Nationalistic and patriotic? Chinese youths are more than that.

Every day, scores of young people from small cities or farming villages make their way to big cities to find work. Inhabiting the space between their old and new worlds, they find kinship and cultural affinity in online groups, forming subcultures that have emerged as alternatives to the mainstream. While this widens their network beyond their usual social circles, it has also spawned a form of online tribalism. How does this affect their worldviews and interactions online and offline? Wu Guo explores the topic.
People walk along Qianmen Street, a popular pedestrianised traditional street with shops and restaurants in Beijing on 2 May 2021. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)
People walk along Qianmen Street, a popular pedestrianised traditional street with shops and restaurants in Beijing on 2 May 2021. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)

In recent years, young Chinese have been portrayed in Chinese- and English-language media as “patriotic” and “nationalistic”. Reports on young people often focus on their attitudes towards the West. The media casts attention on the way young Chinese lap up Western fast food or luxury items, even as they question Western values or try to prove their patriotism by buying domestically produced goods and boycott Western brands. There is no doubt that such contradictions exist. But if the media focuses too much on youth fanaticism and their worldview of blind opposition, people may mistakenly have an overly political idea of them, as if youths are only active and visible when they are protesting and opposing.

The fact is, there are many cultural similarities between most young Chinese and Generation Z (Gen Z) in the US — those born between 1995 and 2010 — including familiarity with the internet and technology, liking entertainment, social media and visual presentation, and being inclined towards entrepreneurship.

Entering the world that young people inhabit

I myself have been a user of China’s most influential social media and movie review platform for the past ten years or so. Based on my long-term active participation, I conducted purposeful online observations and interviews akin to cyber ethnography.

According to a study, users of this social media platform have an average age of 20, mostly in first-tier cities. And from what I found through my own interactions, users who state their residence as first-tier cities include many who originally came from small cities or farming villages, young people who stayed on in first-tier cities after graduating from university, and current university students.

... the various interest groups on the internet have drawn enormous numbers of people into various groups in what is a sort of online tribalism.

These young people inhabit a world between their hometowns and the big cities. One female university student born in 1998 — let’s call her A — admitted to me that the first time she ever took a train was when she left her hometown to go to university in a first-tier city. She also showed a clear sense of class consciousness: “People at the bottom like my family have to work hard to earn money to survive.” At the same time, she started to empathise with her parents: “Their life is a mess; it’s a pitiful situation.”

heavy metal
Beijing-based heavy metal band DreamSpirit performs on stage, January 2021. (DreamSpirit/Facebook)

Another young person — office worker B — stressed to me that his parents lived in a village, and it was only when he went to study in Beijing that he found that children in big cities got to go overseas as exchange students in middle school. This made him feel somewhat inferior, and he started thinking about “social equality”.

Where rich sub-cultures flourish

As they go about their daily lives outside their hometowns, to a large extent their culturally significant characteristics and self-identity have led them to form subcultural communities, which they use as a base to engage in anonymous online interactions. On the one hand, the internet has spawned virtual interactions beyond the pre-internet social circles centred around classmates, neighbours, and colleagues; on the other hand, the various interest groups on the internet have drawn enormous numbers of people into various groups in what is a sort of online tribalism. Since the advent of WeChat, such cross-border tribal tendencies that bring people together through various themes have expanded into different WeChat groups.

A vocational high school student C, born in 2002 — whose real name and age are known to me, and whose parents are first-generation immigrants to a particular big city — said he heard of the term “subculture” from a friend, and he accepted the concept. He felt all his friends had their own subcultural circles, including heavy metal, classical music, timepieces, and hiking. The groups that he is active in include Japanese anime (nijigen), and male gay groups. When he turned 18, he registered his own public WeChat account, where he provides detailed travel information for some cities.

