How the rise of a liberal, social media–savvy generation is changing Chinese society
By Alec Ash
Mar 26 2017
BEIJING — Lucifer does not follow Chinese politics. The 28-year-old musician in Beijing — who chose his English name “to be different” — doesn’t read state media. He cannot name any of the standing committees of the Politburo, the seven men who steer the Chinese Communist Party, save for “Xi Dada,” a common nickname for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
And he doesn’t know the difference between the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the two annual state meetings that brought Beijing to a halt over the past two weeks as the next year of policies and priorities were rubber-stamped. Collectively called the “two sessions,” these parades of bureaucratic power have dominated foreign news coverage of China.
To read the tea leaves of China’s future, governments and journalists around the world are watching the top. But maybe they shouldn’t be.
There are deeply worrying trends in top-level Chinese politics. Since becoming president four years ago, President Xi has consolidated power, cracked down on civil society, and stifled dissent in an alarming reversal of what observers both inside and out of China had hoped was a trend of gradual reform since the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
His government has tortured human rights lawyers, brought foreign NGOs understate supervision, and called for stricter socialist ideological education in colleges. This year’s state congress confirmed that autocratic trend, with fewer dissenting votes (just 14 out of 2,838) and more references to Xi as the “core” of the party. By these measures, China seems to be going not forward but backward to the Mao era.
But there is another, contrasting trend that is much more promising: While the Chinese leadership is repressive, Chinese society is becoming increasingly liberal. That is especially true of the younger and urban generation, which I have been following, befriending, and writing about since I first arrived to live in Beijing in 2008, fresh out of college.
Their lives sketch a different picture: one of a population more receptive to new ideas, while firm in the conviction that China’s interests are paramount; of a society that is steadily more progressive, as the countryside gives way to the cities; and of a generation with radically different aspirations and attitudes than those of their elders — including those who happen to be running the country.
It’s far more a desire for reform than for revolution, whether the goal is free speech or greater equality. And it has never been clearer that the system does not want to be reformed in a more liberal mold. But generational shifts, while slow, are inevitable.
Which means that while the repressive bureaucracy of China that we know today won’t be going away anytime soon, the longer-term future may look very different.