Interview: Eric Fish on the much maligned Chinese millennial
Who wants to be a Chinese millennial?They’re seen as politically disengaged by Western journalists who feign shock at their ignorance of the iconic Tank Man picture, an image meticulously scrubbed from the Chinese internet. At home they’re perceived as spoilt. Neither notion captures the reality of Chinese millennials — some 400 million people born between 1984 and 1996 — according to Eric Fish, author of China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.
Fish is an American writer and journalist who has written for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Chinese title The Economic Observer (经济观察报). He spent four years researching Chinese Millennials, interviewing millennials — from factory workers to social activists.
“It’s hard to argue that they don’t have it easier than their parents and grandparents, who sometimes didn’t have enough to eat,” says Fish, yet Chinese millennials have inherited conditions that in many ways set them at a real disadvantage.
The number of Chinese graduating university each year grows by 250,000 at a time when the number of jobs available to them is declining 20 percent per annum. China’s economy, previously full of opportunities, is slowing down after much of the country’s wealth and power has already been consolidated in relatively few elites. Unless you’re one of the lucky few, “it’s hard to break into those circles and move up.” Fish says.
(On the other hand, Fish found that many successful tech startups are being launched by the very millennials excluded by the big universities and famous companies.)
There’s also a gender imbalance that increases by an additional one million men every year, making it harder for straight young men to find marriage partners. Many of those who do will struggle to buy houses in a grossly inflated market. Moreover, most millennials are only children burdened with the “4:2:1 problem”, each of them with four grandparents and two parents who they may be expected to help support.
Unemployed, unmarried men pose a real political risk wherever they are in the world, and nationalism rooted in anti-foreign sentiment such as this month’s military parade celebrating Japan’s World War II surrender isn’t always a sufficient outlet. Fish points out that nationalistic protests have backfired on Chinese leaders before, during the May 4th movement, and in protests against Japan in 1985.
With the path to material success becoming less smooth, many Chinese millennials are choosing to prioritise different things. One woman he spoke to left China to study writing in the States against her parents’ wishes, a conflict of values she describes in almost embarrassingly stark terms: “my parents want me to pursue materialism. I want to pursue meaning.”
Entrepreneurship, free expression and advocacy for women’s rights are all ways in which Fish finds Chinese millennials asserting themselves. “I think this generation is becoming more ambitious in terms of wanting things other than money,” he says.
Article by Sam Gaskin
- Article by Sam Gaskin