As the wave of Chinese gaokao examinees rush out of the two-day exam, another group of 18- to 19-year-olds is celebrating the marriage of their peers. To the youths at the wedding, cheap cigarettes and a make-shift wedding party take their minds away from the chores of supporting their family. For 18-year-olds going to high school in an urban setting, their life has just started. The next four years of college will give them time to prepare for the job market. On the other hand, rural youths have already entered a society of unemployment, low-skilled labor, and unplanned parenthood. Though not all of the rural youths are stuck in this dead-end society, opportunities to escape it are few. They find themselves at a crossroads similar to the one faced by their frustrated predecessors in China’s prior youth movements.
One of the biggest challenges faced by contemporary rural youth is unemployment. Apart from the agricultural sector, the expansion of China’s cities has created a booming demand for manual laborers. As China’s economy hits headwinds, however, so do the employment prospects for rural youths. Traditionally, factory labor and construction have been the two biggest sectors attracting the rural population to cities. Known as “peasant workers” (nongmingong), their jobs entail harsh working conditions from dawn to dusk. Despite earning the minimum wage, these first generation peasant workers decided to leave the fields and come to the city looking for opportunities which they couldn’t find back home.
Yet times are different now. While rural youths still flock to the city looking for labor-intensive jobs, the subtle social change sparked by hand-held Internet technology created an “urbanista” class among the younger generations. Either unable to afford an education or deciding that school will not help them earn money quickly, a growing population of rural youths bet on finding a better life in the city, fueled by their personal ambition to drive sport cars, to own designer bags and live the “high-life.” Yet upon arrival, these rural youths are disoriented from their exposure to the city.
These second generation rural workers are different from their predecessors in two ways. First, they are more educated. The first generation peasant workers generally had only a primary school education, but today’s rural youth usually receive up to nine years of mandatory education. Second, the new rural youths are more tech-savvy. Whereas the first generation peasant workers started work during the era of state-sanctioned radio and television, the second generation has had relatively cheap access to the Chinese Internet. Thanks to the convenience of the web, today’s rural youths are as attuned to popular cultures as their urban counterparts. The easy access to the internet created a demand for material goods within the rural youths.
The drive for materialism and easy exposure to mainstream society has subtly changed the mindset of rural youngsters. As during Gold Rush on the Pacific West Coast, young rural men and women moved to the city driven by perceptions of opportunities. Many, who believed that they could earn twice as much as their peers and would be different from the first generation peasant workers, were lost at the sight of skyscrapers and the bustling city life. The urban dwellers, who themselves are struggling to buy houses, pay mortgages, and get married, view the rural migrants as contenders for resources. For the urban residents, rural youths are uneducated and underclass plebeians. In urban centers such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, these new arrivals are cramped into overcrowded areas. Feeling disenfranchised and looked down upon by the urban population, the tech-savvy rural youths express their disillusionment on the internet.
Kuaishou, a trending phone application in China, highlights this trend of disillusionment. With more than 300 million users, Kuaishou is the third most downloaded social media app in the App Store (after WeChat and Weibo). With functions similar to Instagram, Kuaishou users upload their videos to gain followers.
As David Wertime recently explained for Foreign Policy, Beijing is actively seeking to change policy discourse via the internet. Even President Xi Jinping on occasions has adopted internet slang to show his down-to-earth attitude. With the case of Kuaishou however, one can only see social dissatisfaction that runs contrary to Beijing’s official rhetoric. The upbeat message of the “China Dream” is nowhere to be seen. The marriage scene described above competes for views with short clips of teenage mothers, sadism, and alcohol abuse.
So are China’s rural youths a lost generation?
The simple answer is yes. In fact, the rural youths are not only part of the lost generation, but they are part of a growing trend of disillusioned young Chinese. Social stresses such as employment, marriage, high costs of living, and growing family dependence rates take a toll on not only the urban kids, but also the rural youths. Just like the Boxers during the late Qing era and the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, these youths share their historic predecessors’ thirst for a radical social change. Such a trend cannot be ignored. The desperate attempts for fame and occasional outbursts of the rural youths seen on Kuaishou are a reflection of their frustrations toward their social circumstances.
Rural youths should not be singled out for their sense of disillusionment. Like their better-off peers who completed the gaokao exam, the next generation of Chinese will enter a society of high tension and pressure. The social problems identified above are only the tip of the iceberg. Beijing cannot provide all the solutions to the problems. To the rural youths entering the workforce, the disparity with their urban counterparts will only grow.
Beijing needs to press through its hukou and education reforms, or the growing income gap and the rising costs of living will force the silent majority to action. And with a youth population nearly 600 million strong, rural youths are a policy challenge that presses Beijing to act. Economic tensions aside, the last thing Beijing wants to see is disgruntled youths taking matters into their own hands.
Leo Lin is a graduate student studying at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. His research interests include Chinese and Japanese politics and East Asian Security issues. He previously worked as a Summer Researcher for the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.