... the mainstream is “patriotism”, but many young people now “are not too interested in mainstream culture, because the non-mainstream is more important”. - University graduate and white-collar worker, name withheld

And when I asked about the movement to boycott Nike, C replied that initially he planned to join in, but dropped the idea because he subsequently felt that domestic brands were not of sufficient quality. But he also made it clear that his “millennial generation” is in an age of an “information explosion”, with ample material possessions, and clearer plans for their objectives in life than the previous generation. Another interviewee D did not understand the concept of subculture, but she did say she was part of some “interest groups” on WeChat.

A guest looks at a display of anime characters during the opening of Miniso Group Holding Ltd.'s Toptoy flagship store in Shanghai, China, on 28 April 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Recent university graduate and white-collar worker B (mentioned above) also agrees that "each group has its own circles". He identifies with the nijigen culture and started to learn Japanese, and plans to collect Japanese swords and participate in relevant online group discussions. I asked him: if he identifies with subcultures, which are different from mainstream culture, then what does mainstream culture mean? He replied that the mainstream is “patriotism”, but many young people now “are not too interested in mainstream culture, because the non-mainstream is more important”. As for the virtual nature of these circles, B who has been to Japan and the US for work acknowledges that his generation loves the virtual world, but the potential problem is that “people will be interested in those who are far away and neglect those around them”.

A female interviewee E, born in 1994, said one of her unique interests is fortune-telling. She is part of a group related to metaphysics, where its many members “often seek divination readings through Bagua (八卦), and share these readings within the group to see how others interpret it”. Subsequently, “members would share results or actual happenings to see how accurate the readings are”. She has also previously joined nijigen groups, and feels that the people she knows who were born in the 1990s and 2000s are enthusiastic about nijigen culture, and collect paraphernalia. This young female netizen also mentioned that many people of her age are into cross-dressing, but she has observed that “everyone thinks a girl dressing as a guy is cool, but a guy dressing as a girl sometimes gets criticised”. As for patriotism, this girl’s reply seems to be tinged with cynicism: “It looks strong online. But in real life, I often wonder where those people are.”

Psychology and mental health

I have noticed that among these social media groups (apparently as many as 400,000 of them), there is one for exchanging information on psychology and improving self-awareness, with a hit count of over four million and nearly 10,000 followers. In this huge group, members share what they have learned about psychology and changes in their self-awareness, as well as valuable works in psychology. Most of these works are Western writings translated into Chinese, or general psychology books based on professional research. They even discuss how to distinguish between real psychology and pseudo-psychology — specious “chicken soup for the soul”.

I noticed some deep reflections amongst the members of the group:

“Have you noticed? Our prejudice often stems from an unhappy experience that lands us in a mind trap; it’s like if we are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail!”

“Don’t underestimate the damage of psychological abuse — while they do not leave visible wounds like punches or kicks, they leave our mental world in tatters.”

“Because of my people-pleasing personality, I lack personal boundaries. I feel so wronged and lost when others take advantage of my sacrifices.”

“After gaining a deeper understanding of others, I began to envy their ability to be happy because I have always felt guilty for living comfortably. I haven't found a way to be happy.”

People commute during the morning rush hour in the financial district in Beijing, China, 4 March 2021. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
People commute during the morning rush hour in the financial district in Beijing, China, 4 March 2021. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

The existence of this massive group reflects a trend: in a China that is rapidly urbanising and becoming wealthier, on one hand, the pressure to survive is increasing as social stratification becomes more pronounced and social conflicts take place more frequently. On the other hand, as more youths receive four years of undergraduate education and even move on to postgraduate education, more among them are increasingly self-aware and are starting to face depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues head-on.

Female university student A, for one, suffers from depression and takes antidepressants prescribed by her doctor. This state of affairs is vastly different from my university days in the early 1990s of the 20th century. Back then, my classmates were all unfamiliar with the word “depression”, and neither did we realise that a classmate who had committed suicide was actually suffering from depression for a long time.

