Every generation in modern China has been richer and more ambitious than the one before—until Gen Z. With youth unemployment so high that the government has simply stopped reporting the figures, many are opting to lie flat, slump down dead, or even become full-time children. The Party frets that despite the best efforts of the propaganda organs to get them excited about a tech-driven utopian future, China’s young people seem to have lost their work ethic. Louisa and Graeme are joined by Steven Sun Zhao, a Gen Z writer at Chaoyang Trap and Yaling Jiang, a proud millennial and the founder of Aperture China.
Graeme Smith: Welcome to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. I’m Graeme Smith from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, and I’m joined by my co-host, Louisa Lin, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World.
Louisa Lim: It’s been called the Age of Malaise with young people in China advocating lying flat as the economy slows down dramatically. The unemployment rate for urban youth aged 16 to 24 hit 21.3 per cent in June, and then the government stopped releasing numbers. So, this week, we’re talking about Gen Z in China and their existential crisis.
Graeme Smith: We’re joined by two brilliant guests based in China. Steven Sun Zhao is a Gen Z writer at Chaoyang Trap, which explores contemporary China through marginal cultures. Yaling Jiang is the founder of Aperture China, a China-focused research and strategy consultancy, and also the producer of a Substack called Following the Yuan.
Louisa Lim: So last month, there was this quite unusual street party celebrating Halloween in Shanghai, which is of course not a normal holiday. Yaling you were at that party dressed as a recycling bin. Tell us about it. Do you think it was just a party? Or was it symbolic of something deeper and bigger?
Yaling Jiang: I think it was symbolic of something bigger, probably not in the way the media, and especially foreign media interprets it. I don’t see it as a sign of defiance, but maybe just for self-expression, because people need to find an outlet for self-expression, I see that actually cross different aspects of life, for example, the ones who would probably be in the 2019 Hong Kong protests. They’re now opening bars and restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I actually know someone like that. And they will probably be cafe owners instead of joining more movements. So, I think especially in the consumerism-oriented city, like Shanghai, people usually find ways in consumer culture to express themselves, which is, I think, healthy, and also on the larger context, safe.
Graeme Smith: And can I ask, why did you dress as a recycling bin?
Yaling Jiang: So, I’m also pretty old compared to Steven, I’m, um, I’m a millennial. So, I can’t say that understand Gen Z that much, which is why I’m planning to do a report on them next year. But I from my history of participating Halloween, I find that only wear I only wear a uniform once. And it will kind of just bury, it’ll be buried in my closet. So, this year, I really wanted to find something that I can maybe reuse in the future. So, when I see this recycling bin on Taobao, I just think that ‘Oh, even if I don’t use it this year, I can save it for my children’s class or something.’ I don’t even have children yet. But I’m already thinking that far.
Graeme Smith: And in terms of this expressing themselves through consumption, did you see any outfits that you thought, that’s really clever, or that’s a bit subversive, that impressed you?
Yaling Jiang: I think the really impressive outfits usually go was their performances. I saw this girl, I think it’s very, it’s a very China’s specific gen, as we say, or like insider joke. So, I think this girl was trying to imitate this famous thing or Na Ying. But instead of Na Ying, which is translated to a single ‘There-Ying’, she called herself Zhe-Ying which is ‘Here Ying’ and she would just repeat all the like, I think, the famous conversations or the comments of Na Ying through reality shows, and she was really, really popular. People were taking pictures of her and with her, and she became like a sensation on Xiaohongshu [小红书 social media platform with similarities to Instagram] later on.
Louisa Lim: So, Steven, you count yourself as Gen Z, even though you were born in the US, but you went through school in China, and now you‘re at Stanford. What are the things that you think mark out your generation from those who came before?
Steven Sun Zhao: With regard to the Halloween sort of celebrations, and in particular, I do agree with Yaling that its mainly a sort of expression of individuality. And you know, it’s a very particular kind of individuality, I like I feel like a previous generations, perhaps the individual is oftentimes expressed through certain status symbols like, you know, you how used to see like a lot of LV and like Gucci and that sort of thing. That used to be seen as something very desirable. I think our generation is sort of that sort of thing is seen as not as sophisticated anymore. Or even, you know, in some cases, it’s a little boorish. And, you know, for Halloween, I felt like people were much more focused on expressing not some material thing, but rather their own thoughts, ideas, or things that they’re interested in. And yeah, I generally agree with the idea that it’s not inherently political. I think most people there are just there to express themselves rather than send some political message. At the same time, people who are politically inclined, they will always take this sort of opportunity, where individuality is allowed to be expressed to sort of kind of push their own ideas, right? So, you had the person who dressed up as Lu Xun…
Louisa Lim: Lu Xun, the famous author?
