China’s Post 1980’s Generation—Are the Kids All Right?

A ChinaFile Conversation

This week, the ChinaFile Conversation is a call for reactions to an article about China's current generation gap, written by James Palmer, a Beijing-based historian, author, and Global Times editor. The article, first published by Aeon in the U.K., “The Balinghou: Chinese Parents Bemoan Their Children’s Laziness and Greed, But This Generation of Young People Has Had Enough,” is excerpted with permission below, followed by our bloggers’ reactions:

In 2004, fresh off the plane in Beijing, I was asked to judge an English competition for high school seniors. My two co-judges were pleasantly cynical middle-aged sociologists, both professors at Tsinghua University. After listening to the umpteenth speech about how China used to be poor, but was now rich and powerful, I remarked to one of them that the students seemed a little sheltered.

“They don’t know anything!” she spat. “They don’t have any idea about how people live. None of this generation do. They’re all so spoiled.”

It’s a view I’ve heard time and again over the past eight years, and one of which the Chinese media never tire. The young get it from left and right. This January alone, the jingoistic Major General and media commentator Luo Yuan condemned the young for being physically and mentally unfit, ranting: “Femininity is on the rise, and masculinity is on the decline. With such a lack of character and determination and such physical weakness, how can they shoulder the heavy responsibility?” Meanwhile the writer and social critic Murong Xuecun blasted them in the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy because “fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers [...] the young generation only believes official pronouncements; some even think contradicting the official line is heretical. They do not bother to check the details.”

There’s a measure of truth in these criticisms. The year I arrived, when I was going through the near-obligatory expat period as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer and editor, I had to forcibly drag a nineteen-year-old out of a classroom after he threw a temper tantrum, drummed the floor, and refused to leave. Murong’s claim that the young unwittingly swallow government statements doesn’t stand up in an era where official credibility has been shattered by social media tools, but one can see where Luo’s claims are coming from. Ironically, the children of army officers seem especially pudgy.

The teachers at a senior academy attached to an army base described their bullet-headed charges to me as looking like “stubby wobbling penises,” and held private competitions as to which student was the most “sausagey.”

Food metaphors are telling—older Chinese want to know: “Why do they have it so easy, when we had it so hard?” The main target of this slating has been what the Chinese call the balinghou—young people who were born after 1980, who never knew food rationing and were raised after China’s “reform and opening” began. I’m talking here of the urban middle class, who dominate Chinese media both as purchasers and consumers. The raft of criticisms being leveled has very little to do with the actual failings of the young, but is a symptom of the yawning, and unprecedented gulf between young urban Chinese and their parents.

Zhang Jun, a twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student, described the situation: “It’s not just a generation gap. It’s a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap.” Lin Meilian, thirty, a journalist, bluntly stated: “I have nothing in common with my mother. We can’t talk about anything. She doesn’t understand how I choose to live my life.” Parents who spent their own twenties laboring on remote farms have children who measure their world in malls, iPhones, and casual dates.

This kind of distance is not unique to China. But most other countries can claim far greater continuity between generations. My adolescence in Manchester in the 1990s was different in degree, not in kind, from that of my parents in Bristol and Sydney in the 1960s. But the parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed, and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life, and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties laboring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones, and casual dates.

Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp, and of clinging to little alcoves of their own kind. In their relationships with their children, they remind me of the parents of the Indian and Bangladeshi kids I grew up with, struggling to advise their children about choices they never had to make. Yet for all the dissonance that geographical dislocation creates, the distance between a Bangladeshi village and a Manchester suburb is, if anything, smaller than that between rural China in the 1970s and modern Beijing.

Immigrants often have a stable set of values from their home culture from which to draw sustenance, whether religious or cultural. But for the children of the Cultural Revolution in China, there’s been no such continuity. They were raised to believe in the revolutionary Maoism of the 1960s and ‘70s, and then told as young adults in the late 1970s that everything drilled into them in their adolescence had been a terrible mistake. Then they were fed a trickle of socialism, rapidly belied by the rush to get rich, and finally offered the hint of a liberal counter-culture in the 1980s before Tiananmen snatched it away. In the meantime, traditional values condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ in their youth are being given a quick polish and propped up as the new backbone of society by the authorities.

The young get slammed for their supposed materialism, but it’s a set of values their parents hold more dearly still, since the one constant source of security for their generation has been money. Money—at least the fantasy of it—has never abandoned them. “The Chinese love money,” the Ph.D. student Zhang told me, “because it has no history.” Having gone through the gangster capitalism of China’s rush to wealth, the older generation’s bleakly amoral attitude toward how to get by can shock their children. Huang Nubo, a poet, rock-climber, and billionaire property developer, now in his fifties, has been one of the few people to talk about this openly, speaking of the “devastated social ecology” in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin. But Huang is a rarity, and cushioned by his own wealth; far more parents are concerned that their children aren’t doing enough to get on.