In another group consisting of either clinically- or self-diagnosed adults with Asperger’s syndrome, members are able to skillfully use technical terms such as “alexithymia” and so on. One of the group members studying abroad also set up a separate WeChat official account offering professional and free preliminary assessments on Asperger’s syndrome. This group of youths mostly avoid community life and generally refuse to socialise.

Online and offline organisations and actions

In addition, I also took an interest in an offline community that one of the interviewees is involved in. I was introduced to this group by student C. The group was founded by a female university student with disabilities and is open to various youths with physical disabilities or autism. From an institutional perspective, this group is unrelated to the official “China Disabled Persons’ Federation” and is a voluntary non-governmental organisation (NGO) for mutual aid. But this organisation is non-confrontational and like most NGOs, complements the government’s objectives and has a symbiotic relationship with the government.

People walk in a shopping district in Beijing, China, 5 April 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
People walk in a shopping district in Beijing, China, 5 April 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

This group of youths with disabilities also established their own WeChat official account and the heartening thing is that the articles shared in this group are free of official slogans, criticisms and complaints. Instead, they project optimism, humour, light-heartedness and magnanimity. Members of this group share relevant professional knowledge and their trials and tribulations with employment, relationships and marriage. They also upload photos of their offline gatherings. As most of them have a university education, they are more aware of the US’s special education approaches and disability rights policies. On a practical level, they hope that their organisation can encourage society to be more aware of the issues faced by people with disabilities and to give the latter more support in terms of providing facilities or advocating employment equality.

... in terms of worldview, the sense I get after numerous discussions is that many university students or fresh graduates are very eager to understand the world outside of China.

A new understanding of youths

In summary, the case studies above show that Chinese youths in the internet era have a clear sense of self-awareness and are searching for meaning in life and a means to express themselves. At the same time, they hope to gain a sense of belonging in a community. The online groups that have mushroomed all use the internet to break geographical boundaries and existing social relations and allow people to connect with each other based on common hobbies and special identities. With the aim of exchanging ideas and mutual help, various “tribes” are formed on the internet. Some of these groups have also attracted members from Taiwan or Hong Kong.

At the same time, with the widespread availability of education in China and further expansion into postgraduate education, many members of these “tribes” have received modern social science training and are either familiar with subjects such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology, or exhibit a keen interest in these subjects.

Lastly, in terms of worldview, the sense I get after numerous discussions is that many university students or fresh graduates are very eager to understand the world outside of China. Although white-collar worker B criticised the US for initiating a trade war against China, he still emphasised that the US’s advantage is that “everyone has the right to speak”. Student C believes that the US is powerful and advanced and still hopes to further his studies in the US in the future. Female interviewee E even thinks that youths may be participating in the movement to boycott foreign products because “the pandemic has made everyone too depressed” and that most of her peers are actually more interested in movies, dramas, and IT products. Another youth, F, who contacted me himself, clearly expressed that he hopes to gain a “different perspective of the world” through communication and interaction.

Needless to say, certain groups deemed too radical — such as certain feminist groups (including a #MeToo group) or youth groups that excessively criticise their parents, were removed by the social media platform. This illustrates the conflict between the dominant mainstream culture and youth subculture that inherently seeks to challenge the mainstream. At the same time, it also reflects that there are indeed differences in the level of tolerance between China and the West. However, Taiwanese author Lin Yi-Han, who was sexually assaulted and took her own life at the age of 26, has always been the hot topic of this platform. The webpage created in memory of her has been viewed over 1.3 million times in three years. This shows that the plight of women and the power relationship between males and females have always been issues of concern for modern youths. Among the young netizens who have interacted with me before, some self-identify as male feminists.

In fact, in today’s world, youths in China and other parts of the world share highly similar technological means, topics of interest, knowledge structures, methods of expression, and emotional patterns. Only by incorporating these everyday and non-political phenomena into observations and analyses — and not solely focusing on youths who boycott and protest or speak with fierce patriotism — can we see the common ground between this culture and the global youth culture, and more accurately grasp the changing landscape of contemporary Chinese culture.

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