Steven Sun Zhao: Yes, yeah, the famous author and who he once wanted to be a doctor to sort of, you know, help his country modernize, but then he, in his opinion, right, the main issue of China was not necessarily technological, or medicine or whatever, but some, you know, some kind of political or psychological issue. And so yeah, you had someone who dressed up as that, and…
Louisa Lim: That’s a pretty learned Halloween outfit, isn’t it? It’s like going as Dickens or something. Kafka, I don’t know?
Steven Sun Zhao: I would say that most people in China are also quite familiar are like definitely familiar with Lu Xun, right, and sort of his whole story, because that’s something you learn at least in Beijing that’s something you learned in middle school, probably for the whole country, actually. It’s a bit subtle, but at the same time, it’s it is something a lot of people get, then obviously, with the da bai [大白], the people dressed up as the COVID sort of security, or the COVID testers, right, that’s something that everyone would get, because you saw them just everywhere. So yeah, I think even if not everyone takes, even if most people participating aren’t interested in political, this sort of thing will always have some kind of political connotation because of the space it provides to certain actors to sort of express more say, subversive messaging.
Graeme Smith: And Yaling, you identify as a millennial, growing up in the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era, rather than in the Xi Jinping era. I mean, how do you think the millennial generation differs from Gen Z? You know, having a sort of a marketing perspective on this?
Yaling Jiang: I think I would just see you maybe tell you a bit about how I think my generation was raised up. I think we had a more international upbringing, although we didn’t like really travel. Like when I was younger we didn’t travel that much. But we are always we were always consuming international content from the US, from Japan, it was on national TV. And I think when, as far as I remember, like the economy was always on the rise. So, we would always assume that every tomorrow is better than yesterday. Yeah, I think the Gen Z generation, I think one really big marketing trend we’ve witnessed is the Guo Chao trend, which has gone through three phases already. And I think it started when the Gen Z generation came into society, graduated and started finding work in society. Because during their formative years, Xi took the helm, I think it was one of the Xi’s priorities that we resonate with Chinese culture so that we can also resonate with a party, with a state more. So, this generation grew up without probably without watching Japanese cartoons, American TV shows. They grew up with Chinese cartoons. They were taught to love their traditional culture, love their country. And as they return, when they enter into adulthood, when they have the spending power to buy things, they tend to choose Chinese brands.
Louisa Lim: And I think some people translate Guo Chao as China chic. I don’t know if that’s an accurate translation because it’s not really just about fashion, is it? But Steven, how do you think, does that description resonate with you and the people that you went to school with?
Steven Sun Zhao: I think there is some truth to it. But I actually think in large part it’s because we some of us, kind of I think we take a lot of the internationalist stuff for granted because by the time that we are growing up the novelty has worn off when it comes to Japanese anime, or like American television shows. People watch those things still, but it’s not some huge, like world-breaking sort of, ‘Oh, I haven’t ever seen something like this before’ sort of thing, it’s just something you grew up around normally. And so, I think a lot of it is just the novelty of that has worn off. And, and so people are kind of turning to alternatives. People are kind of maybe, you know, looking more inwards for Chinese things, you know, honestly, because when you talk about Chinese consumer products, right, there are a lot of them that are actually quite decent right now, or at least good value. And that, you know, comes with growth slowing down. And, you know, you don’t have that sort of breakneck sort of change that you had before. I think some people growing up were definitely like fairly nationalist or, you know, they don’t like they don’t think of the outside world as well as the previous generation. I think that’s definitely true. I’m not really sure how true that is that how about how much that holds across a macro level across the entirety of Gen Z?
Graeme Smith: And what do you make of the Guo Chao trend? Like, I mean, how how, how do you interpret that?
