Guo Jingming

Age of confusion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2007, 12:00am


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Deng Xiaoping's famous exhortation, 'to get rich is glorious', has been unofficially superseded on the mainland. Today, the mantra is 'greed is good' - from the 1987 movie Wall Street, which came to epitomise the 1980s in the west. The downside of that decade's feverish pursuit of money was a rise in social inequality and increasing cynicism about governments and state institutions. No doubt that is familiar to anyone living on the mainland now.

The decade which gave us yuppies is in the news again, thanks to a TV show. Fen Dou, or To Fight For, follows the fortunes of seven balinghou, the term for the generation born in the 1980s, trying to make their way in the world. With a cast of uniformly good-looking young actors and storylines which concentrate more on the characters' love lives than careers, it is the most popular TV drama on the mainland at the moment.

Viewers are split between those who regard it as unrealistic and overly sensational, and the ones who see the show as the authentic voice of their generation. Yet, it has undoubtedly touched a nerve and not just among the balinghou themselves. For all the stereotypes Fen Dou presents - the rich kid, the poor one, the struggling couple - it does demonstrate how the 1980s generation is confronted with unique pressures. Frequently characterised as materialistic, spoiled and selfish, the 200 million people on the mainland under 30 are the most privileged generation of Chinese ever. Instead of suffering through the Cultural Revolution, as many of their parents did, they have had unprecedented access to higher education and enjoy far more personal freedom.

But they also face high, often unrealistic, expectations from their families and a highly competitive job market. Adding to that pressure is the media. While the government likes to hold up China's astronauts as role models, the press prefers to focus on sports stars and pop icons. Chronicling their activities and those of other successful balinghou - like 24-year-old Guo Jingming, the mainland's richest writer - has become an obsession for a media eager to cash in on the glamour of China's youngest stars.

With examples like Guo, who has earned 11 million yuan in royalties so far this year, dangled in front of them, it's not surprising that the balinghou have become known for flitting from job to job, as they also seek material success. Nor is it a shock that they are the mainland's most avid consumers. But it is precisely these traits that have become a weapon to be used against them by a media equally keen on pointing out their perceived failings.

Mostly only children, they are criticised for being emotionally fragile and lacking the staying power of previous generations. Their more liberal attitudes towards relationships and sex are cited as evidence of lax morality. Alternatively hailed and derided, it's no wonder that, as Fen Dou shows, they are so confused.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist