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

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For anyone who visited the workers' paradise when it was still the land of Mao suits and communes, trying to reconcile that China to the one that young élites live in today is disorienting. When I first visited China in 1981, I went to the People's Park in Shanghai with two traveling companions. Our obligatory Foreign Ministry "guide" ushered us through a special gate reserved for "foreign friends." A knot of young Chinese had gathered outside. As we passed, a few made loud comments about the unfairness of having parts of the People's Park reserved only for foreigners. One of my companions, a Mandarin speaker, agreed volubly in Chinese. Immediately a group of young Chinese men and women surrounded us and peppered us with questions that mixed naiveté and aspiration: Are there still slaves in America? Where did you learn to speak Chinese? Do all American families really have three cars? Can you help me go to America?

That discussion took place 25 years ago, the span usually allotted to a single generation. The naive, wary Chinese I met that day could be the parents of the group gathered for the seafood feast in Beijing. But there is almost nothing about the appearance, attitudes, life experience, education or dreams for the future that those young people in the Shanghai People's Park share with the likes of Vicky and her friends.

The most obvious change is demographic. Because of China's one-child policy, instituted in 1978, this is the first generation in the world's history in which a majority are single children, a group whose solipsistic tendencies have been further encouraged by a growing obsession with consumerism, the Internet and video games. At the same time, today's young Chinese are better educated and more worldly than their predecessors. Whereas the so-called Lost Generation that grew up in the Cultural Revolution often struggled to finish high school, today around a quarter of Chinese in their 20s have attended college. The country's opening to the West has allowed many more of its citizens to satisfy their curiosity about the world: some 37 million will travel overseas in 2007. In the next decade, there will be more Chinese tourists traveling the globe than the combined total of those originating in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than fueling restlessness among the Me generation, however, the ease of travel seems to provide more evidence that the benefits of globalization can be had without radical change.

There's another reason for the lack of political ferment: it's exhausting. Like anyone else, members of the Me generation are shaped by their experiences and those of their families. When their parents talk about the Great Leap Forward (a disastrous Mao campaign in the late 1950s that left 20 million to 30 million dead of starvation) and the subsequent chaos of the Cultural Revolution, they mostly tell horror stories that would put anyone off politics forever. That chapter in Chinese history, which officially ended with Mao's death in 1976, is ancient history to today's young élites. They have known little but peace and an ever increasing economic boom. "We have so much bigger a desire for everything than [our parents]," says Maria Zhang, 27. "And the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want."

One event that the Me generation does remember is the crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But to young Chinese like Maria and Vicky, the Tiananmen protests are less a source of inspiration than an admonishment. Were popular uprisings like Tiananmen allowed to continue, Vicky believes, they would have provoked a counterreaction by conservative forces and led to a return to fortress China: no more iPods, overseas shopping trips or snowboarding weekends. "I think that the students meant well," says Vicky, who was 11 at the time and has only vague memories of what happened. But the crackdown that ended the demonstrations "certainly was needed."

Vicky embodies the shift in the priorities of young Chinese. She's a purposeful, 29-year-old actuary who rarely smiles but loves nothing better than a party. She and her friends meet so regularly for dinner and at bars that she says she never eats at home anymore. As the pictures on her blog attest, they also throw regular theme parties to mark holidays like Halloween and Christmas, and last year took a holiday to Egypt.

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