Steven Sun Zhao: I mean, like, I have like some like what my phone case here is like decently Guo Chao-ish, it’s a dragon thing…
Louisa Lim: It’s very red. It’s a red phone case with sort of Chinese style dragons and clouds. It’s very pretty.
Steven Sun Zhao: Exactly. I’m very much not like, I’m not an asset nationalist at all, right? So, I think for most people, it’s just that Chinese brand products are not it’s not just cheap, shoddy, made in China, things that like weird manufactured goods they had in the past, like Chinese, a lot of Chinese goods, are, you know, they’re decently priced or decent quality. And very importantly, they’re sort of more tailored to Chinese consumer tastes, as opposed to say, a lot of I don’t know, European or Japanese or American products, which will be naturally more catered towards the tastes of other countries. So, I think, in my opinion, a large reason for the phenomena is just the fact that like, Chinese manufacturers and firms have grown and they’re kind of able to better target domestic audiences than, say, international firms. But yeah, there’s certainly also a certain trend of you know, buying China-made you have the whole guo chan [国产made in China] thing. Like I certainly think that like some people buy Huawei products because it’s Chinese made, right? And that’s also not unique to China. Obviously, in America, you have like buy, buy American made, you know, buy American cars, that sort of thing. So, I do think that maybe that is impetus for some things. But in my opinion, I think the sort of economic logic behind these Chinese products are just a better fit for me is probably the main thing driving Guo Chao here.
Yaling Jiang: Yeah, I think I definitely do agree. What made it really big, I think is the policy push and which relates back to my point of how Xi Jinping sees it as a really important tool to push forward his agenda. So, the Propaganda Department and the regulator that’s in charge of TV and film, started making and sponsoring a lot more shows about Chinese culture. There’ll be competitions on national TV for young students to learn about calligraphy to learn about gu shi (古诗 classical poetry), chengyu (成语idioms), which is something I feel like the millennial has kind of stayed away from because we don’t think that’s cool. And at this point in 2023, I think Guo Chao has already in infiltrated into everyone’s everyday life, from what people eat, to what they drink, to how they travel. And the other day I just bought a Guo Chao fried chicken at Fresh Po, which is hilarious, which is crazy to me. How can a fried chicken be Guo Chao? But I think it just how they made it, they made it into like a lu chicken first and then fried it. So they marinate it in some Chinese spices and then fried it that I think symbolizes how people have different interpretation of Guo Chao now, and I really very much agree with what Steven said about how the Chinese companies have upgraded their supply chains, their research and development, their packaging, their marketing. I think that all happened during the first and second phases of Guo Chao, because before COVID, we also saw consumption upgrade. I think that’s what that’s when companies realized that they need to make changes to stack up with the foreign competitors. And these days, yeah, I think everything that’s made in China, designed in China, Chinese brand, Chinese technique, Chinese spices, everything can be called Guo Chao.
Graeme Smith: One phenomenon you’ve written about Yaling that I hadn’t really come across much before is this idea of full-time children, which might be both a Gen Z and a Millennial thing, because there’s people in their 30s, who are what you call full-time children. Can you maybe explain this phenomenon and what you think’s behind it?
Yaling Jiang: Yes, full-time children. I don’t think it’s a widespread phenomenon. But these people tend to also vlog and blog about their lives. So, I think what they are doing really speak to a generation, for example, I’m also in my 30s, and when I go home, I’m also kind of full-time children, which means that my parents would take care of every aspect of my life. And I don’t have to worry about food, I don’t have to worry about paying rent, I can just be happily kind of ever, ever after. And I don’t have to find a job. My job is full time children, as long as I make my parents happy, who I can see as my investors and as my boss, in that sense, I can, I don’t need to make any changes in my life, basically.
Louisa Lim: Steven, I wanted to ask you about another trend that was emerging. I saw I think earlier this year, there was a whole set of people taking graduation photos, which are kind of slumped as if they were dead, you know, over park benches or lying down and some people were calling it more dead than alive. That whole kind of zombie thing? Do you have friends that were doing that, or talking about that? And why do you think that got big?
