A bleary dusk is descending on Beijing's Haidian district, and four lanes of taxis, fume-belching diesel trucks and the occasional horse-drawn cart are snarled in bumper-to-bumper gridlock. Suddenly, on a bicycle path running parallel to the main road, a silver Toyota Celica shifts into high gear and races past the river of red brake lights. Han Han, as usual, has found a shortcut, and as he careens past the Mao-jacketed grannies pedaling home, he pauses for a moment of self-reflection. "In China today, there are many different paths to fulfillment," he says, adjusting his sunglasses and narrowly averting a pedicab piled high with computer parts. "There's no reason to stay on the normal, boring road when there are so many other ways to do things."
Dressed in a black leather jacket so oversized that the sleeves cover his hands, Han isn't exactly channeling James Dean or a young Bob Dylan. But the high school dropout, who at age 17 wrote The Third Way, a best-selling novel excoriating China's hidebound education system, is the embodiment of disaffected mainland youth, a long-haired 21-year-old racing to define himself through fast cars and shopworn anti-establishment symbolism. Han taps his lucrative book royalties to indulge a serious addiction to auto rallies, in which he participates around the country with his five cars, among them a $50,000 Mitsubishi. For Han, a ribbon of open asphalt means more than just a Kerouac-like aimlessness. For decades the mobility of Chinese citizens was severely restricted, and the freedom to move is nothing short of revolutionary. "It's my choice to do what I want and go where I want," he says. "Nobody can tell me what to do."
That familiar refrain is steadily building among a generation of Chinese who are now in the process of deciding what they want to be when they grow up. No longer forced to fit into a regimented Maoist monoculture, their range of possibilities has diversified along with the country's exploding economy. For many, their path to success does not necessarily lead through the traditional tedium of high school cramming, college exams and then a junior position at state factory No. 327. Although some are dropouts whose alt-lifestyle experiments are subsidized by newly wealthy parents, they're not all slackers. They are setting up their own companies, writing books, designing funky clothes, making music, making love—and in the process they are beginning to form the crude outlines of what in the future will be considered countercultural, even cool, in China.
The country's population of young iconoclasts is expanding so quickly that, like America's beatniks and hippies and Japan's shinjinrui who came before them, they now have their own moniker: linglei. The word's meaning was once derogatory, connoting a disreputable hooligan. Not anymore. This year, the Xinhua New Word Dictionary, which serves as one of the Communist Party's official arbiters of what is linguistically acceptable, amended the definition of linglei to just mean an alternative lifestyle, without an accompanying sniff of disapproval. Unlike countercultural movements in the West, which often germinate in protest activities, most linglei are not motivated by economic anxiety or political dissatisfaction. Growing up in an amnesiac era where Tiananmen is increasingly just a square, not a massacre, they feel little need to push for governmental change. Instead, their rebellion against conformity is largely an exercise in self-expression, a mannered display of self-conscious cool. "People born in the 1970s are concerned about how to make money, how to enjoy life," says Chun Shu, another young writer who dropped out of high school. "But people born in the 1980s are worried about self-expression, how to choose a path that fits one's own individual identity."
While China's economy is now conducive to entrepreneurial individuality, the nation's education system is still mired in uniformity. At the Songjiang No. 2 Middle School, Han was a literary savant, the winner of a 1999 national writing competition so conversant in ancient texts that he would taunt his teachers by quoting arcane passages at them during class. But in other subjects, he was barely mediocre, dooming his chances of getting into a good university. The college entry-exam system is based on a comprehensive score, leaving little room for individual talents like, say, a young chess champion in the West, who would have a pick of top universities. So Han dropped out of 10th grade, wrote books, and began his auto buying spree. Meanwhile, the mainland press debated whether the education system was blunting creativity precisely when the new economy needed more innovative workers. Even Xinhua, the state media agency, voiced its opinion in an editorial last year, writing that China's traditional education system created "learners as lifeless and characterless as stuffed ducks." Han was later offered the rare chance to take courses at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University. The offer was a vindication, but Han refused. He was too busy racing cars to go back to the old track.
