US-China Today spoke with Eric Fish, a journalist and podcaster working at the Asia Society, who chose to explore the lives of Chinese youth as the topic of his new book.

美中今日采访了Eric Fish,这位来自亚洲社会的新闻记者和广播员,他将镜头对准了中国的年轻一代并以此为主题写了这本书。

US-China Today spoke with Eric Fish, a journalist and podcaster working at the Asia Society, who chose to explore the lives of Chinese youth as the topic of his new book China’s Millennials: The Want Generation. As a teacher and writer in China from 2007 to 2014, Fish worked for the Economic Observer and wrote stories for The Atlantic, The Telegraph, Foreign Policy, and other media outlets. In his book, Fish, a millennial himself, explores the cultural and economic issues that Chinese youth born in the 1980’s and 90’s are grappling with today, from the uncertain futures of recent college graduates to the ideological clashes between generations.

Today, the young generation in China is often compared to their parents’ generation in terms of political social activism. Do you think that is a fair comparison?

I think there is still a lot of materialism, money focus with the young generation today. I think when the economy really started taking off you had young adults who had lived in very hard conditions so when suddenly things started changing it did kind of serve as a pacifying force, they’ve had a rough life and all of a sudden things start getting better and better, but just the last couple years you have people coming of age that were kind of born into that where things had always been improving.

A lot of people were born into a baseline of comfort or even fairly well-off lives, so I think for those people now the economic growth is less impressive, less of a pacifying force. In that way, the Communist Party could almost be a victim of its own success in that a lot of people have been born into well-enough situations that they are starting to have higher expectations than just purely material needs.

In your book you talk about the “English Corners” [spaces where students could speak about sensitive topics in English]. What kinds of ideas do you hear floating around in those discussions that may show a contrast to the 1989 student movement? Are the younger generations showing different ideas?

In a lot of accounts I read, [English Corners] were a kind of a hotbed for political discussions in the 80’s, a little safer to breach topics like that in a foreign language. People that speak a foreign language are more likely in the first place to have access to other information that’s not censored. I think that is still true today.

I wasn’t there in the 80’s, at these English corners, to compare the ideas directly, but I did interview a fair number of people who were around those kind of things and I think that today’s young people have access to a lot more information than the 80’s. I think a lot of it was you just started to have a lot more people that were leaving China and coming back and relating tales of the US, and of course at that time the US was miles and miles ahead development-wise of China. China was just emerging from the Maoist hellscape so I think a lot of people got very lofty ideas of the US and the outside world and kind of saw it as this shining beacon on the hill. Maybe didn’t get a good idea of all of the nuances.

The Tiananmen movement especially, I think, tends to be remembered as a pro-democracy movement but I think that’s really an oversimplification. People pushed for democratic ideals but the definition of Chinese democracy is not necessarily things like separation of powers, direct electoral democracy, so, it was more like just the will of the people, people wanted more freedoms. I don’t think there was really a full appreciation of the type of things they were protesting for at Tiananmen because a lot of the information was incomplete, second hand. Information was still very sensitive at that time so I don’t think there was as nuanced an understanding of certain political subjects. Even the people protesting for them probably didn’t have such a clear idea whereas the people I talk to at the RenDa English Corner, they have everything at their fingertips. A lot of them use VPNs, are very curious, go through the internet, have been abroad themselves. I think there is a bit more sophistication in people’s attitudes and in political discussions.

A mural in a village near Beijing says “Carry out family planning, strengthen rule of law awareness.” Photo by Eric Fish

In your book you quote a Chinese government official saying that, “Youth were told that education could change their lives.” How severe is this issue of education from what you can see for Chinese society and the government?

That’s really hard to say, it doesn’t seem to be bubbling over, right now. I think I mentioned some other surveys in that same chapter where still overall young people are optimistic about their economic future, especially. I thought that was interesting because right after the financial crisis, 2008-2009, there were surveys of American millennials and it was kind of the same thing even though the situation was terrible for young people. They still, overall, remained optimistic.I think part of that does stem from, like the quote you read, they were told that education would change their lives. I think there was a lot of this, parents embedding the idea in their kids that if you work hard, go to college you’ll have a good career because for that generation it was true. In the late 70’s it was something like 5% of people who took the college entrance exam actually got admitted. Now something like 70% of people who take it go.

I think a lot of people who go to college think, “Yay, I’ve made it! I’m going to make something.” Then they get out and that’s not really the case but I think the conviction is still there among a lot of people that “Ok, I’m unlucky right now but things will turn around at some point.” Even if it is going to stay rough, there is a lot of disillusionment too, I think, when people get out. I quoted some people in the chapter who said: “Once I got out into society after university it was nothing like what I was prepared for by university.”

But I don’t see a lot of connections between that, yet, and “the government’s fault” that I can’t find a job. I think right now, for the moment, mostly people see it as a personal issue rather than a national issue.