Steven Sun Zhao: Yeah, I do think this is just sort of the latest instance of a general trend of people, you know, lying flat or letting it ride. It definitely differentiates Gen Z in a sense, where people are a little tired of the whole, you always have to be sort of racing and competing. And you need to be accomplishing something either for yourself or for the country or whatever. Like people are sort of tired of that. That sentiment started before the lockdown and the ensuing slowdown because of that, frankly, so very young people are tired not because of the slowdown, although that might have exacerbated it, but it was really a reaction to actually the sort of breakneck growth and these really intense working conditions that ensued along with that. So as an example, when I was in high school in senior year, I think so this was during COVID. But it was before… at that time, everyone thought China was doing a great job with COVID like everything was pretty much normal as compared to the rest of the world where things were in chaos. Supposedly, according to the state media, right? Bilibili [哔哩哔哩], the Chinese video-streaming platform, they came out with a video called hou lang [后浪], it was like this very positive video about the youth and how the youth are like, pushing the country forward. And they’re, they’re doing all these spectacular things and they’re, you know, they’re really going to change the future. And like a lot of reaction to that was actually very negative. Like a lot of the youth are like, no like, I’m not doing this. Why are you making me do all this for you? For what reason? I’m tired. Like, stop with the shit. Like when I was in high school even before you know, the idea that China was like really slowing down became commonplace, I think was a common sentiment among youth that things were moving too fast. And you know, as an individual, you don’t have much time to actually do things that you want or that you’re interested in, and instead you’re just forced into this race of kind of working all the time and you don’t know what exactly that’s for. So yeah, I think the that whole college graduation like sort of lying down, slumping down dead sort of thing is just the latest example of kind of this disillusionment with a previous sort of go-go era of just working hard. And, you know, you don’t know exactly what that’s for.
Louisa Lim: So Yaling, how do you see it? Is it angst? Or is it something deeper and darker, and in a way more worrying for the government?
Yaling Jiang: I think, yeah, I think for the government, they must be worrying. Because we have a saying PUA which is, which doesn’t translate well. So, it symbolizes, it’s an acronym for pickup artists, but it’s now also widely used in common in the workplace. So, use PUA in a sentence, ‘My boss is constantly PUAing me’, it means that my boss gives me so much bullshit. I don’t want to listen to his bullshit anymore. So…
Steven Sun Zhao: It kind of means like gaslighting…
Yaling Jiang: Yeah, yeah. Oh, wow. Yeah. I feel like it’s a big problem for the people who are making the rules for China, for the government and for the capitalists. Because it will like it probably in the previous generations will be working so hard to provide for our family, we wouldn’t, we would put our personal health and personal wellbeing as a lower priority. But now we don’t want to do that anymore. Because over the years, we’ve seen so many cases, we young people die actually at our jobs and work and sorry, why professionals die at their jobs, it’s really, really worrying.
Louisa Lim: Because of this culture of overwork?
Yaling Jiang: I think so. Yes, yes. So, this generation, and also I think the millennial generation, we are now seeking a work-life balance. And also I think that’s connected to the rise of various sports culture, and the many fun things we can do. It’s not like we don’t have anything else to do outside work, we are so busy with our lives, we can go cycling, we can go to the outdoors, that has to thank to the development of infrastructure, and also the incoming of different things, foreign culture and the foreign consumerism culture that supports this kind of mindset. So, I think that the work-life balance is one framework frameworks that we can look at this. And the second one I want to talk about is that how this generation, especially the Gen Z generation, are more willing to defy traditional norms in relationships and workplaces, and they are also more willing to defy stigma. I think they’re doing a lot, they’re doing that a lot better than millennials, I think, especially in workplaces. There’s another saying that that’s called a ling ling hou zhengdun zhichang (00后整顿职场), as in the people who are born after 2000 they are rewriting the rules of workplace. We kind of see that as a joke, but it has some truth. Like they, if you tell them to do overtime, there’ll be like why would I want to do that? Those are for people who are inefficient at work. And there were some really funny videos of how the young how the young Chinese Gen Z’s are buying mixue bingcheng (蜜雪冰城) or milk teas for their bosses during meetings when the boss asked them to set up like coffee or tea. And it’s really funny to see how like a man in his 50s and 60s slurping milk tea with boba because that’s what his Gen Z employees like.
Graeme Smith: Instead of the sort of lovely green tea that was imagining he was gonna get…
Yaling Jiang: Yeah.
