China's Generation Y


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Ar Lit.

The tens of thousands of individual umbrellas that lined the streets of Hong Kong last year became emblematic of the Chinese Millennials’ politically dissenting views. Each separate umbrella contributed to the greater patchwork of the culture’s youthful generation, one that values self-identifying as distinct individuals in contrast to the coercive, collectivism of the country’s system.

The Generation Y of China, or balinghou, is highly influenced by our globalized world and seeks the cultural interests of America’s Millennial cohort–independence, rebellion from their parents, and most of all, freedom.

The fight for their freedom under the current “one country, two systems” formula–how Hong Kong is distinct from mainland China–remains an ongoing battle. The protestors called for true democratic representation to bring about greater economic freedom.

BTR sat down with Dr. Robert Moore, Professor of Anthropology and Director of International Affairs at Rollins College, who wrote a research paper entitled, “Generation Ku: Individualism and China’s Millennial Youth.” His work investigates how the slang of China’s youth symbolizes their transformative ideologies for autonomy.

“When somebody was really individualistic, this was very special and the young people were realizing that some people really have style, shine, and have a big personality… they are just as ‘ku’ as can be,” explains Moore.

“Ku”–being synonymous with “cool”–is a verbal icon developed out of the increasingly influential international markets. According to Moore, such globalization has exposed China’s youth to the West and shaped their understanding of what is “cool.”

“What made this so dramatic was the parents, who were teenagers in the ‘60s, felt that anybody who stood out as a prominent individual should have been suppressed,” claims Moore. “What the previous generation would have been told is that this is not how you build a social society.”

China’s previous generation, the age of the Cultural Revolution, was instilled with concrete understandings of a person’s place in society. Every member worked as part of a greater whole to build an efficient social system. Influenced by the symbol of the gears in a machine, this generation feared that if one person stepped out of line, the entire machine would malfunction.

The conforming philosophy began to change in a post-Mao Chinese society. After the death of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese revolutionary and chairman of the Communist Party of China, a series of progressive reforms in the late 1970s began to allow for greater prosperity and freedom.

“The single biggest factor for creating this shift in individualism was the government no longer minding the business of everybody’s life,” admits Moore. “The government began to let people live their lives as long as they didn’t disrupt society and as long as the economy was picking up.”

The change began a surge in private enterprise that contributed to the economic success of China in the 1990s. It was during the impressionable times of the Millennial youth’s coming of age that oriented them to an appreciation of the individualistic ideology–which seemed more plausible to realize than for any generation before.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong that took place this past year did not come as a surprise to Moore, especially since Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous standing permits greater freedoms than mainland China. However, the internet played a powerful role in providing an outlet for dissent.

“The authorities are afraid of these street demonstrations and are quick to come down on them except in Hong Kong,” informs Moore. “But what mainland China largely does to demonstrate protest is on the internet and the authorities have a hard time keeping them down.”

The great internet firewall of the Chinese government often censors people from expressing any type of criticism of the system. Nevertheless, the youth were able to reinvent new words and symbols in an endless series of word games and double entendre in protest of the government.

“There was one point where they would be using a photo of a crab to represent the government on the internet and there was no way the government would be able to block that,” describes Moore.

The irony, Moore points out, is that this generation of internet-savvy, globalized youth is not seeking to destroy the Chinese system. Their actions mark a type of rebellion, for sure, but come with the subtlety and intent in creating lasting change for the betterment of their beloved homeland.

“A big part of the values that young people have is nationalism,” asserts Moore. “There is a sense that China has been abused and exploited and bullied since the Opium Wars, and the youth wants to see China be truly great.”

Living in a time of greater prosperity and possibility than the generation before them, the Millennials of China face new types of obstacles. Given the backdrop of today’s globalized, interconnected world, China’s balinghou appear on the verge of a psychological revolution, attempting to overcome the confinements of older mindsets in order to pursue the freedoms craved by Millennials everywhere.