Features | Politics | East Asia

Xi Jinping’s Chinese Youth Dilemma

The Chinese Dream finds itself caught between youth awakenings on the left and right.

By Mu Chunshan for

Many people in the West remember the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989. Far fewer are aware that nearly 100 years ago another generation of young Chinese demonstrated in the same place.

On May 4, 1919, students unhappy at China’s opaque politics and its corrupt officials paraded through the streets of Beijing. The movement eventually forced the government into making concessions. Ultimately, it was seen as a turning point in Chinese history, and May 4 has become a national holiday: Chinese Youth Day. May retains a special significance with Chinese youth even today; this year two films about the nation’s young, So Young and American Dreams in China, were released in May.

Of course, these movies are not political; sensitive street politics are taboo for the Chinese film industry. The two movies have no relationship with the May 4th Movement. So Young is about young love, while American Dreams in China features young entrepreneurs. But while the bustling crowds at the cinema might not have politics on their minds, young Chinese sitting in front of their computers are trying to influence the national debate with their ideas and their own definition of the Chinese Dream.

Thirty-year-old Song Yangbiao recently "disappeared". He had become known for his rather bold political statements on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Song is a weekly newspaper reporter in South China, and a "leftist" representative who supports Mao Zedong thought.

There are many young leftists in China like Song. Most are idealists from the post-1980s generation, and they abhor official corruption. Leftists were inspired by the emergence of Bo Xilai and calls to “support integrity and eliminate evil” in Chongqing. With Bo’s downfall, young people like Song began to lose confidence in the Chinese government, and the criticism became increasingly strident. Then the election of Xi Jinping as Chinese president brought a flicker of hope.

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Xi and Bo share something in common: their fathers were Communist Party veterans. And both Xi and Bo have a maverick streak and a strong respect for Mao. That was cause enough for young leftists to believe in Xi. Unlike Bo, however, Xi Jinping is not prepared to challenge CPC ground rules and would never allow writers like Song Yangbiao to label him "Bo II". As a consequence, leftists have begun to feel more disenchanted with the Chinese government.

Another group from the post-1980s generation shares the same pessimistic outlook on China's future. Unlike Song Yangbiao, though, they are of the right and they are public intellectuals. Perhaps the best known is the writer Han Han. They do not like the Maoists, advocate constitutionalism, abhor Bo Xilai, and have placed their hopes in Xi Jinping. However, their vision of the Chinese Dream is the one expressed in the movie American Dreams in China. Given that Xi has the same "second red generation" status as Bo Xilai, this group also worries about China’s future.

One example of what concerns them is a recent directive published by the Communist Party on ideological issues, which requires that teachers refrain from teaching their students values such as Western thought in college and cracks down on journalists expressing Western ideals. Xi Jinping is seen as behind the crackdown, to the chagrin of the many young Chinese who find Western values appealing.

In fact, Song Yangbiao or Han Han, and the many tens of thousands of Chinese youth they represent, do have shared goals: clean politics, eradicated corruption, social progress and guaranteed livelihoods for the general public. Indeed, these goals would be familiar to the young Chinese protestors of a century ago, and they have much in common with the stated aims of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. The objectives even seem compatible with Xi's Chinese Dream.

So the dreams haven’t changed in 100 years. But it seems young idealists may have to wait a little longer, because the current Chinese government appears unlikely to fulfill them.

Xi Jinping is facing a dilemma: If the pace of political reform is slow, young Chinese with Western ideas will consider him a conservative; but if he proves a bold reformer, he runs the risk of putting young leftists offside. The gulf between the two factions has widened, as was evidenced in a recent confrontation in front of Beijing Park between a young university teacher of the left and a young journalist of the right. The two had begun arguing about the future direction of the country while chatting online.

In addition to the left-right factions, there is another group of young Chinese: the post-1990s generation. This is – for now – a much less political group. They dutifully learn their Marxism at school, actively apply to join the Communist Party so they can eventually have careers in the civil service, yet complain that the government has blocked Facebook or that food prices are too high.

This group might be silent now, but in time their politics will emerge. The reason is simple. When these young people leave school, they will find that competition is not fair. Incidents like the appointment of Deng Xiaoping's grandson to a plum role as deputy magistrate will outrage those without such a pedigree, as they scramble to compete for a job as a sanitation worker in the Environmental Protection Bureau, just to receive the civil servant benefits that come with the job.

Xi Jinping had hoped to use the Chinese Dream to unite society in building a country, but Chinese in their 20s see the gap between dream and reality as too great. They may watch American Dreams in China, but they laugh at the “Chinese Dream” slogan.