Graeme Smith: I mean, Steven one way that Gen Z is different measurably from the millennials is that there’s just a lot more guys than women, thanks to the one child policy. And some of the Gen Z years you have like 116 men for 100 women. And you immersed yourself in for this wonderful article about Chinese incels, where you, it must have been extremely painful. Where you spent a lot of time looking at this site called Hupu, or hoops, which when you were at high school was just this NBA fan site that was one of your favorite places to go to, but now is one of the most notorious and toxic places on the Chinese internet. When you say incels, I mean, how are Chinese incels different to say US incels that we might be more familiar with?
Steven Sun Zhao: ‘Zhinan ai’ [直男癌] in Chinese, or straight male cancers, right? So, I don’t think straight male cancers are really organizing or kind of doing anything, I feel like, their whole thing is that they’re quite impotent, and not able to do anything. Although actually now that you mentioned this, they’ve gotten into like these very nasty spats with like, online celebrity fandoms. And, you know, sometimes they’ll bombard like these online survey fandom websites, and like, like brigade them and just like spam hate messages and that sort of thing. And then the online celebrity fandoms they will brigade Hupu and they will spam like these basketball boards, like that kind of things also. So, you have like these, I guess, sort of on this sort of online organizing, necessarily a thing. Straight male cancer guys, um, I don’t know, I don’t think there’s much of a force really beyond that. It’s like a very hopeless group of people who if we’re going to connect it to a broader, like socio economic context, I feel they have been quite left out by this whole reform and opening up thing where a lot of people have prospered, but not them. And so, I think there’s definitely resentment about that.
Louisa Lim: And Yaling, what about Gen Z women? It seems that Chinese women are becoming a lot more assertive, a lot less, a lot more reluctant to get married and to hitch themselves up to men who, you know, will require them to do a lot of housework and childbearing. They’re actually rejecting, a lot of women are kind of beginning to reject those norms at a time when the Communist Party itself is kind of pressing that homemaker role on women. I mean, how do you read what’s going on?
Yaling Jiang: I think there’s definitely a conflict between the official message and between what people really want. I think the women, including the millennial woman, who were raised in the city, they really don’t hear they are they refuse to hear whatever that comes out from the government. They are doing what they want, they are setting their own standard and their own examples for their peers, for example, this is something that actually my mom told me like, she actually suggested that I should do this. Later on in life if I cannot find a man. She was like, ‘Oh, why don’t you just go abroad buy a semen and have a baby that way, like my dad and I will help raise the baby in our hometown.’ I’m like that, that is something I haven’t heard. But I think she’s saying that because of the influence of social media. They were role models of this generation, these role models don’t live by the government’s standards. They don’t, they don’t live by the traditional standard. They are writing their own rules, whether to have a baby that looks mixed, because the semen’s from other countries, or there’ll be people who freeze their eggs in other countries, or they are, say, as the members of LGBTQ societies, they are, it’s still thriving, but kind of underneath the surface. So, they’ll also be relationships like that. But it’s just not something that’s readable or apparent in mainstream media.
Graeme Smith: One thing we’ve we’ve talked about in previous episodes is this idea of intergenerational trauma. And I’m kind of curious as to what you’ve seen, either in your own lives or with your classmates, because a lot of millennials and Gen Z would have been raised by grandparents who would have seen and maybe even done quite horrific things during the Cultural Revolution. Do you think there is any influence of intergenerational trauma on your generations?
Yaling Jiang: Intergenerational trauma as in my grandparents have passed on those memories to me?
Graeme Smith: Yeah, either, not necessarily consciously, but just through the way they raised you say, through the way they might raise you to, you know, avoid the sorts of things that happened in their lives?
Yaling Jiang: I think not surprisingly, they’ve never discussed anything about the Cultural Revolution, or the Tian’anmen incident while I was growing up. It’s yeah, it kind of speaks to what Louisa wrote about in her books. I think they only started to have that conversation, actually, during COVID. Because I think it also brought back a lot of memories for them. So, they started having discussions, or kind of just retelling stories from the past, from the Cultural Revolution from the Great Leap. And I also start asking them a lot of questions like the similarities of how people were starving. Yeah, I don’t think it’s trauma, I think it’s something that we need to preserve and remember otherwise, because of this internalized fear of not discussing politics with your family members in order to protect them, their memories will just be gone once they die. So, I don’t think it’s intergenerational trauma, I think I would very much like to hear more and preserve them in my own terms.
