Is China’s younger generation having it better?

When a video depicting the rosy lives of youth in China went viral on China’s Youth Day (4 May), young and old Chinese alike stopped to ponder what kind of society the youth have inherited. Is it paved with gold, or just as rough around the edges as before? Amid new problems that a rising China faces today, the post-90s generation will just have to make this era their own, with all its foibles, just as their parents and earlier generations have done before them.
Young people wearing face masks amid concerns over the Covid-19 coronavirus walk dressed in Tang Dynasty costumes at Century Park in Shanghai on 22 March 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
Young people wearing face masks amid concerns over the Covid-19 coronavirus walk dressed in Tang Dynasty costumes at Century Park in Shanghai on 22 March 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Chinese video-sharing website Bilibili released a video called Rear Waves (《后浪》) in commemoration of the May Fourth Movement on 4 May (also known as China’s Youth Day). This video that honoured the era and the youths of this era quickly went viral, with the keyword “rear wave” becoming the most widely discussed topic on 4 May.

From the title, it is clear that the video is about the younger generation. As the saying goes, changjiang houlang tui qianlang (长江后浪推前浪, lit. the rear waves of the Yangtze River drive on those that came before it, implying that the new generation exceeds the old). "Rear waves" has become a codeword for the younger generation.

In the video that was over three-minutes long, China celebrity He Bing spoke in a mesmerising voice and what netizens dubbed a “paternalistic” (爹味) tone, exalting the fact that the era today’s youth lived in was one that “peels back the achievements of modern civilisation layer by layer”.    

He Bing (Screenshot: Bilibili)
In this screenshot of the video, China celebrity He Bing presents his motivational speech in commemoration of China's youth day. The Chinese words read: "Push forward, rear waves." (Screenshot: Bilibili)

Glorified youth

Visually impactful footage of youths skydiving, winning awards at electronic sports competitions, travelling the world, dancing in traditional Han costumes, playing traditional Chinese musical instruments, and so on accompanied He’s speech. The images seemed to be praising the younger generation for being professional, confident, positive, and diverse, and having the right to choose their own paths.      

On the same day the video — described as “chicken soup for the soul” by some netizens — was released on Bilibili, it reportedly amassed an impressive 6.28 million views, 858,000 “likes”, and 105,000 comments, excluding the tens of millions of views it also attracted on WeChat and Weibo. The video’s special edition was even aired during CCTV’s prime time, right before the channel’s daily news programme. The insanely viral video has thrust Bilibili, originally a niche platform targeted at those interested in youth subcultures, into the national limelight. In China's pop culture jargon, Bilibili successfully broke out of its “ring” (出圈儿 chu quaner) by extending its reach to a wider target audience.  

However, this video expressing admiration for, acknowledgement of and hope in the younger generation has also split Chinese commentators into two camps overnight. Some watched the video and were immediately filled with passion and excitement. Others were unimpressed and had a stomach full of frustrations.   

Less burden, less critical thinking?

I have to admit that I was indeed touched when I first watched the video. As someone from the post-80s generation, I was also a little envious and jealous of the younger generation as I watched on. The video did present a genuine side of young people today — they study what they love, absorb fresh new ideas, unabashedly display their talents and individuality, and pursue the careers and lives they yearn for.  

They would also be more content with the current political situation and not reflect on the problems and inadequacies of the system and their country like the two generations before them did.

In this screenshot of the video, Chinese youths are seen playing traditional Chinese musical instruments while wearing traditional Chinese costumes. (Screenshot: Bilibili)
In this screenshot of the video, Chinese youths are seen playing traditional Chinese musical instruments while wearing traditional Chinese costumes. (Screenshot: Bilibili)

Their carefree lives, their courage to do as they dream, and their ability to be exuberant one minute and zen the next, are closely related to the environment in which they grew up in. Compared with the post-60s and post-70s generations who were born before reform and opening up, as well as the post-80s generation who were born in the early stages of reform and opening up, those among Generation Z who were born after 1995 and grew up in the internet era have been enjoying the fruits of a developed era since young. They grew up in a China that saw unprecedented economic progress, and that was continually developing and renewing. They have never experienced scarcity of resources or lived in a turbulent society. Their material life, knowledge, worldview, and self-awareness are basically no different from youths of Western societies.     

Such a growth experience rid them of the burdens that the previous two generations had borne, making them more confident of the various choices that they made, and more accepting of the society they live in. They would also be more content with the current political situation and not reflect on the problems and inadequacies of the system and their country like the two generations before them did. Thus, when they are faced with certain disputes, they are able to display childish nationalism.   

Finding their own way

A complex China will forever be multi-faceted. Whenever news reports provide sector gauges of median salaries and assets, many Chinese would lament that they were “being represented” (被代表, bei daibiao, Chinese internet jargon) unfaithfully. Similarly, many youths were filled with mixed feelings after watching the video, with some wondering if they were the younger generation being left behind. 

In recent years, a new kind of culture — the sang culture (丧文化, youths who are depressed, unmotivated, and on the brink of despair) — has sprung up in China.

A young netizen who is trying to stay afloat in a big city sarcastically remarked, “I can’t relate to all the fun that the people are having in the video. I’m more riled up by my rent increasing by 500 dollars.” Others stated matter-of-factly that the video only showcased youth from rich families. “Only those with sufficient financial support are worthy of having dreams and aspirations,” one netizen said.

To many young people, the video’s representation of them is far removed from reality — what they actually face is seeing their ideals being compromised by reality, and having their carefree lives replaced by anxiety. In recent years, a new kind of culture — the sang culture (丧文化, youths who are depressed, unmotivated, and on the brink of despair) — has sprung up in China. Aren’t they part of the younger generation who have given up after putting up a helpless fight? 

Weibo comments. (Weibo)
Netizens leave comments on Weibo after watching the video. The first comment reads: "Such a wonderful bowl of chicken soup indeed. The younger generation can't even buy a house, what sort of dreams are we talking about? (Our) dream is to buy a house!" The second comment reads: "I think we should first repay our housing loan in full before thinking about how we're going to realise our dreams. It's better to have our feet on the ground." (Weibo)

Underneath this split in opinion is a discussion of the kind of era China is going through right now, and whether the people living in such an era are indeed fortunate.   

Over 40 years have passed since reform and opening up. China is undeniably different. But the unavoidable truth is that today’s China is also faced with new problems. The profits of a fast-developing economy will gradually fade away, the entrepreneurial myth may be busted, problems may pass from generation to generation, and there may be less room to scale the social ladder. With the China-US dispute worsening on the international stage, decoupling and the “de-sinicisation” of global supply chains may be a real possibility after all. Some pessimists even worry that a war may follow the Covid-19 pandemic. So then, what do these mean for China’s younger generation?     

Whether it is the passionate youths portrayed in the video, or the youths watching the video in contempt, they are all youth that truly exist in today’s China. Perhaps there is really no need to be overly envious or full of praise for the era that these youths live in, for every generation has their own experiences and challenges. No one can escape from the complexities of their era.    

Related: How the 90s generation rules Chinese social media | China’s future through the lens of the Post-90s | The emergence of the Chinese “middle-class wannabes” and their race towards a higher social status