The digital revolution has transformed all lives in China, but it has affected most profoundly the post-1990s age cohort, which is made up of “digital natives” (hulianwang yuanzhumin), writes Cheng Li. This piece is an adapted excerpt from the author’s introduction, “China’s Millennials: Navigating Socioeconomic Diversity and Disparity in a Digital Era,” in Li Chunling’s new Brookings Institution Press book, “China’s Youth: Increasing Diversity amid Persistent Inequality.” An earlier version appeared in the South China Morning Post.
The digital revolution has transformed all lives in China, but it has affected most profoundly the post-1990s age cohort, which is made up of “digital natives” (hulianwang yuanzhumin). Like their counterparts elsewhere, China’s digital natives were born around the time that the commercial use of computers was becoming widespread, and they grew up alongside mobile phones and the internet.
As the prominent Chinese sociologist Li Chunling, the author of the new book “China’s Youth,” emphatically points out, the internet has become “enmeshed within every aspect of young people’s lives.” In turn, the massive generational cohort born in China in the 1990s, totaling about 175 million people, has fundamentally changed the country’s social structure, social space, and social connections.
The distinct characteristics of Chinese digital natives not only reflect these extraordinary changes but will also reshape the country’s future trajectory as this generation comes to the fore. For the outside world, better understanding this group is an urgent task, given the fact that the Middle Kingdom now has more influence on the global economy and regional security than at any other point in modern history.
Impact on social structure
China’s post-’90s age group (jiulinghou), alongside even younger age cohorts, comprises both the primary consumers of and contributors to social media platforms and new digital devices. For example, in 2017, about 85% of TikTok (Douyin) subscribers were young people under 24 years old. WeChat (Weixin), which was launched by Tencent in 2011, claimed approximately 938 million monthly active users in 2017. The use of WeChat among young people was extremely high, penetrating virtually 100% of urban professionals in their 20s and early 30s.
The prominent role of the post-’90s age cohort in the digital domain has altered Chinese social relationships, which were for over thousands of years based on strict kinship hierarchy and shared geographical origins. Under the Chinese traditional social structure, even during the more rebellious periods, such as the May 4th Movement and the Cultural Revolution in the 20th century, young people were usually guided by mature adults or seniors in their family and society at large.
But in the digital era, young people are “their own flagbearers,” and they have occupied the front seats to the telecommunication revolution. More often than not, the post-’90s age cohort have guided their parents and grandparents to keep abreast of the times. Immense changes in the distribution of information bear implications for the structure of both family and society. Members of the post-’90s generation tends to adjust and adapt their lifestyles, behaviors, and perceptions while keeping pace with a rapidly evolving digital world. Overall, they are likely to see themselves no longer as creatures of the country’s past but as creators of its future.
Expansion of social space and the virtual sphere
Before the advent of the internet, there had always been two public opinion fields (yulun chang) in China: one was the official public opinion field and the other was the private public opinion field. But the former dominated the latter because of the ubiquitous nature of official media in the country.
With the overturn of traditional media by the internet and its apps, the expansion of the field of public communication and public opinion is accelerating. Webcasting, as a new medium that integrates multiple media, such as social networks, news and commentary, games and sports, film and television, and performing arts and broadcasting, has become particularly popular among young people in China. The total number of webcast stream viewers increased from 343 million in 2017 to 562 million in 2020.
According to a report published in China’s Youth Studies in April 2018, most webcasters come from the post-’90s age cohort (78%), and more than 80% of those who watch live broadcasts are also from the post-’90s generation. Webcasting, with its distinct features of personal expression and an interactive nature, its low barriers to entry and the absence of hierarchy, and the spontaneity and randomness of live broadcasts, has turned the post-’90s generation into a social force for change. In a way, the center of young people’s public life and social interactions has shifted from large public spaces within the system (such as squares, parks, and auditoriums) to small, private spaces, which can be entirely imaginary virtual spaces.
Younger Chinese netizen cohorts obtain their knowledge and understanding of the world more conveniently and quickly compared with prior generations. Despite government censorship and the difficulty of accessing information because of the Great Firewall, Chinese young people today often find ways to break through these restraints and expose themselves to information from all over the world. Some have had first-hand overseas experience through travels and foreign studies. According to a recent report by the Financial Times, Chinese millennials (within which the post-’90 group plays a significant part) presently constitute two-thirds of all Chinese passport holders.
Many Chinese students have attended online programs offered by American universities, and some have studied in the United States. In 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 34% (or more than 360,000) of international students on American college campuses hailed from the People’s Republic of China. In 2013, there were more than 30,000 Chinese students enrolled in high schools in the United States, accounting for 46% of the total number of foreign high school students in the country. Unlike ever before in the Chinese history, young people are more integrated, both online and offline, with the outside world.
New boundaries for social connections and public demands
As for social connections, the internet has reduced the distance between people and is having a deep impact on modes of interpersonal communication and engagement. The social circles of urban professionals are now 10 times larger than they were in the days before social media, according to a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Meanwhile, social identity and group sentiment shared in the virtual space can also become a new way for networking or a triggering factor to incite mass incidents.
Various interest groups and vulnerable social groups have often enhanced their networking via digital means. In recent years, they have launched a series of large-scale online protests over controversial issues, including economic inequality, environmental degradation, food and drug safety, women’s rights, child protection, and animal rights.
A growing social acceptance of different lifestyles and sexual orientations has emerged among young people in the country. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Development Programme, featuring survey research by Peking University Sociology Professor Wu Lijuan, less than 9% of respondents from the post-’90s generation said they would reject a gay child. In comparison, 13%, 28%, and 35% of the post-1980s, 1970s, and 1960s generations, respectively, held the same view. A good example of the impact of social connection facilitated by mobile internet and apps is Blued, currently the biggest gay dating app in the world, which was founded in China in 2000. With a reported user base of some 24 million people in China, Blued has created a digital ecosystem serving the LGBTQ community.
Young Chinese use social media to support sexual minorities and reach the broader public, effectively bargaining with the party-state. In spring 2018, a vast number of young Chinese netizens rallied against authorities after LGBTQ-related content was erased from Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms. They denounced Weibo’s censorship as a remarginalization of homosexuals that undermined the legal decriminalization of homosexuality. Eventually, Weibo reposted these materials.
China’s digital natives’ intragenerational differences, intriguing relationships with Chinese authorities, anxieties and ambitions, and views of the country’s role in the world reflect an important evolution that should attract the attention of observers of this rapidly changing country.
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