Louisa Lim: I’m just listening to what you guys have said, in a way, the picture that you’re painting is sort of almost contradictory that you have this generation that are idealists and individuals and rule breakers, but at the same time, they’re also sort of despondent about the future and lying flat and full-time children. But I do notice one thread that seems to run through it is that both of you keep talking time and time again about social media, and the influence of it and online influencers and it almost seems like this is a generation whose reality is almost more virtual than real. I don’t know if that’s too much of a stretch, but I wanted to try this idea on you.
Yaling Jiang: I think social media is only going to play a bigger role in changing society. In terms of technology and the platforms people use, people nowadays get their information, their news from social media, they get news from the trending lists, platforms like Weibo, Douyin, Baidu. And these days, all the platforms all have a trending list. Meaning that you can just go on maybe have, like 30 minutes to scroll down the news, and you pick what’s interesting to you. Another reason that’s kind of feeding into this phenomenon, I think, is the kind of empowerment of self-media these days, everyone can be a media platform. I think that’s also probably due to China’s censorship that only things state-owned companies can run media companies. But these days, there are so many independent voices, although they may not have like diverse views. But there are so many Chinese platforms, there are at least six to eight mainstream Chinese platforms. I think the two, these two main changes in infrastructure, are enabling people to express themselves also record every little moment of their lives. But that also means that social media is now playing such a big role in people’s lives, everyone has a lot of power. If they are unhappy about the brand or about the service, they actually will threaten the owner that I’m gonna take you to Douyin. They don’t trust the government to solve this issue for them. But they trust the social media, because they know that media attraction and eyeballs in China will solve the problem for them.
Graeme Smith: Steven, do you have any thoughts?
Steven Sun Zhao: I really liked the point that Louisa made about this contradiction, you have between the idealism and then the despondence of say Gen Z, you know, I can kind of reconcile them in the sense that the despondence arises from this inability to, to fulfill your idealism, right? Like you have all of these kind of goals. Or maybe you don’t even have goals, right? But you want, because you don’t even get the chance to think of what you’d like to do because you’re so busy and caught up with everything else. The despondence arises from the, you have the sort of hope to just be yourself and do what you want and then you have reality, which is just, well, you have to work this job, you have to work long hours, you have all these responsibilities. You have to, and then you have to get married, and you have to buy a house, if you’re a guy, right? You have to buy a house and a car before you do that, and et cetera, et cetera. So, yeah, the despondence sort of arises from the kind of big contradictions you have between the economic reality of what is going on now and then the kind of new idealism that I suppose Gen Z has. And with regards to social media, I know I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say like, social media is kind of big at this, because it’s such a good way for you to vicariously sort of live different lives, right? You know, you might not be able to actually say, I don’t know, drive around the country and visit all these different cool places. Or you might have not have the chance to actually go to like a small village and live like a very idyllic life, but you can watch someone else do that on social media, right? And there is some kind of vicarious satisfaction through that. And then just the sheer size of Chinese social media means that, you know, if you’re looking for that sort of thing, like you almost certainly will find some kind of content that you think speaks to you. So, I do think social media is big about that about providing a simulated reality that functions as some kind of escapism for people. And I also think that that’s the social media is probably the most obvious example of that, but it’s not just restricted to that. So, there’s like this thing, it has been built for a while now. But there’s this kind of resort place built when I was in high school maybe called, in Chinese it’s called Anaya [in Qinhuangdao]. I’m not sure, I think English is called Aurania, or something. It’s like from Sanskrit, but it’s like this this resort not too far from Beijing, it’s in Hebei, along the coast. And then it’s like this really pretty little resort thing. But what makes it distinct is that it also markets itself as this big sort of place for yourself to this big, artistic sort of community. Like you have music festivals, you have art. You have like plays and whatnot there. And it was like very, very popular for some time because of this going on. And like a lot of Gen Z people were saying, ‘Oh, I really want to go there,’ not necessarily because it’s just not just because it’s a beach resort, although it is, but because like, I really want to be able to kind of live that, like experience that sort of creative, bustling community for some time, right? But like, I went there, and it’s just when you talk about real, like artistic scenes, right, like, like New York, with the Bohemian thing, or even like 798, before it was kind of controlled. Like, it’s always a grassroots movement, where you have a bunch of artists kind of partnering up together, and there’s trying to figure out some way to make the ends meet and just produce what they want. But Anaya is like it was, it’s like this big real estate project by this big developer, and they just kind of forced the whole, oh, we’re gonna bring big music festivals, and that sort of thing here. So, when you go there, it’s just like, oh, this is very commercial, actually. So that’s just like this huge case of simulated reality, right? Whereas people want some kind of escapism through art and music. And it’s provided in the form of like this big, commercial real estate project. So yeah, I feel like people are really just trying to search for any kind of conduit for finding some other kind of meaning. And then you have a lot of commercial entities trying to profit off that, I suppose, which is obviously natural.
