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How the rise of a liberal, social media–savvy generation is changing Chinese society

Chinese women look at their mobile phone as they walk in a shopping area in Beijing.
Getty Images
Chinese women look at their mobile phone as they walk in a shopping area in 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.

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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 under state 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.

The generational shift is playing out across Chinese society

Women's and LGBTQ rights are always a good litmus tests for social progress, and young feminist voices are growing just as the state's efforts to suppress them are, with more activism both on and offline. Despite a ruling against same-sex marriage, the fact that it even made it to the courts is telling, and there is greater youth acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, whether they are fighting for their rights or just asking for a hug.

Young Chinese are having sex earlier and marrying later, resisting their parents' urges to find a spouse in their early 20s. The 2015 China Love and Marriage Survey, conducted by Peking University and baihe.com, a leading Chinese dating website, found that for people born after 1995, the average age at which they had sex for the first time is 17.7. That's compared with those born in the 1980s, who had their first sexual experiences on average at over 22 years old. And according to China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, in 2015 nearly 14 percent of Chinese lived by themselves — more than twice as many as in 1990.

More graduates are opting to start their own business, as part of a boom of entrepreneurship, rather than work in a state-owned company or bank. And more divergent views than ever are being shared on social media platforms such as Weibo (often referred to as the "Chinese Twitter") and the messaging app WeChat, which has more than 650 million monthly active users — even if many of those divergent views are taken down by the Chinese government. Censorship can slow the trend, but it cannot stop it.

Liberal attitudes have also been borne out in recent surveys: 60 percent of young Chinese have a favorable view of the US, compared with 35 percent of those over 50, according to Pew. A study published in February found a surprising decrease in nationalistic sentiment among young people in Beijing compared with previous years, and compared with their elders.

Another survey of Chinese students reported that 73 percent agreed that "Western political systems are very appropriate for our country." That is in part a result of globalization and China's more international outlook, influencing a generation that grew up during the era of World Trade Organization membership and the Olympic Games. It is also helped by the number of Chinese students studying abroad — roughly 330,000 in the US.

Above all, change is apparent at the individual level. Lucifer's life trajectory would not have been possible 20 years ago. He was born Li Yan, in the rural outskirts of a town in Hebei province, neighboring Beijing. His father sells tractor parts, and his mother teaches primary school math.

Instead of following in their footsteps, Lucifer — whose story I write about in my book Wish Lanterns — came to Beijing and formed a rock band, which toured overseas and won a competition. He went on reality TV dating and talent shows. Now he runs his own cafe-bar in the hutongs near the Drum Tower, an area of central Beijing popular with young people, and is about to open a second one.

"I want to tell international friends an opinion that young Chinese have faith, energy, want to be respected, and hope to progress," said Lucifer. "I hope foreigners can discover young Chinese are thinking progressively and looking upward."

Xi Jinping's vision for China is not likely to thaw for the next six years of his term, but more meaningful change is happening far away from the two sessions, which some young Chinese netizens have dubbed the "stupid sessions" — a pun in Mandarin where another word for "two" has a slang meaning of "dumb."

That's why Lucifer doesn't follow China's top-level politics — not because he doesn't care about the future of China, but because in the long term it is being shaped from the bottom up, not from the top down.

What does that bode for the "Chinese century"?

The outcome of this societal shift is impossible to predict, but is likely to be a nation less suspicious of the West's intentions than the current leadership is, and more open to different ideologies than the socialism which the party preaches but does not practice.

Indeed, changing social attitudes is the very reason the state is so alarmingly brazen in stifling its own population. As novelist and dissident Murong Xuecun put it to me, "The strict censorship is because people's thinking is more Western and open, due to the booming of the internet from 2000 to today." He is pessimistic about today's grim political realities, but also said that "more people think there will be change."

That shift is much more noticeable in China's bigger cities than in the countryside or lower-tier cities, where traditional values still prevail. The lower classes have more reason to protest the status quo than those in higher rungs who benefit from it, while the middle classes prefer not to rock the boat. Above all it is generational, in that the conservative old guard — including those in power — tends to be, well, older.

Mao Zedong framed the revolutionary struggle as being between the old and the new; a key component of the Cultural Revolution was called "break the four olds" (customs, culture, habits, ideas). A more ancient Chinese saying holds, "Breathe out the old, breathe in the new."

Now it is again the younger generations in China that are waiting for their elders to step aside and give them a go at the reins.

This means that while the current state of US-China relations is defined in part by a clash of nationalism at the top, that may not be true when the next generation of Chinese comes into power. It will take longer than the yearly cycle of politics, but the change led by society and youth in China will be more lasting.

Alec Ash is a writer in Beijing. He is the author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, following the lives of six young Chinese.