China’s Generation Z is very different from previous generations. Born between 1998 and 2014, the majority in Gen Z are from one-child families. However, the greater defining characteristics are the influence of the internet on their lives along with the collective memory of critical events. In this article, we will look a bit deeper into Gen Z’s characteristics, how they view life, and suggestions for how to get to know them and introduce them to Christ.
Two Buzzwords about China’s Gen Z
The latest buzzword in social media among China’s Gen Z is tangping (躺平). Its literal translation is “lying flat,” which describes a phenomenon among young people who, instead of striving for higher pay and social status in life, choose to simply lie down, not to overwork, but to be content with more attainable achievements—and let time unwind. Despite criticisms from the official media, many Chinese people see this trend as a natural reaction to the unrelenting pressure of modern life.
The driving force behind the lying-flat sentiment is another buzzword neijuan (内卷) that gained traction in 2020. The Chinese term neijuan, meaning “involution” which is made up of the characters for “inside” and “rolling,” suggests a process where people are trapped inside a cycle of over-competition that stops them from moving on or benefiting in a zero-sum game. A student at Tsinghua University was caught on video riding his bike at night and working on a laptop propped on his handlebars. The footage circulated in Chinese social media and the cyclist became a meme—“Tsinghua’s Involuted King.”1
One can understand why these buzzwords resonate with China’s Gen Z who face the pressure to outcompete their peers from kindergarten to high school in order to get into an elite university or study abroad. They also highlight the differences between China’s young generation compared to older generations. To the Gen Z, material betterment is no longer the single most important source of meaning in life; they care more for their status as human beings. Many young people—especially those born after 1995 or 2000—are well aware of the overarching social structure and want to imagine alternative ways of living. It is more of a spiritual movement, less material oriented. They are open about the notion that they may be the first generation not to do better than their parents.
China’s popular video-streaming website Bilibili released a video, “The Next Wave,” ahead of China’s May 4th Youth Day last year.2 The video praised the new generation’s limitless potential, saying, “All humankind’s knowledge and insight are gifts specially prepared for you.” But the video received backlash as many in the younger audience did not see it that way. They perceived a distance between themselves and older generations and offered a contrasting view. They felt that the airbrushed images of young people in the video did not reflect real-life conditions, and the polished footage was a misrepresentation of young people in China. So, who are the true young people in China? Here are some findings about China’s Gen Z with a focus on the characteristics we see in students coming to study abroad.
Characteristics of Gen Z in China
China’s Gen Z is defined by social media, critical events, and age. In a July 2021 research report entitled “Gen Z: Definition and Characteristics”3 three key dimensions were used to define China’s Gen Z:
- the internet that has radically changed the way information is shared,
- critical events that make imprints in the collective memory of this generation, and,
- the age at which beliefs and outlooks are formed.
These factors point to a unique Gen Z in China born between 1998 and 2014.
The Gen Z population in China is about 280 million. A third of them are now in adulthood and starting to enter the job market. They will be the backbone of China’s workforce in ten years. Under fifteen percent of Gen Z are university students with two percent of this elite group pursuing studies overseas. Among the one million international students in the US, a third of them are from China. They are set to make a major impact on China’s transition in the years to come.
This cohort of Gen Z is growing up during China’s fastest economic growth fueled by globalization following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, a landmark event that helped China surge to the world stage as the second largest economy after the US. This coincided with the arrival of the information age that brought a virtual fantasy world powered by the internet.
The majority of Gen Z in China were born into one-child families, born in an era when China experienced an alarming drop in birthrate under the one-child policy. At the same time, there was a significant rise in per capita GDP thanks to the booming economy.
All these have given rise to a generation that has benefited from economic prosperity, been loved by their parents and grandparents, and insulated from reality by a virtual world. They are more idealistic, simplistic, and nationalistic than earlier generations. They are also more open, straightforward, and spontaneous in expressing themselves, caring more about humanistic values and protecting the environment.
For example, Gen Z may staunchly defend China against attacks of its human rights record; yet they may also openly criticize social injustice if they see the progress of the country diverging from advancement in their own lives.
Citing the buzzwords tangping (lying flat) and neijuan (involution) in an interview reported by Zijia Song who published it online in Daily Beast, a Gen Z describes her lying flat as a positive way of living and involution being unnecessary.4 She says that lying flat allows her to listen to her heart more and enrich her inner being so as to experience the essence of life. This may appear to be self-centered but does not mean that Gen Z are selfish; rather, this is their value of individual self-fulfillment.
