China’s Millennials Are Online, But Apathetic

As I scanned the day’s headlines on my e-reader at lunch, a brief respite from teaching the hordes of middle-school students here in Yunnan Province, I nudged it under the eyes of my Chinese colleague to gauge his reaction. “China Sought to Sell Arms to Gaddafi,” the headline screamed. He wasn’t interested in talking about it. My American friend and I pressed him, but he dismissed the article as false after hardly looking at it, and when we finally convinced him of its seeming validity, he asked, “So what?”

While young Chinese have attained more and more economic clout with their consumer purchasing power, they remain largely isolated and disengaged from Chinese politics, which would seem to make a Tunisia or Egypt-style mass uprising highly unlikely. In fact, it is precisely the rising economic fortunes of the educated young, having been insulated from the hardships that previous generations endured, that have placated the vast majority of the Chinese millennial generation into avoiding politics altogether.

Anecdotally, my Chinese friends are far more interested in buying new electronics, clothes, furniture, and appliances than worrying about what’s happening in the halls of power in Beijing. Time spent online is more often spent chatting with friends, watching movies, or shopping than reading the state-controlled news, let alone consuming international sources of news media.

The rapid rise of social media use in China could serve as a conduit for diverse and critical youth discussion of politics, but online speech remains highly censored by the government at worst, and influenced by subtle groupthink propaganda at best. For example, when the Communist Party celebrated its 90th anniversary several months ago, renren.com (China’s equivalent to Facebook) was plastered with large banner ads extolling the virtues of the Party and encouraging young people to participate in the anniversary celebration online.

Despite the influence of the government, genuine criticism still makes its way online occasionally. Usually it takes a national event — like the recent train crash in Wenzhou — to catalyze unified expressions of discontent, but these rarely manifest themselves offline. Whether from fear of punishment or general apathy, most young people see no good in challenging authority. Because of these inherent constraints, criticism tends to be subtle, tongue-in-cheek (see: Han Han), and only then can marginal reforms take place.

Obviously, characterizing hundreds of millions of young people so broadly based on my limited experiences is problematic, so I interviewed a recent Tsinghua University (the “Harvard of China”) graduate, my friend Richard, to offer his opinion on how politically-minded his generation is or isn’t.

“Young people don’t care about politics,” he explained, “for most of them, it’s the last topic to come up while hanging out or doing some reading.” Use of social media reflects this, he says, and it is mostly used to discuss one’s “personal life, living condition, and plans for the future.” Even if a young Chinese person wanted to more deeply discuss politics, such posts are filtered by government censorship: “if you say something obviously bad [about the government], it will be removed.”

Outside observers like Malcolm Gladwell have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of social media to spur popular revolts, arguing that it can just as easily be used as a tool for repression. This seems to be the case in China; as long as the Communist Party strictly enforces controls on political speech (like the recent crackdown on the operators of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service) and keeps the educated populace satisfied with fast economic growth, political apathy amongst Chinese youth will continue. So fear not President Hu Jintao, the populace will not be enraged if you continue to sell arms to other authoritarian governments.

Photo Credit: Gemma Thorpe