You did say that there is a similarity in terms of the economic uncertainty on the macro-level, you see it here and in China. You haven’t seen any changes in government or policy statements in China addressing this uncertainty in the youth?

Since Xi came into power you’ve seen all kinds of proclamations about university needing to strengthen ideological control, keep a better grasp on young minds, that’s one indicator that they’re especially worried about young people. We’ve seen some outspoken university professors get fired. So, yeah, I think they are certainly concerned with this. The protest movements I talk about, whether the environmental protest movement… or online things, these are largely youth driven, so I think they’re very cognizant of that. Anywhere in the world when protests start, when things start turning against the government it usually young people that lead it. So I think they’re concerned for that reason.

I think they’re definitely worried about the job issue, of young educated people not being able to find work. I think they are afraid that could turn against them at some point or if there’s some other issue, something else that galvanizes people. People without jobs are more likely to take to the streets because they don’t have anything else to do.

Policy-wise there has been a drive in the last couple of years to get young people into more technical work because there’s a huge gap. There’s a lot of university graduates looking for white collar work that the labor market can’t absorb but there’s an overabundance of jobs for skilled labor, for technical expertise. A lot of young people don’t want these jobs, they still consider it labor, factory work. So they don’t want that but I think the government has been trying to get more people into those fields to get employment higher.

Protestors march against Japan in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing in September 2012 with a sign reading “Eliminate Japanese, protect our country.” Photo by Eric Fish

You mentioned this problem of the corruption specific to the children of some of the government leaders. There seems to have been some exposure to this problem as you talk about in your book. Do you think this has gotten under control in recent years? Has it changed under President Xi?

Actually there’s a really interesting thing that I just read. There’s a new book, I think it’s called The Dictator’s Dilemma, this scholar surveyed — did two rounds of surveys in 2010 and 2014 — this question of corruption. It’s kind of a double-edge sword because on the one hand people overall, young people included, seem to be impressed by this anti-corruption campaign. Anecdotally too, people you talk to say that it is having an effect, “I’m not expected to pay as much bribes in my child’s school” or “my government official friend hasn’t been to as many banquets or lavish parties as they used to”… So it does seem to be having a trickle down effect to the lowest levels and I think people do see that and they are impressed by it.

But on the other side of the surveying that he found is that with all of the high-level officials that they have been taking down, it has shown people what a huge problem, what a pervasive problem corruption is, everywhere at all levels of government. Whereas before people largely tended to think that it was “my local official is corrupt but the central government is good.” This has raised awareness of corruption at the highest levels and how endemic it is in the system.

The people I talk to, young people, it kind of seems consistent with that. They’re impressed, they’re happy with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign it does seem to be having some tangible effects but also, my God, look at how big the problem is! It’s going to be a huge if not impossible task to stamp it out or even get it to reasonable levels. There are still plenty of fuerdai. Second-generation rich especially the students I’m talking to here in the US, they see their classmates at Columbia that have official parents living very lavish lives. I don’t know how effective that is in the long-run, corruption does continue to exist even if it has been tamped (sic) down to some degree so it will be interesting to see in a couple of years how these trajectories go. Are they still going to be impressed or are they going to see that corruption is still a massive, massive problem, we’ve only put a dent in it.

I spoke with a young Chinese journalism graduate student from USC. His feelings were that there’s something else happening where this young generation is seeing the outside world, outside of China — but his sense is that the Chinese government will have trouble in the long run, suppressing and controlling a generation that is becoming so free in their thinking due to influences outside of China.

As far as going out of China, seeing the world, that cuts both ways. People do see certain freedoms, like press freedom, that they’re missing in China. But I think they also see the grimmer side of American society. I’m working on a book now about Chinese students in the US and… a lot of Chinese students who come here actually end up more firm in their Chinese identity, more nationalistic even.

But people also go the other way. I don’t know what the proportions are. People come here and become more liberal, pro-America, more critical of their government. It does cut both ways. But yeah, overall just because of this explosion of information, I think really this has happened since Weibo has taken off. I think I wrote about this in my book: when I first got to China, when I brought up censorship with students, they would defend it! But after Weibo took off I started hearing this less often, people started being exposed to very tangible things that they had been missing out on because of censorship, stuff like corruption, police brutality, all sorts of miscarriages of justice. Not just political either, [but it also enables people] to explore different personal identities.

Like if you were gay, 15 years ago in China you would have thought you had a mental disorder, that’s what the textbook was telling you; you didn’t know anybody around you who was gay. Now you can go online and see, you’re not alone, that it’s ok to be different. I think this has had a huge impact on bringing out more individualism in people. Kids are better off, have more money to explore, to travel, to explore whatever their individual identity is. This is kind of dangerous for a government anywhere when it starts to be ok to be different. When you’re an authoritarian government you rely on conformity to some extent. Whether it’s political or something else you can just count on peer pressure, a fear of sticking out to keep people in line. But now… the government is losing that kind of edge where people instinctively conform to where it’s not only ok, but it’s even cool, it’s celebrated, to express different opinions.