Academic journal article China Perspectives

The New "Lost Generation": Inequality and Discontent among Chinese Youth

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The New "Lost Generation": Inequality and Discontent among Chinese Youth

Article excerpt

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Discussion of Chinese youth in the popular media is often obscured by such unhelpful labels as "post-1980" (balinghou ...) and "post-1990" (jiulinghou ...) that tend to focus on collective, generational characteristics. As the first generation of single children, they are seen as self-centred "little emperors" lacking the talent for communication and horizontal interaction. Growing up in the reform era of economic prosperity and material abundance, they are portrayed as obsessed with appearance and consumption. Their fixation with high-technology products in particular have won them names such as "Apple fans" (guofen ...) and the "thumb tribe" (muzhi zu ...). With little memory of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, they are seen as being less concerned about politics and more carefree. Unused to hardship, they are characterised as having the unique inability to "eat bitterness" (chiku ...), succumbing easily to criticism and pressure. They are called "strawberries" (caomei ...) - polished and attractive in outward appearance but highly vulnerable and easily wounded. Boys, in particular, are criticised for becoming increasingly effeminate (nanxing de nüxinghua ...). (1)

Several recent reports in the Chinese press have focused on the current situation of young people, revealing a much more complex reality. Four years after Lian Si forged the term "ant tribe," the new catchword today is diaosi, which refers to a new class of "losers," analysed at length by New Weekly in 2012. The discontent experienced by the young people self-identifying as diaosi, who feel excluded from the benefits of China's growth, can be linked to several recent incidents related to the phenomenon of "second- generation rich" placing themselves above the law. The first April 2013 issue of South Review similarly ran a cover story on the creeping calcification of social strata (jieceng jianghua ...; jieceng guhua ...) in contemporary China. The editors deplore the emergence of a "winner-takesall" (yingjia tongchi ...) society dominated by special interest conglomerates (teshu liyi jituan ...) that operate above the law according to "privilege-consciousness" (tequan yishi ...), and warn of the worrying reproduction of social strata (jieceng zaishengchan ...), which deprives young people of the perspective of upward mobility.

This essay, taking recent reports on the post-80s and post-90s as a starting point, will attempt to deconstruct these labels in order to shed light on some of the more poignant social dividers and barriers confronting different groups within the new generation. It begins with an analysis of the diaosi phenomenon and underlying social realities. It then examines the root causes of popular frustration by looking at the unlevel field of Chinese education to reveal a system that almost systematically reproduces disparity across generations. The next sections focus respectively on university graduates, many of which make up China's growing "ant tribe," and new-generation rural migrant workers, whose labour rights and rights to urban citizenship remain highly circumscribed. I point to the ways by which Chinese youth, who call themselves the "new lost generation," seek to redefine their role as citizens on their own terms. (2)

The new "losers" and a society increasingly based on status

An increasingly pervasive sense that talent and effort cannot change one's fate has produced collective expressions of self-mockery and selfdeprecatory humour (ziwo tiaokan ...). Diaosi (...), a coarse word for loser, has become a popular cultural phenomenon and a symbol of self-identification for many young male Chinese. (3) In 2011 it was searched for 41 million times on Google and mentioned over 2 million times on Weibo. (4) Popularised through Internet blogs and chatrooms, diaosi refers to those who come from humble family background and are lacking in good looks. According to the ten "requirements" for a diaosi listed by the Southern Metropolis Weekly, one must, among other criteria, always have less than 1,000 yuan in one's pocket, have no connection to wealth in social circles, go on long-distance vacation only once every three to five years, and have no more than three girlfriends before marriage in order to qualify as a diaosi. …

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