The very idea of voluntarily dropping out—as opposed to being ostracized for incorrect thought or action—is a new concept in mainland society. Before, only the poor left school, to help their parents in the fields or factories. But today, the emergence of linglei has meant that not just the children of the underclass are forsaking school. For many kids, China's new alternative has provided another potential path to happiness. Wu Wei was a diligent student at the Jinan Foreign Language School in the eastern province of Shandong. Earlier this year, he was supposed to go study in Germany. But SARS intervened and Wu's chance for an overseas education was thwarted, meaning another stultifying year at his Chinese school. Desperate for a little creative freedom, Wu sought options at an IT job fair this summer. Elbowing aside graduates from the nation's best universities, he explained to recruiters in his high-pitched voice that although he was only 17, he also happened to be the youngest Microsoft-certified computer programmer in China. Within a day, the boy with a mouthful of braces was being considered for five different positions. In July, he dropped out of school and started Jinan Hanyu Technology, a software-design firm. Among his five programmers, two are even younger than he is. "In my parents' generation, a diploma was considered the only proof of excellence," says Wu. "But for us, as long as you can prove your ability in a certain area, there are many ways to success."
The evolution of a mainland standard of cool is already starting to change China's society in subtle but manifold ways. In marketing, for example, ad campaigns are no longer relying on testimonials about superior function or low price to sell products. Instead, hip imagery is creeping into mainstream media as a promotional tool. In one recent TV spot, the camera pans in on a Chinese yuppie family gathered in its Ikea-style living room. Suddenly the father's new mobile phone with color-screen capability beeps. The family leans in to see what has arrived. It's an SMS picture of the family's son showing off his new hairstyle, a spiky, green-hued halo that perfectly frames his mischievous grin. The message: if you're hip enough to sport a linglei look—or at least have a son who does—then maybe you, too, can own a China Mobile phone with a color screen. "In the 1980s, ads in China focused on the quality of the product," says Sun Yi, a customer supervisor for the Shanghai Weilan Advertising Co. "But starting in the 1990s, ads began focusing on a product's image. For sectors like clothing, electronics and fast food, the most popular image is that of the linglei."
Publishing is another stronghold of linglei chic. Several years ago, China's state publishing houses lost their government subsidies and were forced to become profitable or die. To survive, many turned to publishing quickie biographies of Fortune 500 executives or how-to guides on starting your own business. Others delved into youth culture, figuring that tens of millions of young urban Chinese were an untapped market. The strategy paid off. Over the past three years, linglei literature has topped the best-seller lists. The most successful of all is Han, whose four books have sold more than 2 million copies—a singular achievement in a country where piracy takes a big bite out of book sales.
Chun Shu is another hot young writer, a 20-year-old high school dropout who recently bared her sex life and punk fetish in a best-selling memoir called Beijing Doll. Like most linglei authors, Chun writes bluntly about her own life, but she stays away from the grander ideologies such as democracy, freedom and equality that have often motivated her alternative brethren in the West. In some ways, her aversion to politics isn't surprising, given that her father is a proud People's Liberation Army man, and she's recently moved back home to live in the Wanshou Road Military Family Members' Compound—making her, surely, the only kid on the block to wear a camouflage jacket as an ironic statement.
But the political blindering goes beyond family connections. linglei aren't out to stick it to the Party. They can't, because citizens harboring truly rebellious thoughts remain oppressed. Last year, a college student who posted vaguely pro-democracy musings on the Internet was jailed. So China's new alternatives settle for apolitical self-expression. "Our concept of freedom is different from the West's," explains Chun, pushing her spiky bangs out of her eyes. "We want the physical freedom to travel where we want, work where we want, have the friends we want. But right now we can't be so concerned with spiritual freedom." The possibility of going too far for the comfort of Party overseers is nonetheless omnipresent. After splashy debuts, Chun's two books chronicling the troubles of a Chinese teenager have been banned on the mainland, despite their apolitical stance. Government censors said they were unsuitable and too depressing for young readers. Her editor at a publishing house run by the Foreign Affairs Office has been forced to write Cultural Revolution-style self-criticisms to atone for allowing her last book into print.
The experience has left Chun with a tiny kernel of resentment, and on an icy night in December, she picks at the scab by associating with her friend, a skinny punk rocker named Li Yang. Li is also 20 years old, and he wears a leather jacket emblazoned with the words POLICE F___ OFF. His favorite band is the Sex Pistols, and as Chun cozies up to him, Li mouths all the right anti-establishment things: "My motto is to ignore the police because they control our freedom."
Li's band, Defect, gathers once a week at sound room No. 421 of the Modern Life Art Institute in a bleak suburb of Beijing. The room is a smoky, claustrophobic space just large enough for a three-man punk band and a screechy set of Great Wall amplifiers. Li grabs the mike and contorts his face into his best Johnny Rotten leer. But Li, for all his sneering and posturing, is hardly a songwriting iconoclast: "Please respect our country/ Because if you don't respect China/ How can you respect us, the people?" "Some bands in the West hate their country so much they hang the flag upside down on the stage," says Li. "We would never do that. We love China." He is, after all, a product of an education filled with what's called "love country" lessons and history texts dwelling on China's humiliation, from defeat in the Opium Wars to Japanese occupation. Ask Li what really angers him, and the reply isn't the mass arrests of Falun Gong practitioners or the arbitrary detention of migrant workers or corruption within the Party. No, Li is angriest about how Japan, all those decades ago, stole the Diaoyu Islands from China. "I think I may want to write a song about it," he says. "It's something that moves me."
