Tea Leaf Nation
It’s Not Communism Holding China’s Youth Back. It’s Their Parents.
Pressure to save, marry, and work leaves no room for democratic aspirations.
I am the son of a Chinese democracy activist. My father went into exile in 1988; I was born in China and raised in England. But today, my father and I find ourselves back in the motherland.
My family’s struggle for freedom was a quest to escape what they saw as a narrowing reality. My father’s decision to seek refuge, and his independence from a brutal government, led to my upbringing in England. But having returned to China, in 2012, of my own free will, I have come to realize that the struggle for most young people in China isn’t a political one — it’s a generational clash against the stifling influence of parental expectations.
Before he left China, my father was an assistant teacher of law at a university in the southern city of Guilin. In the late 1980s he started distributing pamphlets and writing letters calling for democratic reforms. In those days, the winds of change were blowing hard. The slaughter near Tiananmen Square in June 1989 was the culmination, a savage eradication of the democratic movement that had swept across China.
In the year prior to that fateful June 4, police in Guilin had detained my father, and he wanted out. On a July night he found himself on the shore in the southern city of Shenzhen, his brother beside him, hopes pinned to the island of Hong Kong across the sea.
Using bicycle inner tubes to help them float, they swam for hours as they tried to reach Hong Kong, then a British dominion. They made it. A few years later my mother escaped too, paying a boatman to ferry her over. But I had to be left behind. I arrived in England in 1994, as a boy. Eventually we three became UK citizens. My father published a book in Hong Kong and the British government granted him political asylum.
But the political struggle that my family was affected by doesn’t matter much to the youth of today in China; those born after 1980. For them, the government is an inescapable reality; the oppression they feel comes from elsewhere. They struggle to discover their own path free from the constraints and expectations of their parents.
The generation that came of age in the 1980s seemed to care more about big ideas like democracy and political freedom. To hear my mother tell it, the decade following then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 inauguration of his “Reform and Opening” policies was one of looseness. She describes a hopeful, dynamic country looking toward the future. My father describes a feeling of power as young people felt emboldened by new ideas and new hopes, for themselves and for their country.
Today’s Chinese youth care less. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because there was a nascent civil society starting to form in the 1980s, one that was swiftly stamped out the end of that decade. But until again the people of China carve out spheres of personal independence then civil society and bigger aspirations won’t have the space to develop.
In today’s China, those spheres are small, or nonexistent. “You are never independent, growing up,” said Shen Bolun, a 27-year-old artist based in Beijing. “How do you suddenly find it when you’re in your 20s? You have to spend another ten, 15 years.”
Shen spent three years on a personal project, which would eventually become an art installation, during which he interviewed one thousand young people in ten cities across China. Participants were invited to talk on camera about their deepest concerns. Rather than brooding on headline-grabbing issues like politics or government interference, they often spoke of their parents as the biggest obstacle in their lives. “My parent’s love is pressure” was a common response.
Shen admits that one reason so many young people in the videos did not talk about politics might be because of fear or a lack of knowledge about other matters. But he also believes that when you don’t hold a political view, you don’t talk about it: “I think holding a political view shows a very high level of independence,” he said.
That doesn’t mean young Chinese don’t think or talk about the big issues. In hundreds of Shen’s videos, participants discussed the effectiveness of the education system, the meaning of marriage, social problems, and much more. But a common refrain was the pressures young people face and the expectations under which they live.
Young people in China face huge pressure from an early age from their parents, and competition from their peers, in the education system, and after they graduate, the job market. Then comes the marriage market. Mothers and fathers expect their only child to do well; to support themselves and the family, avoid making bad or risky decisions, and to focus on achieving a good life, as defined by material standards. That leaves little space and time for politics. Abstract worries about the government pale next to immediate concerns about buying an apartment or choosing the right career.
For Chinese women, the pressure can be especially draining. Most women over 25 are under constant pressure from their family to get married. One friend wanted to put her career in television before family. She hinted at pressure from her mother and shook her head when I asked whether she wanted to get married. A waitress friend talked about her village fiancé, the product of a relationship arranged by her parents because of her would-be groom’s good standing in the local community.
While men face less pressure to marry, we all feel the push from parents. My mother harangues me on the phone, telling me I should start thinking about making more money for my nonexistent wife and nonexistent kids.
There’s almost no space for young people in China. The need to compete in the professional and marital marketplaces means young people need to focus on education and connections. Their parents impose a strict ceiling, teaching them the rules they need to obey in order to succeed and to fulfill their filial duties.
China’s emphasis on filial piety stretches back hundreds of years. But this whole order was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, a revolutionary frenzy instigated by then-Communist chairman Mao Zedong. From 1966 to 1976 the youth of China were empowered to overthrow “The Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. It mirrored the youthful revolutions of the late 1960s elsewhere, but in its violence and chaos it was far darker.
During the years when young Americans were encouraging each other to explore peace, love, and personal discovery, young people in China were denouncing their friends, teachers, and even their own family members for anything that might be interpreted as un-Maoist.
This created a paranoia and anxiety that exists to this day. It may help explain the overwhelming desire among Chinese parents to see their children succeed (even if this “success” has to follow a narrow definition), given that those parents had no chance to do so in their own lifetimes. The effect of the country’s previous one-child policy, of course, also raised the stakes — all family ambitions fell on the shoulders of one child, as did the need to support parents in old age.
All these pressures have been internalized. As a young Briton of Chinese heritage living far away from my parents, independence is a luxury I can take for granted. By contrast, with almost no meaningful welfare net, an older generation to support, and a highly competitive environment for college graduates, the stakes are too high and the risks too great for a young Chinese person to defy his or her parents. Disappointing your parents to pursue your dreams is a common motif in Western movies and TV shows. But you won’t see it much in China, or in its popular culture. Far more than in Western societies, the children of China belong to their parents.
For his part, my father made one great, hard choice in his life: to flee. But he never made much of himself in the UK, sullied by pride and stubbornness. For almost 30 years, he lived in a tiny flat in a public housing complex in a deprived part of west London. He returned to China after his available options narrowed.
Shen, the artist, says he often thinks over the notion of freedom. “I cannot pick where I was born,” he said. “I cannot pick gender, looks, family.” But “mentally, you can be free. The more I get to know myself, the more free I can be.”
Western commentators often talk about political freedom and independence — democracy for China — without perhaps realizing the great personal independence they have enjoyed. It’s not just the rights written into their governing documents, but the space that was created after the counterculture that bloomed across the United States and other western democracies in the 1960s and 70s. This never took place in China. Or it did, in the 1980s, but it was snuffed out before it could fully express itself.
Maybe when the youth of China are given the space to explore what matters most to them — relieved of intense competition, and free of the burdens and expectations of their elders — there will be a China big enough for ideas such as freedom and independence. But for now, the expectations of our parents are a much more immediate concern than the will of the Communist Party.