While immigrants dream of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, or professors, domestic Chinese ambitions mostly lie elsewhere. Doctors are poorly paid, overworked, and unpopular, thanks to a flailing and corruption-ridden medical system. Lawyers are bound to the vagaries of the ever-shifting judicial system. Professors earn marginal incomes and rely on outside work to get by. The priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.

Old Makes Way For New in Shanghai

Zhang is a fast-tracked young academic who regularly attends high-level diplomatic and security conferences. (She was the only person I talked to who asked to use a pseudonym, conscious of her own Google sensitivity.) She said: “My mother can’t understand anything of what I do, especially since it doesn’t come with any ‘perks.’ Last new year, I was home and my cousin was there too. He’s a pharmaceutical rep. What that means is that he sells fake or overpriced drugs to hospitals, with the collusion of the doctors, and they split the profits. And my mom kept saying: ‘Oh, why don’t you go into business with your cousin! He makes so much money!’ She knows what his job involves but she never thinks of it as wrong.”

Chinese parents pour money into their children’s education, but they also spend on short cuts. Most can’t afford to do what one acquaintance’s billionaire mining family did when he failed to get into Tsinghua University: buy him citizenship in the Dominican Republic so that he could attend Tsinghua as a “foreign student,” with cash as his only qualification. But they could do as Zhang’s mother did, and bribe her teachers every term to sit her at the front of the class, so that she wouldn’t be lost among the other fifty or sixty students.

It’s still possible to forge a career in China based on merit, though that’s becoming harder as the rich and well-connected pull the ladders away. Take the arts, where just participating in a national-level dance competition requires a minimum payment of 20,000 or 30,000 yuan (approximately $3,000 to $5,000, in a country where average incomes for urban residents are around $500 per month).

“The actual winner is chosen by talent. But you need to fork over the money to the judges to be in the running. So the girls either have to rely on their daddies, or they have to find new ‘daddies’,” a 21-year-old dancer told me. In music, one of the country’s top conservatories, once an incubator for greatness, now requires students to buy private classes from the director at 5,000 yuan ($800) a time. If everyone else is playing dirty, even the most honest parents are left with little choice for their children’s future, and some rue their own idealism. Han Suzhen, fifty-seven, a retired schoolteacher, commented: “We didn’t raise them in a way that adapts well to this world. We taught them ideals that were instilled in us, a kind of innocence. But today everybody is chasing the things we were taught not to value: we were taught to give to society, now they’re taught to get for themselves in any way possible. It’s the exact opposite. There’s nobody talking about ideas or freedom.”

As has been the case for much of China’s history, the most attractive prospect is an official job. On paper the salaries are low, but even an unimportant job in the extended hierarchies of officialdom comes with guaranteed benefits and security for life, known as the ‘iron rice bowl.’ A midlevel position is a license for extortion and string-pulling. Zhang told me: ‘My cousin, the drug dealer, keeps pestering me. “Why don’t you become an official? Then I can tell my business partners I have a relative who’s an official, and we can both make money.”

Jobs in one of the giant state-owned enterprises, such as the oil behemoth Sinopec or the ‘big four’ banks, are the next best thing. These state-backed jobs are also tizhinei, “inside the system,” with all the attendant perks of generous expense accounts, strong social security, and, at the right level, regular pay-offs.

To read more, please visit Aeon, a non-profit online magazine published in London.


James Palmer is very insightful in pointing out the “values gap” and “information gap” between the balinghou, or the post-80s generation, and their parents. Aside from being a whole generation of only children—due to the One Child Policy—balinghou kids belong to probably the first generation in Chinese history who collectively enjoyed a good education and relatively unlimited access to information. When they talk to their parents, they often find themselves trapped in a muddled swamp of language filled with fragments of autocratic, superstitious, Confucian, Maoist, and Social Darwinist beliefs—in other words, they don’t share a common ground with their parents on which to have any meaningful discussion.

However, many balinghou believe that this communication crisis that emerged in China in the 21st century is not that different from what the New Youth faced during the May Fourth movement 100 years ago. In Chinese media, the discussion about the particular “generation gap” between balinghou and their parents started in 2010 with an Southern Weekly article about an online interest group called “Anti-Parents” on Douban––a social media site popular among twenty-and early thirtysomethings. The Chinese name of the group is called “fumu jie huohai,” or “all parents are hazards,” inspired by the character Jess Crichton’s remarks in British writer Nick Hornby's novel A Long Way Down. Today this group has over 60,000 members—most other Douban groups have members in the hundreds. The discussion board is flooded with firsthand reports of ongoing abuse from parents. According to AT (the Internet handle of the “Anti-Parents” group administrator), parents commonly abuse their balinghou children in five ways:

1. Physical abuse. China has laws requiring adult children to make frequent visits to their parents, but no law restraining parents from beating their underage children.

2. Direct emotional abuse, including verbal humiliation and intrusion of privacy. Many believe that the parents of balinghou are especially accomplished in this kind of abuse due to their “training” during the Cultural Revolution.

3. Indirect emotional abuse as a result of being neglected by parents or witnessing quarrels and domestic violence between parents.

