its selfishness and devotion to all things Western, had no say in the birth-control policy that dictated they have no brothers or sisters. “I mean, you should never criticize this generation, or their families, as they are both prey to this silly policy,” she says.

The Communist Party that thought up the policy remains as much a mystery to her as to visitors to this big, beautiful and oh, so fascinating country.

Blink in China, and the landscape changes before your eyes: from skyscrapers to rich fields in a short bus ride, to large department stores selling the best of the West—and across the street, people living in shacks.

Perhaps young people are the best example of the contrast and potential problems facing the country. Outwardly they are very Western; they eat at McDonalds and KFC, wear the latest designer clothes, and are addicted to the Internet. Much like your average New Zealander. It seems they yearn for the West, but socially and morally they live in a different world.

Politically, things take a lot longer, and change is happening slowly, if at all. As economic reform sweeps through the country, its politics are still firmly based on the 53-year-old history of the Communist Party.

Sun Qianwen says young people are not so much uninterested in the party’s workings as completely cut out of its business and day-to-day decision-making. “As the big people won’t let the rest know what’s happening with their reign, how can you expect the youths to have a right opinion? So it’s not a question of ‘selfishness’—I mean, with most young people, I believe they would be as cynical as I am, if not more, had they known more.”

Government worker Zhao Wei, 23, of Beijing, says of last week’s congress: “Well, it’s none of our business, let them play with themselves.” Michelle, 24, of the Zhejiang city of Shaoxing, says: “Well, actually, I don’t think the people really take this congress seriously, as our politics seldom have anything to do with public democracy. So knowing this won’t cause any real change in real life—people are quite numb about it.”

You can’t help but wonder if the day will come when again the youth question their lack of democracy, especially with their desire for everything Western (of course with a Chinese identity). It seems they are aware that life in China is unjust but it’s a waste of time trying to change things that are out of their control. They have better things to do, so they look after themselves both materially and spiritually, with both Christianity and Buddhism rising in popularity among the youth.

In direct contrast to youths in the city are the rural farmers. Peasants make up 90 percent of the Chinese population—living, by our standards, in Third World conditions. It is hard not to fear the day the peasants will demand what the wealthy city dwellers have. As China embraces “communism with capitalist characteristics,” the gap between rich and poor grows larger, and unemployment is  rising dramatically.

Over everything looms the shadow of Tiananmen, where the government  ruthlessly cracked down on the student uprising. “You must not forget what happened in 1989,” Sun Qianwen says: “What was cracked down on was not only the movement, the lives, but [also] the hope. So what good can the youth bring to themselves or their country? The government is never going to let similar things happen again.”

So Chinese youths will focus more on their own business. Because most are not well informed, you cannot expect them to [take an interest in politics]. And with those who are better informed, you cannot make them forget what happened in ’89, and how all this effort ended in vain and blood.