Peoples of China

China’s Global Generation

Quanqiu-hua. Globalization. It is arguably the ultimate buzzword that has been used to describe one of the ultimate realities of human culture, society and economics as one century closed and another one began. But what exactly is globalization? The New American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition: “to make global or worldwide in scope and application.”[1] Thomas Friedman, in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 15, 2000), was instrumental in the popularization of the term as something more than merely “Westernization” or the spreading of American culture, but as a description of how forces such as markets, communications and individuals can balance, and sometimes challenge, the power of the state.

The “global generation” is the one that has come of age in the waning decades of the twentieth century when everything seems to be happening on a global scale. In China, specifically, it is the urban generation that was born and raised after gaige kaifang (the policy of reform and opening) launched by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. Following the disastrous economic and political policies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Deng believed that the key to China’s modernization and development was to reform the economy along free market principles (capitalism) and end China’s isolation from the outside world. The moves were gradual at first but have reached breakneck speed with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.

In a way, globalization is fundamentally about three things: inter-connectedness, participation and consumption. Consequently, we can use these three words to describe members of China’s global generation: they are connected; they are participants; they are consumers.

Members of China’s global generation are connected both internally and externally. They are connected with each other via cell phones, text messaging, online instant messaging and internet chat rooms. By 2006, China had 460 million cell phone subscribers (Xinhua News Agency, February 19, 2007). During the two week Spring Festival holiday this year, Chinese people sent 15 million text messages to each other (China Daily, February 28, 2007). Simply spend some time in a public space in China and you will see that the urban youth are connecting. Look around. Nearly everyone you see is either talking on the phone or busy sending and receiving text messages.

By the end of 2006, the China Internet Network Information Centre was reporting that the number of internet users in China had reached 137 million (Reuters, January 23, 2007). In big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, most users would have computers in their homes, but in the medium and smaller cities, most users access the internet via wang ba, or internet cafes. In fact, it is so common that internet addiction has even begun to be a problem attracting the attention of the government which claims that 13 percent of internet users under 18 are “internet addicts” (Reuters, March 13, 2007).

Members of China’s global generation are not just connected with each other but increasingly with the outside world. The internet has become a major source of information as it provides them with access to news and events, trends and fashions outside of China. Unlike their parents’ generation, they know what is going on “out there” and “out there” is no longer so far away and so foreign.

Members of China’s global generation are participants in the global economy and culture. In 1999, when China became a member of the WTO, a phrase that was commonly heard was gen shijie jiegui, which means “to connect the track with the world.” This was used to describe what China was doing. For fifty years, China had run on her own parallel track of politics and economics. The connecting has made possible the participation. They are participating in the global economy not just by manufacturing the goods sold in the West (as was primarily the case in the 1980s and 1990s) but by purchasing resources and even foreign companies.

China’s turbo-charged economic development requires natural resources which China does not have, such as oil and gas. These are being purchased from Russia, Africa and Latin America. In 2004, the Chinese computer company, Lenovo, purchased IBM’s PC unit for $1.25 billion (China Daily, December 18, 2004), and just this month a Chinese auto-maker purchased the British auto-maker MG and will start building cars in Nanjing.

Another area where Chinese have become participants in the global culture is tourism. According to the Ministry of Public Security, 34.5 million Chinese traveled abroad in 2006 to over 130 countries that have been approved for outbound travel (Beijing Review, February 22, 2007).

Thanks to the connectivity provided by the internet, members of China’s global generation are also participants in global pop culture: they swoon over Korean soap opera stars; they play online games with youth all over the world; they download the latest music; and they follow with keen interest all the antics of Britney Spears and other pop stars.

Finally, members of China’s global generation are avid consumers. Because they have been the beneficiaries of China’s rapid rise in living standards, they have more discretionary income than perhaps any previous generation ever. A recent survey revealed that 44 percent of middle and high school students have their own bank accounts and spend more than Y200 per month. No doubt those figures would be higher for college students and graduates. What they are purchasing does not seem to differ from what their counterparts in other countries are purchasing. The publisher of the Chinese version of Seventeen, an American magazine aimed at teenage girls, says it well: “They are like teenagers that you would find in a rich suburb of Chicago or St. Louis. They want the latest model, they want their computer, they want their camcorder, they want cool Swatches” (The Economist, February 12, 2004).

Interestingly, the boundaries between what is a foreign brand and what is not are increasingly blurry. I recently had a Chinese youngster ask me if we had Mai Dang Lao (McDonalds) in the United States. It never occurred to him that Mao Dang Lao was not a Chinese brand.

As the connectedness and participation of China’s global culture intensifies, the effects are beginning to ripple through society. Along with globalization have come many of the attitudes and behavior patterns that are hallmarks of consumer societies. Not content to merely make choices about cell phones and automobile brands, Chinese are increasingly looking to make choices about lifestyle as well. Lifestyles that are increasingly being chosen include co-habitation before marriage and homosexuality. Most major cities have burgeoning and increasingly open gay subcultures. Notions of individualism and personal autonomy are on the rise as well leading to a growing generation gap between this global generation and their parents. Finally, as the members of the global generation become increasingly interconnected with members of their generation outside of China, the gap that exists between them and their fellow Chinese in the rural areas widens. Chinese urban youth increasingly have much more in common with the youth of Seoul, Sao Paulo or San Francisco than they do with the youth in the Chinese countryside.

What are some of the ministry implications of this new global generation in China? First is the diminished influence of Marxism. To be sure, students must still attend classes on Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought and the Theory of Jiang Zemin, but it just does not seem to stick. Materialism, individualism and consumerism have a much stronger appeal.

Second, the global generation has a much bigger knowledge base than was true of the early days of ministry in the PRC. In the 1980s for instance, it was common to meet young people who had never even heard of Jesus Christ. Now it is likely that they have seen the movie The Passion of the Christ.

Third, there is a deeper spiritual hunger as the old belief systems of Confucianism and Marxism have been abandoned only to be replaced by the new, empty, systems of radical materialism and consumerism. This deep hunger is leading to an increased openness to the claims of the gospel on the part of this global generation. As a result, this increased openness is leading many to belief and to the rise of an urban church that has great potential to impact China for the kingdom.

Image credit: IMG_1488 by Michael Yeung, on Flickr.

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Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting.View Full Bio