View from the Wall

The Postmodern Shift of Chinese Young People


I heard about postmodernism sometime after the 1980s, a time when Mainland China was "opening up." Local intellectuals were hungry for anything other than Marxism and wanted to learn about Western thought including philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger and so on. Book series about them were popular among college students in the same way that KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonald's were popular among all Chinese people.

During the 1990s, postmodernism may have been systematically introduced but only within the small circles of academia. A new generation of college students was beginning to care more about their future careers. Ironically, since the 1990s, Chinese young people are becoming more postmodern than ever before. They are beginning to doubt absolute standards, and this lack of absolutes easily causes them to become disoriented and lost in the pursuit of a career or academics.* What caused this postmodern shift? What are the typical postmodern life situations of China's young people?

The postmodern shift was caused by the special political situation in China across the 1980s and 1990s, the economic-focused policy of the government and the social-economic change in the new millennium.

Despite the economic reform policies of the 1980s, the top leader of China's Communist Party was cautious about political reform. The constant worry about "capitalist liberalization" resulted in several rounds of clashes on college campuses between the government and intellectuals advocating freedom, democracy and other Western political values. These clashes culminated in the spring of 1989 when a student movement erupted in Beijing, the capital. Supported by a discontented public that was against power-related corruption, this student movement, known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, caught media attention around the world and was crushed at the consent of the top leader. Guns were fired; blood was shed; lives were taken. The younger generation became disillusioned overnight about what government can do and what politics mean. Reality was seen as paradoxical to textbook teaching. The result was political inertia for most and a shift toward opportunism for a few. For all, communism was no longer worth mentioning. For me, I felt that only patriotism might work as a common ground to hold the nation together.

When political buzzwordslike the 1981 slogan "Rejuvenating the Chinese Nation" no longer resonated, the top leader tried to restart a reform movement. His comment that "development is of paramount importance" heralded new rounds of reform and opening-up policies driven almost solely by economic growth figures. When the phrase "socialist market economy" was coined, incumbent college students put down their books and went looking for money-making ideas. Wealth and power gradually became the ultimate measure of success. In order to make quick money or secure a money-making future, nothing was out of bounds and everything became negotiable. Moral relativism crept in when it sounded like "a fair deal" to "invest" for one's future. It became okay to give a monetary gift to your professor for a better GPA, to pay an administrator for admission into a degree program leading to a high-paying career or to sleep with your supervisor who would guarantee your graduation and find you a government job.

Under the "socialist market economy," housing, healthcare and higher education were made marketable in less than a decade. College admissions went way up, yet, college costs increased greatly as well. Using the customary entrance exam system, students with a much lower academic performance were entitled to receive a higher education; they might be the first in their family to receive a college degree. Their families then expected them to find a high-paying job upon graduation, yet the number of jobs has not increased in proportion to the increase of college graduates.

This disproportionate development in higher education set the stage for another type of disillusionment. Employers in the job market now have more power to choose those from prestigious colleges, with higher degrees, or with other credentials to compete for the job. A PhD holder will now compete for the job of a bank teller simply because there are so many competing with him. A full-time position in a state-owned mega-bank will offer an enviable level of income. For those unfortunate graduates who are less competent in terms of school reputation or degree level, the bank is "benevolent" and offers, through employment agencies, contractual jobs with the same workload but a much lower income. The underdog graduates will often be persuaded by their families to take these contractual jobs simply for the hope of being upgraded to a full-time position according to their performance. In reality, the bank did not make such a promise.

Since the mid-1990s, the state-owned mega-enterprises in the strategic "pillar" industries have become more prominent, often with monopolistic powers. Government income was boosted by the selling of land; this was the root cause for real estate prices to sky-rocket in big cities. The increase in the market power of the state-owned sector and the government itself make two types of jobs extremely popular among young career starters: (1) jobs in state-owned monopolistic companies which are now more desirable than those in the previously favored foreign-owned enterprises; (2) civil servant positions which are the most desirable because of the benefits to be enjoyed, including tax-free allowances of various kinds. Several hundred college graduates often compete for a single job position of these two types. The selection process and criteria may not be at all transparent and may not necessarily favor those who have solid competency and aspirations to build a better country. Instead, people with power-related connections tap into their "resources" to find shortcuts to access these enviable positions. It is likely that wealth and power will be shared within a relatively small group of people. The gap between the haves and the have-nots may become wider, and education may cease to provide chances for social mobility.

The above social-economic changes sound like a premodern scenario when the rich and powerful ruled. Yet, the result has been a feeling of despair for many young people that is quite postmodern. The growth of national wealth does not come with an increase in a sense of personal fulfillment. Traditions are being carried forward with contempt. Slogans of moral codes and values are reinvented from time to time yet are never faithfully practiced. Words are losing their meaning while trust, unity and order function less and less in both social and personal life. In an advertisement, a young shepherd was asked why he was tending his sheep. His answer was to make more money, get married, have children and let his children tend his sheep. It is said that after watching this ad, many young shepherds took their lives.

Typical postmodern life situations are hard to define. Demographically, those who were born in the 1960s and 1970s are likely to have experienced the first disillusionment, the political one in 1989. Those born in the 1980s and after, the so-called "post-80s" are the first generation of the "one-child policy," too young to understand what happened in 1989 but old enough to be inspired by the economic boom under the market-oriented reforms of the 1990s. These "post-80s" may experience their personal disillusionment when they find little chance to align their own career development with the economic growth of the country.

Two groups of young people, both urban, might feel postmodernism the most; they have become disoriented and lost. The first group is from rural areas. These young people managed to get into an ordinary college, graduated with an ordinary record and decided to do whatever was necessary to stay in the city. Their purpose in life sounds no different from that of the young shepherd: to survive, get married, have at least one child and bring up that child to go to college. They may have been pushed by their rural parents to buy a house so that their parents can come to live with them to take care of their baby and reap the harvest of having brought up a college graduate. Some of these young people might accomplish this, but many may have to lie to their parents about their situation when visiting their hometown. They may not have been able to pursue their own dreams.

The second group was born to migrant workers in big cities since the 1990s and belongs to the "post-90s." Their upbringing has been fragmented. They have migrated between the hometown of their parents and the city, been cared for by their grandparents in the countryside, had elementary schooling in the city and gone back to their hometown for middle school and the college entrance examor have simply given up middle school in order to assist their parents in the city. They may have little memory of the rural hometown of their parents, yet they do not have residential status in the city to enjoy its benefits of housing, healthcare and education. They are neither here nor there! As these young people feel rejected by the environment that surrounds them, they will then care little about other people. When they cannot see much in their future, they will become bitter about life.

The postmodern state of mind of Chinese young people seems to be the outcome of a series of disillusionments and an unsustainable way of living. They have limited knowledge and dismal guidance in terms of what life is all about. How can we find access to their hearts, in a way that reaches them and reveals the much bigger picture of the meaning of life? How can we lead them to realize that they are created for a good purpose and loved totally, all the time, in an unconditional way by their Creator?

*This rough understanding of a postmodern state of affairs is taken from the testimony of a college student who took part in a course offered by CEO Global. See www.ceoglobal.org.

Image Credit: By 4wallz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio