Hope and Disenchantment: Shifting Outlooks on Life among Chinese Youths and Their Taiwanese Peers

On a rainy afternoon in Beijing in October 2013, I joined Ming-Yue and Chao, two PhD students that I befriended during my fieldwork, for a hotpot meal at one of the city’s underground shopping malls. The narrow basement corridors were crammed with students seeking bargains in the small boutiques or a meal at one of the inexpensive restaurants. My friends led me into a crowded restaurant where we were given a table in the midst of lively, chatting groups of young people. This meal was a special treat for them, they explained, as they were not able to leave the campus often due to their heavy workloads. Their rural families were not affluent, and both of them took care to spend parental remittances and their small scholarships responsibly. Chao in particular—an only child—felt the pressure to relieve his parents from the struggles they faced as labour migrants in a southern Chinese city. Since their childhood, Ming-Yue and Chao had worked hard to secure a place at a top university and now strove to complete their studies as soon as possible to be able to support their families financially.

While we were waiting for our order to arrive, the conversation turned quickly to those lavish banquets that took place at Beijing restaurants at the other end of the price scale. In that autumn, President Xi Jinping had caused a stir with the introduction of a harsh anti-corruption campaign that especially targeted the widespread practices of gift-giving and ‘special treats’ for officials. Chao joked that if these campaigns continued, many Beijing restaurants that catered to the notorious ‘gift economy’ would go bankrupt. When I asked if he feared that the problem of corruption would get worse in the future, he shook his head. He was confident that in time, the government would resolve the problem. After all, Chao argued, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was relatively young compared to the long history of China. As a Party member himself and aiming for a career in the government, Chao, like several other young people I talked to with similar aspirations, was critical of the ongoing corruption but rarely voiced any critique of the form of governance itself.

But what about the offspring of wealthy officials, derogatively called ‘second generation officials’ (guan er dai), who often caused scandals due to their irresponsible and arrogant behaviour? Was it difficult for them, I asked, to see the offspring of affluent and well-connected families being privileged in the education system and in their careers? Ming-Yue thought a while and replied that even though she had many friends who came from well-connected families, she saw them working just as hard for their degrees as she did. Both of them believed that familial background could only take one so far, and that with hard work, they could reach their goals on their own account. They were confident that in Beijing they would be able to achieve success based on their personal talents and efforts.

The Eternal Optimism of the Mainland Youth

This was not the first time that I had encountered a firm meritocratic ideology and a strong optimism with regard to the country’s future in conversations with young students and graduates in Beijing. Surprisingly, it was not only the young adults whose parents had been able to pay the extra fees necessary to grant their children preferential treatment in the application process of renowned schools who opted to construct their success in terms of individual skills and efforts. Even young people from less affluent backgrounds, like Chao and Ming-Yue, who had to make substantial sacrifices to attain a place at a high-ranking urban university, were convinced that personal ability was more important than social and economic assets. Social anthropologists Mette Hansen and Cuiming Pang made similar observations among youth in rural China (Hansen and Pang 2010). They report that instead of drawing on their disadvantageous socioeconomic background, their rural informants demonstrated a strong sense of personal responsibility for their perceived failures, in particular when it came to problems in their educational careers.

This heightened sense of individual responsibility might have been fostered by the government-induced discourse of ‘human quality’ (suzhi) that sets artificial and vague standards against which the degree of a citizen’s moral cultivation and educational attainment is measured (Fong 2007; Kipnis 2006). After its introduction in the early 1980s, this ideologically informed discourse became highly influential in fostering a distinct sense of personal responsibility for success and failure. Promoting the need for individual moral and intellectual development, the concept of suzhi tapped into a more general individualist trend that emerged during early the reform era. In recent decades, the attainment of suzhi has taken on an ever more dominant role in parenting and formal education and its pursuit has become a major concern across the entire society (Kipnis 2006 and 2011).

At the same time, the hope that their children might be able to make it in the flourishing economy additionally reinforces parents’ willingness to invest heavily in their education. As a consequence, less affluent parents also opt to take substantial economic risks, convinced that the investment in their offspring would pay off in the future. The conviction that China’s economic boom would last did not abate after the economic crisis in 2008. Surveys conducted in the past decade confirm that the numbers of returning overseas students has increased since the economic crisis, as more and more students and parents assume that job opportunities are now better in China than in the destination countries (Kajanus 2015, 84). However, despite these perceptions, China has experienced significant economic slowdown and a rapidly widening wealth gap, raising questions as to how these parents and students are able to maintain this high level of optimism.

The observations made by Harvard psychologist Arthur Kleinman might offer an explanation for the underlying historical reasons for the optimism I sensed among my Chinese interlocutors. He notes that the older generations of Chinese look back upon a lifetime impacted by political chaos and uncertainty. To them China’s current political and economic situation appears stable and affluent, which gives rise to a powerful hope for the future. From my conversations with young students and graduates in Beijing, it emerged that their parents had successfully transferred this optimism to them. By taking huge risks on a costly education, they had not only demonstrated their confidence in their children’s future achievements, but had also transmitted their strong belief in the possibility of upward mobility to the next generation. That is, the political changes and collective achievements of the past decades have informed an atmosphere of hope in China that is reflected in young adults’ life goals and in their willingness to take risks in the pursuit of success.

Youth in Taiwan: Economic Constraints and Pessimism

Things looked somewhat different in Taiwan where I had spent the first part of my field research in 2012. With a deceleration in economic growth for more than two decades and entry-level salaries that hardly allowed for independent living in the capital Taipei, the young students and professionals I spoke with had a grim future outlook. Whereas their Chinese peers retained an optimistic stance while also struggling to make a living in the ever more expensive Chinese capital, many young Taiwanese looked at their situation through the prisms of ongoing economic stagnation.

By contrast to the parents of Chinese young adults, who had seen their educational and professional options severely compromised by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, many of my Taiwanese interlocutors had been raised by parents and grandparents who had established successful businesses during the time of Taiwan’s economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Expecting that their children would be able to surpass their achievements, they had invested in elite university degrees at home and abroad. However, the economy had changed and many young Taiwanese struggled to emulate their parents’ success. Not unlike the youth of Japan’s ‘lost decade’, their feeling of being stuck in life translated into the gloominess with which they perceived their future. Similar to Taiwan, Japan’s transition to a post-industrial economy was accompanied by surging unemployment and job instability that complicated young people’s entrance to the labour market. Having internalised the parental faith in meritocracy that was based on experiences of the post-war generation in an expanding economy, many young Japanese felt betrayed when their degrees did not translate into secure jobs after Japan plunged into recession in the early 1990s (Brinton 2011, 157; Cook 2013).

Like their Japanese peers, many of my Taiwanese interlocutors struggled to manage the transition from university into a stable career and suffered from low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. They realised that they would not be able to attain the financial independence and, with it, other sociocultural markers of adulthood like marriage and house ownership, which would allow them to establish a lifestyle that matched their personal expectations and those of their families. They often reported the struggles they faced in their families, who did not always grasp the severity of the situation. That is, while many young Chinese graduates I talked to interpreted their precarious status on the labour market from a position of hope—regarding it as a transitional period on the way to success—young Taiwanese perceived the detrimental conditions they faced as a consequence of lasting economic decline, which only fuelled the disenchantment with which they looked to their future.

Another factor that aggravated the fears of many of my young Taiwanese interlocutors were the ever-closer trade ties which the then Kuomintang (KMT) government forged with Beijing. In particular, the Economic Co-Operation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that had been signed under the KMT in 2010, and which was supposed to facilitate and strengthen economic relations with the mainland, roused concern in many young students and graduates. Critics of the agreement feared that the loosening of trade restrictions with China would only increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland and have a detrimental effect on the Taiwanese labour market (Wei 2012, 95). In this sense, the cross-strait rapprochement fed into long-held fears among the Taiwanese population of being further pushed to the economic and political periphery by their powerful neighbour. Moreover, in the course of these events, collective memories of the KMT’s repressive cultural policies from the 1950s to the 1970s were evoked. During these decades, the party inculcated the population with traditional Confucian thought via schools and public campaigns to sinicise the Taiwanese people after fifty years of Japanese colonial rule. By emphasising those works that stressed filial virtues and the recognition of natural hierarchies, the KMT tried to legitimise its rule and to reinforce Taiwan’s role as the repository of authentic Chinese culture against the Communist ideology of the CCP on the mainland (Fetzer and Soper 2013, 29-25).