4. Possessive and controlling behavior. Many parents see themselves as the embodiment of truth, and deem their parenting as benevolence toward their children, treating them as their private property.

5. Other kinds of abuses, including sexual abuse and gender discrimination.

In the About section of the “Anti-Parents” group, AT wrote: “This group is just the tip of an enormous and pitch-dark iceberg. People should pay more attention to this dark iceberg below the surface. Only by removing it can we elevate human dignity and establish a true respect for the individual in our society. This group is not a spectacle or a freak show. We all live in the same society that produced this group. The problem is not a “generation gap,” which was invented by the Baby Boomers and the hippies in America in the 1960s. They created new culture and new values for the world. What we want is much more humble and basic—basic respect, basic rights, basic freedom.

Several things occurred to me as I read James Palmer’s very thoughtful piece on the post-1980’s generation in China. If the cathedrals of Europe were the highest expression of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the malls of China are most assuredly the new temples of this new civilization, such as it is. And, I have often found myself strolling one of these endless commercial wastelands wondering what kind of a value system it is helping create in modern-day China. Not all the Confucius-lite televangelists, Party propagandists flogging a “Confucian-style” “harmonious society,” or CEOs off on retreats with Tibetan Buddhist masters will soon fill this titanic and abiding vacuum.
It is true that one of contemporary Chinese society’s great dilemmas is the reality that since the fall of the last dynasty in 1912, its culture has gone through so many self-cancellations and concomitant efforts to re-invent itself, that the society as a whole has almost completely lost its valuative moorings. And we are seeing the effect of this historical defoliation on the balinghou.
However, the situation of their parents is another story, and one that is replete with paradoxes. Foremost is the great paradox of how the effects of all the self-generated hardship the Party thrust upon the mothers and fathers of these kids ended up inculcating them with a sense of appreciation for the benefits brought by prosperity. Second, all the suffering and hardship they endured during the Mao era also ended up imbuing them with a kind real experience that left many of them with a deep appreciation of the value of such things as friendship and loyalty and determination to survive, even prevail. For it was on a crucible of real, and sometimes quite savage, challenge that they came of age and underwent their early character formation. It is somewhat anomalous, but also completely understandable, that they now look back on those bleak years of hardship—exactly what the kinds of experience their with which the privileged, mall-rat children are missing— with a certain reverential respect, even nostalgia.

The paradox of a society imposing suffering on its people as a mode of character-building, is not a model any sane leader would rationally choose. And yet, there can be no doubt that these years left a deep influence on the parents of the balinghou generation. In a cryptic way, one of the great gifts that Mao gave this generation was hardship and struggle.
Strangely some of these values—such as perseverance and hard work—are now also being reflected in many young Chinese as well, especially those who are not among the privileged. I have noticed this among ordinary workers in China whose long-suffering willingness to work hard and endure is extraordinary. But, I have also noticed these traits among Chinese students, whose fierce determination to overcome their weaknesses and succeed (even abroad) puts the work habits of most American youth—and their spring-break  mentality—to shame.
I loved reading Palmer’s piece, but as I pondered it, I realized that, as in most complex societies, there are a lot of different currents flowing at the same time. But, what is undeniable in China is that, having first cancelled traditional culture, then made serial efforts to re-invent itself in the guise of a mash-up of Chiang Kai-shekist politics, Confucianism and Christianity; Mao Zedongist proletarian/Marxism; Deng Xiaopingist “to get rich is glorious” market culture, there is now a heightened state of confusion over just what it is that Chinese should make of whatever strange sibuxiang 四不象 (neither fish nor fowl) trend they should take as their True North when it comes to culture and values.

I read the Palmer piece with a mixture of detached bemusement and self identification. As one of the “balinghou” whose parents are of the Xi Jinping/Li Keqiang generation, I didn’t quite know what to make of the social and generational dynamics described in the piece. Of course, some of it rang true, particularly the fears and concerns of the 1950s generation, whose experiences of vast discontinuities during their lifetime are entirely alien to me. Growing up, I’ve been fed ad nauseum stories of the Great Famine—known to my parents as the “Three-Year Natural Disaster”—and also heard countless retellings of the Cultural Revolution and my mother’s “sent-down youth” years in Yunnan.

Those stories never truly registered with me at the time. But reflecting on them now, it really is remarkable the psychological and emotional disorientation they had to weather and internalize. That generational gap and frame of reference would've been different enough had they remained in China. But they instead decided to raise me in an entirely different cultural milieu in the United States. Whatever sliver of generational continuity that may have survived was severed once the powerful force of Americana did its work. Communication has been trying at times, because often there is simply a total failure of understanding.

But I think more important is that they are now cultural orphans, hybrids without a psychological anchor—uncomfortable with today’s materialist China but also unable to fully ensconce themselves in Americanness. They were the ones who were asked to give up so much for the country at the time, yet they are also displeased with the country they are leaving behind. To “get” China today, I think understanding this and the generational gap is as important as grasping Chinese politics and economics.