China's Me Generation: China's Me Generation

The new middle class is young, rich and happy. Just don't mention politics

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Photograph for TIME by Ian Teh

THIS YEAR'S MODEL: Young Chinese like Liu Yun, 23, an actress pictured in a Beijing dance studio, belong to a generation for whom prosperity and personal freedom haven't required democracy

Six friends out on a friday evening, the seafood plentiful, the conversation flowing. Maria Zhang — big hoop earrings, tight velvet jacket and a good deal of meticulously applied makeup — starts to describe an island that everyone is talking about off the east coast of Thailand. It has great diving, she says, and lots of Chinese there so you don't have to worry about language. Her friend Vicky Yang is hunched over a borrowed laptop, downloading an e-mail from a pesky client on her cell phone. An actuary at a consulting firm, Vicky needs to close a project tonight. While she phones a colleague, the dinner-table conversation moves on to snowboarding ("I must have fallen a hundred times") to the relative merits of various iPods ("Shuffle is no good") and the sudden onrush of credit cards in China. Silence Chen, an account executive with advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather in Beijing, tells the group he recently received six different cards in the mail. "Each one has a credit limit of 10,000," he says, laughing. "So suddenly I'm 60,000 yuan richer!" The talk turns to China's online shopping business, before that is interrupted by the arrival of razor clams, chili squid and deep-fried grouper.

The one subject that doesn't come up — and almost never does when this tight-knit group of friends gets together — is politics. That sets them apart from previous generations of Chinese élites, whose lives were defined by the epic events that shaped China's past half-century: the Cultural Revolution, the opening to the West, the student protests in Tiananmen Square and their subsequent suppression. The conversation at Gang Ji Restaurant suggests today's twentysomethings are tuning all that out. "There's nothing we can do about politics," says Chen. "So there's no point in talking about it or getting involved."

There are roughly 300 million adults in China under age 30, a demographic cohort that serves as a bridge between the closed, xenophobic China of the Mao years and the globalized economic powerhouse that it is becoming. Young Chinese are the drivers and chief beneficiaries of the country's current boom: according to a recent survey by Credit Suisse, the incomes of 20- to 29-year-olds grew 34% in the past three years, by far the biggest of any age group. And because of their self-interested, apolitical pragmatism, they could turn out to be the salvation of the ruling Communist Party — so long as it keeps delivering the economic goods. Survey young, urban Chinese today, and you will find them drinking Starbucks, wearing Nikes and blogging obsessively. But you will detect little interest in demanding voting rights, let alone overthrowing the country's communist rulers. "On their wish list," says Hong Huang, a publisher of several lifestyle magazines, "a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of democracy."

The rise of China's Me generation has implications for the foreign policies of other nations. Sinologists in the West have long predicted that economic growth would eventually bring democracy to China. As James Mann points out in his new book, The China Fantasy, the idea that China will evolve into a democracy as its middle class grows continues to underlie the U.S.'s China policy, providing the central rationale for maintaining close ties with what is, after all, an unapologetically authoritarian regime. But China's Me generation could shatter such long-held assumptions. As the chief beneficiaries of China's economic success, young professionals have more and more tied up in preserving the status quo. The last thing they want is a populist politician winning over the country's hundreds of millions of have-nots on a rural-reform, stick-it-to-the-cities agenda.

All of which means democracy isn't likely to come to China anytime soon. And that poses challenges for Western policymakers as they try to engage China without condoning the Communist Party's record of political repression and its failures to improve the lives of the country's rural poor. China watchers say the Me generation's reluctance to agitate for reform is driven in part by a reluctance to tarnish China's moment in the sun. "They are proud of what China has accomplished, and very positive about the government," says P.T. Black, who conducts extensive marketing research for a Shanghai-based company called Jigsaw International. The political passivity of China's new élite makes sense while the good times roll. The question is what will happen to the Me generation — and to China — when they end.

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