As 2020 comes to an end, I have been looking back at a major revelation in this most unusual year. That is my change of view on China’s ‘Generation Z’ (or Gen Z) – people born in the 1990s and 2000s.
I used to share the stereotypical impression of this generation as “little emperors”: that they were spoiled, soft and individualistic, but lacking in independent thought. However, their response to the Covid-19 crisis has altered this impression significantly. At the height of the pandemic in Wuhan and Hubei, Gen Z stepped up as the backbone in the fight against the virus, either as medical staff or workers in other fields such as construction, logistics and food production.
I’ve seen reports of young volunteers in action, from delivering medicines to vulnerable communities to visiting cats and dogs left behind by owners stuck elsewhere during Wuhan’s lockdown. Gen Z was also the leading force in the protest against the local government’s treatment of Li Wenliang, the whistle-blower doctor (and a member of Gen Z) who died of Covid infection on duty. The online campaign on his behalf created such a public outcry that the central government not only rescinded Li’s earlier reprimand but honoured him as a ‘martyr’, the highest honour for someone who dies serving the nation.
My interest in Gen Z grew further when I read an article by Shanghai-based psychologist Chen Mo under the headline ‘China’s children have changed yet their teachers and parents haven’t caught up’. Chen reckons that one of the biggest challenges for Gen Z-ers is that their parents and teachers are clueless about what makes them tick and only try to impose their own values and aspirations on the younger generation.
She points out that Gen Z is the first generation in Chinese history to grow up with abundant material wealth, familial love and the omnipresent internet. As a result, Gen Z is generally more knowledgeable, philosophical and confident, but can also be lonelier, more stressed out and more emotionally vulnerable. She also points out how the One-Child Policy has imbued this generation with 话语权 or “bargaining power”, which makes them more vocal and influential.
Discussing this with Chinese friends whose children or co-workers belong to Gen Z, I now see more clearly the generational gap between them and us. Born during the impoverished and turbulent 1960 and 1970s, but having grown up under Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening up’ of the 1980s, my generation experienced real poverty early on in our lives. When China opened up to the outside world around 1980, we couldn’t help being dazzled by Western wealth, technology, pop culture and democratic ideals. We had such a national inferiority complex that one of our top pursuits was to leave China for a better life in the West.
In contrast, Gen Z grew up during the most prosperous and stable era in Chinese history, when the country has leap-frogged other developing nations (and some developed ones) in terms of its economy and its technological advances. The Gen Z-ers have also become much more worldly at a younger age from easy access to global pop culture and overseas travel.
Take my best college friend Olive’s 26 year-old daughter Gege as an example. Once a “left-behind child” in rural Heilongjiang when her parents worked in cities in the 1990s, Gege (pictured above) spent most of her teenage years in Beijing and Shanghai, where Olive worked for various European companies. I witnessed how she blossomed into a confident and brilliant student, who started at the University of Toronto at the age of 17. She’s currently a PhD candidate at Stanford, focusing on carbon sequestration. Cool-headed about China and the world, Gege is neither nationalistic nor starry-eyed about the West. She sees good and bad in both systems and feels comfortable wherever she goes.
Unlike my generation, Gege has led a colourful life since in her teens. She has travelled with Olive to more European countries than I have ever visited. She plays music and sings, snow-boards and paints. She goes on dates and has a dog. Olive and I couldn’t help feeling that we missed out on so much fun in our youth.
Yet when Gege comes home from America on holidays, she’s also impressed by Shanghai’s skyscrapers (growing rapidly in number, height) and by the ubiquity in smartphone usage (especially in areas like digital payments) and by the trendy and care-free lifestyle. At the end of her holidays she often jokes that she is returning to the “backward countryside” in America. Perhaps that best highlights how much China has transformed in a single generation and why generational gaps in China can be so vast.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. She has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, where she has honed her bicultural perspective.
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