Graeme Smith: So Steven, I think just to broaden this out, maybe one way that Gen Z is a little bit different to their predecessors, is that things aren’t getting better and they’re aware that they’re the ones being exploited on the altar of market capitalism, that there’s this movement called the jiucai (韭菜), the chives who are just harvested over and over again, maybe thinking back to your classmates from Beijing, how are people looking to escape this? Like, what’s the most common strategy to, if you like, get out of the race? We’ve heard a lot about lying flat, but that seems a bit simplistic. So how are people dealing with this reality that they’re the exploited class?
Steven Sun Zhao: Well, I mean, as a disclaimer, right, like I went to, like a prestigious high school and like, I grew up in a very privileged environment in Beijing, where most of my classmates were, you know, quite well off. So they’re not exactly the ones being exploited, to be honest.
Graeme Smith: So that was the Beijing no. 4 High School, which is like, kind of where the elite went, yeah?
Louisa Lim: Isn’t that where Bo Xilai went?
Steven Sun Zhao: I believe so. A lot of a lot of big wigs sort of party officials and their children go to Beijing No. 4 High School. The most common refrain is just to kind of drop out of the rat race, right? Like if they can’t, if they can’t sort of dangle the carrot in front of you and the stick of course, in order to make you keep on working harder than there’s no jiucai [chives] for them to cut, right? If you just decide that I don’t really care, then they can exploit you that much. So, I feel like that’s the most common response, or no, that’s the second most common, the most common response is just you kind of suck it up. And you’re like, yeah, I’m being exploited. What can I do? I do feel like the most common response is just this is how things are. There’s not much I can do besides just sort of get by and then sort of by enjoying like, the little things.
Louisa Lim: And finally Yaling, how do you see things playing out? Do you think Gen Z will kind of fall into line? Or are we going to see sort of bigger social changes as this generation of kind of, you know, almost hippies and dropouts, as they age up?
Yaling Jiang: Right. I think before I answer your question, I’d like to, I think to set out the principal mindset of how I usually see Chinese people and how I explain this to brands and companies. China is so vast, I think the trends we are seeing, the funny vloggers or those who I mean, yeah, the funny vloggers who we are seeing they only represent a very small group of people, I think the mass majority, if they decide to stay in China, which I think most of them do, they will just have a normal life. They’ll continue on the path that their parents have. And they will go on the traditional route, of graduating from school, find a good job, getting married before 30. Buy a house, I think that will still be the main story for the majority of this generation. But the interesting things you are seeing, I think they do represent very few people and they do represent some people’s aspirations, but I don’t think they define how this generation will go. So, to answer your question, what was there going to be big social movements? I don’t think so. But there may be some random events like the white paper revolution that we cannot predict and foresee. So, I can only say that much, but I cannot predict when that’s going to happen.
Graeme Smith: Fantastic. I think that’s a good place to end. Yaling, Steven, thanks very much.
Steven Sun Zhao: Yeah. Thank you.
Yaling Jiang: Thank you both.
Graeme Smith: You’ve been listening to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing Beltway. Many thanks to our guests and to my co-host, Louisa Lim. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World. Our editing is by Andy Hazel. Background research by Wing Kuang, our music is by Suzy Wilkins and our cartoons and gifs are courtesy of Seb Danta. Bye for now.