Wake Up World: Chinese Youth Wave Coming

By Wang Wen – Global Times

The other day, my son recommended me a piece of 8K music, which means music produced with a high-tech display resolution with superior clarity and depth. As I put on the headphones, it felt like I was surrounded by a full 360-degree wave cycle.

This is not the first recommendation of new things from my 12-year-old. He has let me try out a pair of breathable basketball shoes, an interesting APP, and even informed me about a celebrity that I had no idea of. He also talked to me about his views on the US.

Every time I felt like a wave at sea, a wave that was driven by bigger and powerful waves from behind. A short video titled “The Wave Behind” was released on May 4, the Youth Day in China. It expressed respect from an older generation of Chinese toward the younger generation. The video caused heated debates on China’s social media. Some praised the way it paid tribute to young people. Others criticized the video as “kissing up” to the youth. But there is a consensus that emerged in these discussions: Young people in China will not simply follow the footsteps of previous generations step by step.

In the 1970s, American political scientist Ronald Inglehart put forward the theory of intergenerational value changes. Inglehart postulated that changes in economic development and living conditions will lead to intergenerational value changes, and that major events in an era would affect the value priorities of that generation.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, interactions between China and the world have been accelerating. China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001, hosted the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and experienced the 2008-09 financial crisis. These historical experiences opened up a window for young Chinese people to see the acceptance and competition between China and the world.

Each generation of young people has their distinctive characteristics defined by the times. The ongoing changes in the national strengths of both China and other countries are influencing psychological shifts among the post-1990s and post-2000s generations in China.

Since 2000, the international ranking of China’s GDP has been rising fast. Since 2010, China has steadily ranked as the second largest economy in the world. China has successfully seized development opportunities in the Web2.0 era. With the popularization of information interaction, connection, transmission and sharing of technologies, such as social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, China is leading the world in certain sectors, such as e-commerce, infrastructure construction, and mobile payments. The process is shaping the values of the young Chinese generation.

Compared with young people in developed countries, China’s post-1990s generation has a stronger sense of national pride. They have abandoned the previous generation’s worship of the West, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic revealed structural weaknesses of Western governments. They are even more forward-looking in accepting the world’s cutting-edge information, products and lifestyles, including cashless payments, high-speed railways, and high-speed communications networks.

About 98 percent of Chinese aged 18 to 35 are proud of their being Chinese, according to a survey of 8,212 respondents conducted by the China Youth Daily from April 24 to 28. Another survey of 13,074 respondents, jointly conducted by Fudan University and Shanghai Open University from 2015 to 2017, found that 69.8 percent of university students trust the Chinese government, 71.3 percent of university students believe adhering to government policies is important to national development, and 82.5 percent think the country’s prosperity will improve people’s living standards. When people of the post-1990s generation were asked to rank the core values of socialism, they put “prosperity” first, and then “civilization” and “harmony.” “Freedom” and “democracy,” values Western societies endorse, are ranked the fifth and seventh, respectively.

This generation of Chinese youth is not the object of the “peaceful evolution” programs carried out by CIA operatives in the 1960s. Matt Pottinger, the only “China hand” in US President Donald Trump’s administration and US deputy national security advisor, believes that young Chinese oppose their government. This is just opposite to the truth.

Compared with their parent’s generation, the young generation has many shortcomings – they tend to easily become arrogant, despise other countries quickly, and don’t save money. While they’ve inherited properties from their parents, they may feel at a loss about their objectives for hard work. But I believe in China’s future, which is dominated by these young people. They will not replicate Western ways, but will instead make China more prosperous and powerful. They will enable our country to better communicate with the world.

The current and urgent task for both China and the Western world is to be prepared for the younger generation who will lead China.

China should accelerate policy reforms so that the new generation can better serve the country and widely participate in global governance. For instance, skyrocketing housing prices and high rents make young graduates feel greatly pressured. Moreover, not being able to have easy access to internet tools such as Google and Twitter has made communication with their peers around the world difficult. In addition, the resources of faculties, teaching materials, and management in Chinese universities lag behind the demands of young people.

The West, especially the US, should respect China and accept China’s rise as a fact. The long-term critical tone against China, arrogant and conceited ideologies, slanted values, and unfair international trade and financial systems will inevitably push the Chinese youth to a confrontational stance against the West.

If that happens, Western scholars may be baffled about “Who lost the future of China?” This harks back to the old US Cold War saying of “Who lost China?” I wouldn’t like to see the West overwhelmed by Chinese youth like a wave at sea. Rather, China and the West should learn from each other and advance together. From this perspective, now is still a good strategic opportunity for China and the West to work together to make their relations mature.

The author is professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, and executive director of China-US People-to-People Exchange Research Center. His latest book is Great Power’s Long March Road.wangwen2013@ruc.edu.cn