Believe it or not, no country has encountered – and created – such a huge, formidable wave of change in such a short eon of time as China does.
In Mao Zedong’s era, China was labelled as one of the world’s poorest countries, with virtually nearly 1 billion of its people lingering on state jobs, rationed welfare, and the so-called ‘iron rice bowl’ principle. Employment was guaranteed for life – albeit with very little possibility for ‘status upgrade’, and pot-luck income. Waves of revolution even further disrupted – and reshaped – the whole society’s mindset. The 50s’ generation has witnessed how Great Leap Forward – one paradoxically interpreted to propel China into an ‘equal’ partner as Europe and US had done – led to the deadliest famine in human civilization. The 60s’, and the 70s’ altogether, had also bore the brunt of Cultural Revolution – when culture was entirely destroyed, where children, students, workers, and all ‘revolutionaries’ alike were forced to persecute their own parents, siblings, neighbors, teachers, professors, intellects, party members, or any other dubbed as ‘bourgeoisie’.
And the 80s’ generation, the balinghou – those born in 1980 and beyond – are faced with material greed that has been domineering in nearly all aspects of life in the contemporary Chinese society.
With the introduction of market reforms and the enforced one-child policy (which has recently been significantly relaxed after warnings of population decline and rapid aging), China has rapidly seen its status changing; one transformed from a very huge ‘sick man’ into the world’s second most significant economic powerhouse, now challenging the legitimacy of its long-time rival, United States. With family size reduced and incomes improved, the society’s living standards have risen to an unprecedented level never imagined before by prior generations.
Nevertheless, the economic success of China itself comes at a list of disproportionate costs, one of which is the social crisis that is penetrating towards the society. The children are becoming more spoiled than their parents, a culture of ‘money fetish’ has flourished among bulk of its populace, and individualism has been rampantly misused as ‘all-for-me’ mindset. A huge generational gap is now taking place between the balinghou and their predecessors, those who had been faced with severe hardships throughout Mao’s rule.
A writer attempts to explore deeper the brand-new world of these ‘balinghou’, and the consequences left behind to the overall societal relationship among the society. Read the full article on Aeon Magazine.
Immigrants often have a stable set of values from their home culture from which to draw sustenance, whether religious or cultural. But for the children of the Cultural Revolution in China, there’s been no such continuity. They were raised to believe in the revolutionary Maoism of the 1960s and ‘70s, and then told as young adults in the late 1970s that everything drilled into them in their adolescence had been a terrible mistake. Then they were fed a trickle of socialism, rapidly belied by the rush to get rich, and finally offered the hint of a liberal counter-culture in the 1980s before Tiananmen snatched it away. In the meantime, traditional values condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ in their youth are being given a quick polish and propped up as the new backbone of society by the authorities.
The young get slammed for their supposed materialism, but it’s a set of values their parents hold more dearly still, since the one constant source of security for their generation has been money. Money — at least the fantasy of it — has never abandoned them. ‘The Chinese love money,’ the PhD student Zhang told me, ‘because it has no history’. Having gone through the gangster capitalism of China’s rush to wealth, the older generation’s bleakly amoral attitude toward how to get by can shock their children. Huang Nubo, a poet, rock-climber and billionaire property developer, now in his fifties, has been one of the few people to talk about this openly, speaking of the ‘devastated social ecology’ in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin. But Huang is a rarity, and cushioned by his own wealth; far more parents are concerned that their children aren’t doing enough to get on.
While immigrants dream of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, or professors, domestic Chinese ambitions mostly lie elsewhere. Doctors are poorly paid, overworked, and unpopular, thanks to a flailing and corruption-ridden medical system. Lawyers are bound to the vagaries of the ever-shifting judicial system. Professors earn marginal incomes and rely on outside work to get by. The priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.