It's easy, then, to understand why the control-obsessed Party isn't terrified of linglei, why labor camps aren't filled with cliques of neon-hued punk wannabes or herds of dropout Bill Gates types. Superficially, China's linglei are suitably outré: the piercings, the leather jackets, the defiant dropout pose affected even by nerdy kids like IT entrepreneur Wu. But, in many ways, linglei are like dogs wearing electric collars that know just how far they can stray without getting shocked. No one's jumping the invisible fence, because if they do, they might just end up in a gulag. "We're distracted by all these new things, like new clothes or new computer games," says Chun. "It doesn't give us too much time to think about politics."
Unlike the truly oppressed—impoverished farmers, disenfranchised migrants, desperate workers laid off from state factories—linglei have a voice. But what stand do you take when you belong to a privileged group that can buy all the leather and Starbucks mochas you want? "Our parents had a lot of unhappiness, but when they were growing up, they couldn't express it," says Li, whose parents pay for his tuition and pocket money at the Modern Life Art Institute. "We have a chance to express ourselves more, but it's harder to know what we're unhappy about." In the end, perhaps the linglei fear they may just become another consumer group buying linglei products marketed by ads teeming with linglei models. "Everybody wants to be a linglei now," says writer Han. "It's so boring. It makes me want to do something else."
Man Zhou, too, felt he had to move on. The Shanghai native gained notoriety in the most linglei of professions: computer hacking. By the time he was in middle school, he could worm his way into hundreds of government and company servers in a single evening. By age 17, he had published a book about his hacking exploits and started a software company. But for every accolade he won as an independent linglei came an admonishment for being a bad influence in society. Man tried to ignore the criticism, but eventually he couldn't handle the pressure. "Every mistake I made was magnified because I was representing a generation of linglei," he recalls. In the summer of 2000, just as his IT company was taking off, he found himself teetering on the balcony of his family's sixth-floor apartment, contemplating suicide. It was only his father's soothing words and the comforting smell of his mother's cooking wafting outside that kept him from taking the plunge. "At first, I thought I had limitless choices in my life," Man says. "But then I realized that linglei need to grow up and adapt to society. Maybe it's different in America, but in China our culture forces us to smooth out our rough edges and become just another square person."
So today, China's rebel hacker is just another third-year computer-science student at Fudan University. His criticisms of school as a drain of creativity are a relic of the past. Since he'd never finished high school, Man had to get special permission from the Ministry of Education in Beijing to attend Fudan, an intricate ritual of obeisance that took nine months. Still, there are vestiges of Man's former defiance. Although Fudan doesn't allow its students to run businesses without official permission, Man quietly operates a search-engine software firm on the side, under a pseudonym. Already, the company has offices in Bangkok and will soon open branches in Brazil, Japan and Vietnam. But breaking the rules doesn't give Man many thrills anymore. "I have so much responsibility, so many employees who depend on me," he says, hunching his shoulders against the cold wind blowing through Fudan's campus. "I have no time to be a linglei anymore." Man adjusts the scarf around his neck and announces that years of all-nighters are finally catching up with him: he has chronic bronchitis and migraine headaches. Man is only 20. Still, on good days, when he isn't worried about paychecks for his programmers in Bangkok or cramming for a college exam, he thinks back fondly on his days as a rebel. "At least we dared to be different, we dared to dream," Man says, a little wistfully. "For a while, we allowed our true personalities to shine through."
Chun in Beijing knows that if she's going to keep it real, she needs more than big paychecks from publishing houses or the new Calvin Klein perfume. Maybe that's why she's slumming it with her punk friend Li in a shack off a dirt path stained with puddles of frozen urine. Chun has a comfortable room back home in the military compound, but it's only among her punk-rocker friends, in a room with a bare lightbulb and a blanket pockmarked with cigarette burns, that she feels truly alive. "We have to constantly challenge ourselves," she says. "Otherwise we'll lose our ability to think and create." Then she leans back on Li's leather-clad shoulder, and together they hum the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K. Together, this pair of rebels without a cause has made a pact: may they never return to the mainstream, even though they have no idea where it is they want to go.