In a study on “Reaching the Current Generation of Chinese Students,” AFC staff member Tsun-En Lu brilliantly wrote about the post-90s that in my view applies also to Gen Z:
Their parents have been protective of their children, to the extent that they are naïve about the world. As a result, they often have unrealistic dreams. However, precisely because they have not yet been socialized in society’s contaminated waters many of them preserve a childlike sense of right and wrong. They seem more sincere, kind, and possess a sense of shame, making them the preservers of a social conscience.5
For Gen Z, the internet is part of their lives. They do not go online, they live online. When the internet was developing rapidly in China during the new millennium, it was precisely the time when Gen Z hit puberty, that critical period of adolescence when the psychological makeup is forming. The internet has since been their “growing-up memory.” For them, the virtual world is perhaps more vital and authentic than real life. In a manner of fashion, they have been shielded from reality by the internet. Once stepping offline, they face a harsh reality that is tough to deal with.
The single most daunting challenge to Gen Z Chinese students studying overseas is to adapt to a new environment and overcome a passive mindset or social phobia that are typically characteristic of netizens who are so used to the online world. They must learn skills to navigate social networks of the real world, to make friends, and to build a support network so they can succeed on campus and survive off campus. Considerable numbers of Chinese students quit, not because they lack academic merit, but because they lack the ability to survive in the challenging new environment of the real world.
On the other side of the coin, to reach Gen Z students from China, social media proves to be one of the best ways to get to know them and establish connections. One needs to switch from the mindset of a giver to the mindset of a consumer. We typically want to give help to students as the way to reach them, but to be a fan of students’ social media postings proves to be a far better and more effective way to win their friendship. By looking through their social media circles and liking their postings, one becomes a consumer of their products, a fan in their social circles, enjoys their creativity, and establishes meaningful relationships.
A Triple-A Strategy to Start a New Chinese Student Ministry
The challenges to start a new campus ministry focused on Chinese students and scholars are many. However, the principles remain the same, notwithstanding the characteristics of Gen Z we touched on above. Following is a Triple-A strategy.
Agape (愛): The parents, in China, of Gen Z students typically express their love for their “single”children through materialistic abundance. They work hard, making money, so they can send their children overseas to pursue quality education. In so doing, they neglect spending time with their children and caring about their emotional and spiritual needs. They also, often unknowingly, place tremendous burdens on their children who are under pressure to go overseas, earn a good degree, and honor their parents and grandparents. Many students develop depression under intense pressure. This is where agape comes in to fill the emotional and spiritual voids in students that have been left unfilled by their parents. They need to be given unconditional love and support. Everyone needs love; the way to love Gen Z students may be different, but the need for love is the same—and it is always the best way to connect and build relationships.
Authentic (真): People yearn for authentic friendship and non-defensive feelings of intimacy. For China’s Gen Z students, since most of them are an only child, their desire for a pure and honest friendship is even greater. They hate hypocrisy. With China’s current social environment where trust is lost in relationships between people, authenticity is something Gen Zers value in building a relationship. To be honest about one’s short comings is a strength and wins respect.
Amusing (趣): Amusing means to enjoy lively gatherings. Young people, including students, are attracted to those who are fun to be with. We can make ourselves attractive to Gen Z students by following the biblical mandate to be salt and light. Both of these have properties which affect things around them. Salt is used to enhance flavor. We can enhance our relationships by being enjoyable, fun to be with. Light is to shine, to show people the way. As we imitate Christ before Gen Zers, we can demonstrate the life and hope that are found in Jesus Christ.
While students from Generation Z have many unique and challenging characteristics, they still need to know Christ. Student ministries may need to formulate new strategies and methodologies to connect with them, but the underlying needs and principles remain the same. With prayer, openness to new ideas, and providing unconditional love we can introduce them to Christ.
- Fan Wang and Yitsing Wang, “The Buzzwords Reflecting the Frustration of China’s Young Generation,” BBC World Service, June 14, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57328508.
- Bilibili, “The Next Wave,” https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1uk4y127x1/ accessed August 21, 2021.
- Cyanhill Capital, “Gen Z: Definition and Characteristics,” Aoyama Capital 2021 Mid-Year Consumption Report, July 2021, Beijing, China, https://www.36kr.com/p/1310331587281670.
- Zijia Song, “Chinese Millennials Are Giving Up the Rat Race to ‘Lie Flat’,” Daily Beast, July 7, 2021, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-lying-flat-took-chinas-overworked-millennials-by-storm?ref=author.
- Tsun-En Lu, “Reaching the Current Generation of Chinese Students,” Church China, Issue #50, November 2014, https://www.churchchina.org/.
Dr. Chaoyang Peng, originally from China, is a campus minister with Ambassadors for Christ. He has been serving at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University in the Research Triangle Area of North Carolina. He has started several campus fellowships and planted …View Full Bio