Chinese youth: Westernised but not pro-democracy

On the internet, one may get the impression that the Chinese youth is increasingly nationalistic and hostile towards the West. But this is an oversimplification. Multiple national sample surveys find that Chinese youth are adopting Westernised values, with a greater preference for individualism and self-expression, and are less nationalistic. Yet, they are far from embracing Western democracy, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the recent Tokyo Olympics, Chinese netizens — many of whom belong to the post-1990s/2000s generations — caught international attention when they flooded a Japanese athlete’s social media account with hateful messages after he defeated his Chinese opponent. Likewise, Chinese netizens also rebuked a Taiwanese star who referred to Taiwanese athletes as “national players”. Such cases demonstrate the aggressive nationalistic sentiments of part of the Chinese youth known as the  “Little Pinks”.

To get a full picture of Chinese youths, we examined the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) and World Values Survey (WVS). Both surveys have been conducted in China for over a decade and give insights into generational changes.

Values and political orientation

Perhaps the most striking generational change is that younger generations in China are turning more individualistic. In Confucian culture and Leninist tradition, the state is viewed to be responsible for individuals’ well-being. In turn, individuals are expected to prioritise collective interests over their personal interests.

In the past four decades, however, rapid economic development has transformed Chinese society. The last four waves of the ABS survey, carried out from 2002 to 2015, reveal that the younger generation is more likely to place individual interests before collective interests.

A second change is the greater desire for self-expression among the young. Economic development shifts individuals’ pursuit from material well-being to values associated with self-expression, including social tolerance, freedom of expression, environmental protection, and respecting choices of lifestyles.

The last three waves of the WVS survey, carried out from 2001 to 2012, show that the younger cohorts in China value self-expression more highly than their seniors. Indeed, on the internet, even the “Little Pinks” are speaking out on issues such as gender equality and animal rights, with views that are sometimes at odds with the Party-state.

The third change lies in the respect for authority. The ABS survey asked its respondents for their views on three sets of relationships in Chinese society — the relationships between child and parent, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, and student and teacher. The results indicate that the younger generations tend to be less compliant with the authoritative figures when compared to older generations..

Nevertheless, such results do not necessarily mean that younger Chinese citizens are ready to challenge the government and push for political changes towards democracy. In fact, further examination of data reveals the opposite.

Generally, the younger generations in China are significantly less likely to prefer democracy than the older cohorts. They also showed a lower level of confidence in the capability of democracy to resolve problems in the society. The relative success of the Chinese government in containing the COVID-19 pandemic could have reinforced this belief.

Drivers of change

Two major forces — socio-economic changes and the Party-state’s efforts in shaping citizens’ values — are driving value changes in China today.

First, socio-economic changes. During industrialisation or post-industrialisation processes, people are increasingly likely to forgo traditional values, become less compliant with authority, and focus more on individualism and self-expression.

But in China, the education and propaganda systems, tasked with instilling political loyalty and consolidating the legitimacy of the Party-state, have also significantly influenced the younger generations’ values and political attitudes. This is done through patriotic and ideological education, internet firewall, and censorship.

In recent years, the Party-state has stepped up efforts to engage with the younger generations on social media platforms by adopting social media lingo, emoji and memes. It even began to produce animation series to convey official ideology and policy initiatives in ways that young people could relate to. Much of these efforts are aimed at cultivating their suspicion of democracy and reinforcing their nationalism.

Chinese youths, on the whole, are becoming increasingly Westernised, that is, more individualistic and more likely to emphasise self-expression values. However, they do not necessarily support a democratic change in China.

The shifts in public political pursuits and demands will affect how future leaders could elicit their legitimacy. The Party-state might strengthen their ideological control to offset the value changes among the younger generations. The recent crackdowns on pop idols and the further strengthening of ideological education in colleges are examples.