“We are competing with each other in what has become a pure rat race.”
For most of the past 15 years, my interactions with young Chinese in their late teens and 20s have obeyed a familiar pattern. Having grown up in an age when their country seemed impervious to major economic setbacks, they easily shrugged off each new wave of Western assessments that China’s political and economic model—like all models—faced serious vulnerabilities.
They had heard and rejected the idea that China’s political system was inherently inferior to Western-style democracy. The evidence to the contrary seemed largely sufficient to their eyes as the United States and other high-income countries fell victim to the 2008-09 global financial crisis while China sailed forward almost placidly by comparison. The “democracy is superior” argument took another big hit in their minds during the Trump administration, when U.S. politics was dominated by one poorly informed but powerful man’s impulsiveness. Wasn’t that supposed to be a key flaw of dictatorships?
They had dismissed the widespread notion that China’s relatively closed authoritarian system would prevent the country from innovating fast enough. Yes, it was true that China had blocked most of the trailblazing U.S. companies of the early internet age, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many others. But hadn’t China come up with its own terrific domestic alternatives? Look at WeChat, young Chinese began telling me from the moment of that homegrown app’s birth. On “our” platform, they observed, one can seamlessly do everything that it takes a whole host of U.S. apps to accomplish. Has anyone in the West created something so brilliantly capable?
And if one thinks this is a matter of ancient history, which is what the early app era is when talking about the history of the internet, what about electrical vehicles and the batteries that make them run? China has gotten so good so fast at developing sleek, well-functioning, and competitively priced cars in this space that it even has the Germans trembling, as seen at this week’s industry show in what is probably the West’s premium car-producing country. Or look at the U.S. attempt to stifle Huawei, China’s biggest cellphone-maker. Although prevented from using U.S. technology for 5G components, China has, using homegrown technology, just rolled out a high-end smartphone model that is capable of 5G-like data connectivity speeds and which throws in satellite connection capability as a bonus.
Young Chinese have also heard that the country’s poor environment would bottleneck their growth or drive an uprising by the middle class. Not so long ago, the air in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai was frightfully polluted, drawing justified comparisons to the London of Charles Dickens. If one had to endure this much pollution in order to sustain further decades of fast economic growth, didn’t that call into question more than just the seeming disregard of the country’s leaders for the people’s well-being? What, in other words, is the purpose of growth if one’s child can’t play outside because it’s dangerous to breathe?
Well, something remarkable happened here, too. While traveling in China for much of the past summer, I discovered the air in many of the country’s biggest cities to be so vastly improved that a newcomer would have a hard time imagining the recent long era of “airpocalypses,” as the immovable domes of impenetrable smog encasing urban environments were called.
Though I have never believed that China had somehow repealed basic economic laws, which suggest that every great boom era must come to an end, I have always found a lot to admire in the great many young Chinese I have gotten to know over the last 15 years or so. Substantial numbers among them have been students in my own classes in the United States and elsewhere. And one of the qualities that has consistently struck me most among them is what I like to call civilizational confidence.
It is true that the Chinese state, through tightly controlled education and unstinting propaganda, works hard to instill this attitude, but there is something more at play here than just top-down manipulation. I suspect part of it comes from being part of such a large country with great historic depth and many, many cultural and scientific achievements to its name. Part of it, too, seems to be about resilience. Even if not during their lifetimes, young Chinese know that their country has been down before but has always sprung back impressively. All of this has bred self-belief.
But all of this also makes the impressions I received during my recent weeks of travel in China feel even more remarkable. What I heard over many conversations with young people was not a response to the perennial cycles of doomcasting about China that one finds in the Western press and in much publishing about the country. In fact, most of these people were not terribly well-informed about the current state of Western discourse about their country at all. What they were, however, was filled with their own doubts about the future, which they readily vented.
Some of the contours of this were unsurprising. After all, this was the summer that Beijing decided to suppress the publication of youth unemployment data, presumably because of how grim the numbers have become—in June, youth unemployment hit a record 21.3 percent. In conversation after conversation, my young interlocutors spoke with deep trepidation about their economic prospects in the near and even longer term.