These fears of exclusion became painfully clear in my conversations with young Taiwanese graduates. Ma-Ling, a young woman in her late twenties who was working for a large media agency in Taipei, was one of those young professionals who perceived the government’s closer ties with China and the changes that accompanied this development as a threatening intrusion into her personal life and career. The media company she worked for had recently been bought by Want Want Holdings Limited, whose president was widely known to be a pro-unification sympathiser. Since then, Ma-Ling lamented, the online magazine they published was increasingly turning into a mouthpiece for pro-unification proponents and mainland Chinese stakeholders. Ma-Ling was harshly critical of this development, not only because the editors were now heavily restricted in the type of news they were allowed to publish, but also because of what she perceived as a markedly ‘Mainland Chinese’ working atmosphere that her new superiors were trying to establish.

Moreover, she was growing increasingly frustrated with the kind of work she was assigned, which consisted increasingly of processing material that had been supplied by the mainland Chinese branch rather than designing original work. Ma-Ling pondered continuing her career abroad, not only because she dreaded her job, but also since she feared that she would be unable to afford housing in the soaring real estate market of Taipei with the low entry-level salary she earned. Her deep dissatisfaction with the government and her personal future prospects was shared by many of her peers. Numerous young people I talked to longed to leave Taiwan in order to start over in a Western country or another East Asian metropolis where they expected higher salaries and brighter prospects for the future. One young man who had decided to temporarily escape the detrimental employment conditions in Taiwan to explore better job options in Australia explained his decision as follows: ‘Taiwan has no resources for a lot of industries and they tend to use very low salary to hire skilled persons. The employers and the government have a very shallow vision on almost everything. The wage is low and the living expenses are extremely high, so people have no chance to save money if they are not living with their parents.’

‘Strawberry Generation’ and ‘Angry Youth’

It might appear quite ironic that Taiwanese youth, who had grown up (and still lived, thanks to parental support) in relative affluence compared to many of their Chinese peers, expressed this pessimism and disenchantment with their future. Their apparent lack of agency and dependence on parental support until far into adulthood were often criticised by the older generations and the media. Due to their supposed ‘softness’ the generation of Taiwanese born after 1981 has often derogatively been referred to as the ‘strawberry generation’ (caomeizu): easily bruised and squashed under pressure (Yang and Zheng 2012).

At the same time that these young Taiwanese were criticised for their supposed lethargy, young Chinese earned themselves the reputation of an ‘angry youth’ (fenqing) that fiercely defends China’s national interests against foreign criticism (Herold 2012). Whether it concerned the foreign critique of China’s handling of human rights issues or its assertion of control in the East China Sea, the Chinese youth in the mainland have been able to make their voices heard. Perceiving themselves as being positioned at the emerging centre of global power, a view that is fostered by the Chinese state propaganda organs, they passionately defend China’s sovereignty against foreign powers (Weiss 2014, 189-218).

However, towards the end of my fieldwork in China in 2013, changes were looming on the horizon. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign surged and the atmosphere in Beijing grew somewhat tenser. A young woman working at a state company admitted that her parents, both state employees, grew increasingly concerned about the political developments. They now insisted on turning off the radio when discussing political matters at home out of fear of being overheard. In Taiwan, at the same time, important changes were on the way as well. Throughout 2013, young people’s anger with the government’s handling of trade relations with China grew and culminated in the Sunflower Student Movement of the spring of 2014. Many of my young Taiwanese interlocutors supported the protests, and having the national and even international media listening to their concerns gave them renewed confidence. Moreover, the ensuing pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong—which was, in many ways, inspired by the Taiwanese protest—as well as the recent success of the pro-independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party in the Taiwanese general elections, appear to have conveyed a sense of empowerment to the Taiwanese youth. Gaining international recognition has propelled them, at least temporarily, into a more central position and ignited their hopes for the future of Taiwan.

To maintain anonymity, all the names of the people quoted in this article have been changed.
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Photo Credits: Woman of Taipei, by !Kevin! on Flickr.com
Désirée Remmert
Désirée Remmert

Désirée Remmert holds a PhD in Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD dissertation compared aspirations and life choices of young adults in Beijing and Taipei against the different socio-economic and political backgrounds of China and Taiwan. From October 2016, she will be a Postdoctoral Fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan, working on a project that examines intergenerational differences in notions of personal autonomy and their impact on life satisfaction in Taiwan.