Banal as it is to say, China’s changing. Ever since Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Reform and Opening” policy, the country has embarked on more than three decades of unprecedented growth. It is a country riddled with contradictions; it’s also one that, in many ways, defies explanation.
Fortunately, in his new book, China’s Millennials: The Want Generation, writer Eric Fish does not set out with such a goal in mind. Instead, he focuses on presenting readers with a snapshot of Chinese youth—specifically those who came of age in the wake of the protest and subsequent massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. This is a perfect marker, as those belonging to the jiulinghou (post-90s generation) have been much maligned both at home and abroad for failing to carry on their predecessors’ activist legacy. To many millennials in China, the labels affixed to them (such as materialistic, lazy, selfish, and confused) are unfair, and like their counterparts in America, they have come to resent what they see as a nation’s attempt to categorically brand them. These are the people whose stories Mr. Fish decides to tell:
Young Chinese I was speaking to, like many youth around the world, also seemed to feel older generations at home were pigeonholing them into unflattering stereotypes. When I said I was writing about typical young people like them, they became anxious to air their grievances and struggles, as well as to defend themselves against those who would look down upon them.
This focus itself is one of the main strengths of the book, as younger Western readers will find much they can relate to: growing up in the shadow of great expectations, maturing in a time of economic uncertainty, and struggling to live for their passions instead of wealth. From high-school students to marriage seekers, actors to factory workers, and reporters to customs officials, Fish draws upon an impressively wide array of characters. Surely, there are those who get left out, but as the author notes:
The people whose stories I tell in this book are representative of common traits shared by many others with whom I have spoken. The stories depicted are those of a variety of young Chinese coming from different regional and socioeconomic backgrounds who were extremely generous with their time, spending hours and days (in some cases, over the span of several years) with me as I tried to probe their backgrounds, beliefs, and anxieties.
The book employs a four-part structure meant to imitate a millennial’s development from student to citizen. Over the course of this arc, Fish spotlights several of the more common frustrations faced by Chinese youth (a rigid education system, pervasive corruption in the form of nepotism at work, societal pressure to marry) and shows that, in many cases, they are starting to push back. For the most part, this structure supplies the book with adequate profluence, but at times, when he drifts away from his subjects, it feels like just enough to keep things going. Indeed, there are some memorable characters (an overworked teenager preparing for the gaokao and a feminist activist pushing for “bathroom equality,” to name a couple), but others exit the story so hastily that, in the end, they are remembered as little more than facts and figures.
That being said, Fish does an excellent job of communicating the nuances of life in China as well as the attitudes of the jiulinghou he encounters. At points throughout the book, the way he writes about certain topics will have you feeling downright Chinese:
To my surprise, many students who hated the political classes nevertheless supported their inclusion in higher education. “We are unconsciously learning to support the Party,” Maggie, one of my post-80s undergraduate students, once told me. “But as huge and complicated as China is, it’s hard for it to apply a two-party or multiparty system. Thus, this method the Party uses to maintain its domination is necessary to ensure the whole country’s safety and stability.”
And that’s just it. There’s a pragmatism at work in the lives of many Chinese that, for one reason or another, is not fully appreciated by observers in the West. Mr. Fish is not one of them. After arriving in China in 2007 to teach English, he went on to acquire his master’s degree from Tsinghua University, then worked as a reporter in Beijing. All in all, he lived in the country for seven years, something which will prove self-evident to any reader who has spent considerable time there himself. These are the young men and women you meet out on the streets of modern China, not the caricatures you read about in newspapers back home, and there is plenty of potential—that much Fish makes clear in the book—for their generation to carry on where the previous one left off.
And so, once again, China’s changing. As environmental and demographic pressures start to exert more stress on the economy, how will the country’s millennials react? Until now, the social contract between the government and the people has been maintained through a promise of material prosperity, but what happens when that is no longer the case? Wisely, Fish does not attempt to provide the answer, but he’ll have you believing that a new wave of activism is brewing on the horizon.
To read more from Eric Fish, visit his blog sinostand.com.
Reviewed by Quincy Carroll, author of the novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.