It wasn’t the topic itself that surprised me so much as the swiftness and power of the shift in sentiment. At almost all times during this century, it has been an article of faith in the country that education, and especially higher education, would be rewarded with sharply rising incomes, secure entry into the middle class or better, and a version of the sentiment common in the United States during the boom decades that followed World War II: that it was the birthright of each new generation to be much better off than the one that preceded it.
If the problem of youth unemployment in a China whose economy may be set for long-term deceleration has been widely commented on, some of the profound problems that stem from this generally have not. A graphic representation of the number of new college graduates in the country over the last four-plus decades looks like the upward curve of a roller coaster track. Here we find the kind of problem that is an unintended consequence of what has always seemed like a very sensible proposition: Educating people equates to creating new waves of prosperity. In its current funk, though—and perhaps on a longer-term basis, due to deep contradictions in the country’s economic model—China can no longer find enough gainful employment for its huge numbers of newly educated people.
If you’re between the ages of, say, 17 and 28 or so—which was the case for almost everyone I spoke with—this is deeply discouraging and even scary, as so many people didn’t hesitate to tell me. “We are competing with each other in what has become a pure rat race,” a college freshman, whose name I am withholding for their security, told me in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. “Everybody is trying to push their education as far as they can, but we are competing for fewer and fewer jobs. As a result of supply and demand, lots of people are going to earn less, and lots of others will just have to accept low-grade jobs.”
But this was only the beginning of the new pessimism I was encountering.
For years when I taught in my graduate school classrooms in New York about the coming aging crunch in China—a time projected for the near future when the ratio of older adults to the young and working-age populations would rapidly flip in favor of the former—I drew a knowing look from many of my Chinese students. After all, it is a problem I have been writing about for many years already. “Here we go again,” the stares I received from some of my Chinese students seemed to say. “Professor French has given in to the doomsaying industry about our country, but we know better.”
This summer, though, I didn’t have to ask about aging. It was on everybody’s lips, not least the young people. I suspect that’s in part because the state quite belatedly has itself become alarmed. The Chinese government avoids shocking language about the stark nature of a demographic crisis of unprecedented scale, but the ability to read between the lines of official messaging to see the underlying urgency of this challenge is almost child’s play, especially for the dwindling numbers of young adults in the country who only recently were children themselves.
The country’s media are now filled with prompts for young people to get married earlier and have more children. Chinese President Xi Jinping has traditionally been loath to use social welfare spending or direct cash benefits to citizens to reduce China’s addiction to investment and stimulate the economy. But that is exactly what Beijing is rolling out in response to the alarming decline in birth rates. Suddenly, one city or province after another is introducing monetary inducements to women or couples to have more children.
The young people who will in theory be the source of the children of the future increasingly say they are discouraged by the costs of housing and of raising children. And as most of them belong to one-child families themselves, they also speak in fear of the financial burdens that await them when their parents grow old and infirm and need taking care of. Compared with most wealthy Western countries, the Chinese state’s social welfare provisions for retirement, health, and elder care remain bare-bones.
In response to this, not only are young people putting off marriage until later, but increasing numbers of young Chinese are also forgoing it altogether, with some even dropping out of dating. Young women, meanwhile, have been big beneficiaries of the enormous boom in higher education in the country, and with more and more advanced learning among them, growing numbers of them have been privileging their own career development and—“Why not?” some said to me—their personal fulfillment.
In my conversations in China this summer, I never once inquired about feminism, but one after another, young women freely identified with it themselves. Then came this comment from a 19-year-old in Shanghai, whose name I am also withholding for her safety. “Maybe you’ll think this is too dark, but I definitely don’t,” she said. “It seems like we are on track for a situation where the state tries to force women to have children, like take us away to a camp or something. It worries me a lot.”
During China’s long boom years, not succumbing to the skepticism and naysaying of others seemed like a real source of strength for the society, even a virtue. We are in a new era now, though, and one of the biggest tests will be something the country’s leaders are altogether unaccustomed to: how well the system can hear and respond to the growing concerns and doubts of its own citizens.