‘Want Generation’: author spotlights the discontent and desires of China’s millennials

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 2:31pm

Chinese millennials – having experienced the country’s great economic boom and having grown up in the post-Tiananmen era – have been generally written off as nationalistic, materialistic and indifferent to politics.

But in a new book, China’s Millennials: The Want Generation, Eric Fish, an American millennial who spent seven years working and studying in China, tells the stories of some 30 Chinese youth who are far from satisfied with the status quo.

“Chinese millennials are up against a lot [that] they don’t necessarily get credit for either at home or abroad,” said Fish. “I’m trying to show what they are up against and how they are handling this, how they are pushing change or fighting back against the way things are.”

Among the subjects is women’s rights activist Li Tingting, one of the five feminists detained by the authorities ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8 and held in custody for more than a month.

In the book, Fish gives a profile of Li – how she became an activist and the harassment she faced from authorities after she occupied a male restroom to criticise the disproportionate number of female public restrooms.

“The police harassed her pretty thoroughly,” said Fish. “They tapped her phone, her email and brought her into interrogations. They talked to her family and tried to offer her a job so that she would quit her activism.”

But Li refused to back down. She was detained in March, along with other activists, while preparing to hand out leaflets about sexual harassment.

After Li was released by the Beijing police 37 days after her detention, she wrote that her belief in feminism was “firmer”.

Fish said: “There are more activists. Not a huge group. But more young activists are fearless and willing to push things that are right.”

Since Chinese authorities have successfully erased Tiananmen from the national conversation, Fish argues that the crackdown fails to generate fear, the way it used to 15 to 20 years ago, among the next generation. This partly explains why Chinese youth are outspoken and why there is growing activism online and on the streets, he said.

Another example in the book of Chinese youth yearning for change are two environmentalists who grew up in well-off families and who were able to travel around the country.

They might not see the solutions to these problems as the West wants them to. They may not ask for Western democracy. But they are pushing change in their own ways
Eric Fish, author

They witnessed the environmental damage that China’s rapid economic development has brought, which eventually led them to launch an environmental campaign.

Despite strict government censorship and a nationalistic education system, Fish thinks a lot of young people have “a good idea, on the whole, of what’s going on” in China.

“They might not see the solutions to these problems as the West wants them to. They may not ask for Western democracy. But they are pushing change in their own ways,” Fish said.

In the book, Fish also touches upon the struggles of young rural men who were trapped in an education scam after failing the national college entrance examinations – a case that exemplifies the problems with China’s household registration system or “hukou”. The system has been criticised for discriminating against rural residents.

Fish tries to place the life and struggles of Chinese youth against the backdrop of China’s social issues.

Fish calls Chinese millennials “the want generation”, who are not satisfied with the current situation and want more in their life.

The notion of Chinese millennials being “the want generation” first struck Fish while he was speaking to migrant workers in the southern city of Shenzhen. These workers, unlike their peers 20 years ago, “want a lot more” in life, were much more vocal and “pickier” about their working conditions.

By talking to them, Fish found that Chinese youth were increasingly dissatisfied with material comforts and wanted more, which Fish sees as a sign of change. Though they tend to be apolitical, their desire can manifest in interesting ways.

“When I ask young Chinese what they care about, politics is never one of the things they mention. But at the same time, they care a lot about things that are more inescapably political,” Fish said.