The recent news that 84 per cent of young people felt that doing well in mainland China has more to do with having a powerful dad than working hard or being smart is depressing, but not entirely surprising.
After all, nepotism is nothing new in China. We've all heard stories of people going to absurd lengths to date so-and-so's son or daughter, often going into debt to keep up appearances of wealth in order to reap the benefits of having such ties.
But it seems that China has gone too far. On the playground, six-year-olds openly brag about the influence of their daddies. And a hiring programme entitled "Sons and Daughters" at JPMorgan Chase, which put the friends and family of China's ruling elite on a fast track at the prestigious bank, is now the subject of a US federal bribery investigation.
For far too many young Chinese, the pin die attitude (to compare and see whose dad is more powerful) is not simply a way to escape the sweat and toil of hard work; it's a realistic reaction to their uncertain future. According to Peking University sociology professor Lu Linhui , young people from impoverished families are finding it increasingly difficult to secure high-paying jobs in China.
Here in Hong Kong, many students I talked to found the phenomenon of pin die sad and alarming. However, when I asked them whether parents should help their children secure an internship or a job, they all said yes. Hong Kong kids think their parents ought to pay for their education through college and graduate school. Some say parents should pay for their apartment and food even after graduation.
It seems to me that's just a hop and a skip away from the pin die attitude. This is doubly disappointing since one of the characteristics that sets Hong Kong apart has always been the idea that you can go from rags to riches just by working hard. Today, this idea is a harder sell. Instead of Li Ka-shing, our youth are more likely to cite Richard Li Tzar-kai as a model. Instead of Dickson Poon, they admire Dee Poon.
I am reminded of a dinner a few years back when a friend's husband said it was far more impressive when a rich kid succeeds than when a poor kid does, given that it's much harder for a wealthy person to have any drive. "You have everything so you don't need to work hard. That's why, when a rich kid actually gets good scores, that's really amazing," he said. "They deserve the spot at the top school so much more than a poor kid."
I flushed when I heard these foolish words. To me, they were an insult not just to people from underprivileged backgrounds but to the very point of education, which is supposed to serve as a great social equaliser.
Perhaps there is still hope. Recently, I had breakfast with the director of admissions at a top US university, who confided that she looks more critically at, and expects more from, applicants from privileged backgrounds. I wouldn't have it any other way; if we want to move away from pin die in Asia, more people need this type of thinking.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org