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China’s Sham Meritocracy Has Created a Burned-Out Generation

As the government pushes productivity, young Chinese are embracing cynicism.

By , a writer based in Beijing.
Commuters head to the subway in Beijing
Commuters head to the subway during rush hour in Beijing on June 2. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

The pleas are everywhere. Newspaper editorials urge young people to “strive in the prime of their life.” City governments team up with famous brands to encourage young people to consume more. Young couples visiting neighborhood party committees to obtain permission to get an abortion find themselves subjected to earnest lectures on the delight of childrearing.

The Chinese Communist Party is using the whole of its propaganda might to push a simple message: The young must throw themselves into work and life with a zest befitting China’s glorious “New Era.”

The party has reasons to worry. There’s a counternarrative getting in the way of its determination to turn young Chinese into good producers, whether of GDP or children. Young Chinese are curtailing their expectations and ambitions. Many of them are downgrading lifestyle choices around diet, travel, and more. They fill social media with talks of the futility of endeavoring and the hollowness of desire. And they are not ready for marriage and children, and don’t know if they will ever be.

The pleas are everywhere. Newspaper editorials urge young people to “strive in the prime of their life.” City governments team up with famous brands to encourage young people to consume more. Young couples visiting neighborhood party committees to obtain permission to get an abortion find themselves subjected to earnest lectures on the delight of childrearing.

The Chinese Communist Party is using the whole of its propaganda might to push a simple message: The young must throw themselves into work and life with a zest befitting China’s glorious “New Era.”

The party has reasons to worry. There’s a counternarrative getting in the way of its determination to turn young Chinese into good producers, whether of GDP or children. Young Chinese are curtailing their expectations and ambitions. Many of them are downgrading lifestyle choices around diet, travel, and more. They fill social media with talks of the futility of endeavoring and the hollowness of desire. And they are not ready for marriage and children, and don’t know if they will ever be.

There have been concerns around young people in China for decades, as in any society. But two factors have made the leadership there more anxious than ever to address their social and economic withdrawal: the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s upcoming demographic crisis. Although China experienced a robust economic recovery from the pandemic, the stimulus measures it had required further distorted the country’s debt-laden economy. The corrective that Chinese leaders are hoping for—a giant wave of pent-up demand from young Chinese—has yet to materialize.

And deeper trouble looms in the near future: The country’s fertility rate—the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime—stands at just 1.3, one of the lowest in the world, according to the results from the latest census released in May. It laid bare the fact that the government’s move to end the one-child policy in 2016 has failed to produce the increased number of births the country desperately needs to slow the rapid aging of its population.

But getting young Chinese to live and strive will be a heavy lift for the party. Beyond the harsh economic realities that limit their options, the pessimism and reluctance of young Chinese have deeper roots—ones that the state itself has created. An ultracompetitive, tightly controlled, meritocratic system was once a powerful engine that propelled China’s economic rise but has now run up against its own inherent limits.

Nothing embodies the meritocratic promise of the state better than the education system. The playing field was never truly level in China, as is the case everywhere, though state efforts made it far flatter than it could have been. Its famously rigorous curriculum was effective in equipping a large swath of the population with basic literacy and math skills, as well as inculcating in them diligent and disciplined work habits. Thanks to these strengths, education paid off splendidly for its recipients in the first decades of the economic reform by allowing them to take advantage of the opportunities that early reform brought.

The shortcomings of the system are equally glaring: Its focus on ranking and testing creates enormous stress for students, while its reliance on rote memorization deprives students of intellectual autonomy—they may be able to recite Tang dynasty poems, but they aren’t accustomed to grappling with the complexities of the world and their places in it, and to forming understandings independently without falling back on received narrative. In the past decade, the system has taken an ideological turn that worsened this problem. The teaching of such subjects as history and political science was always superficial and didactic; now it has become little more than regurgitating Communist Party dogma verbatim.

Chinese students may be the first to complain that the system turns learning into dronelike drudgery. But when they are engaged in brutal and high-stakes academic competition, the simplicity of its rules and the clarity of its standards can also be reassuring, as they seem to be proof of the system’s incorruptible objectivity and fairness. Students know that if they work hard in following those rules and conforming to those standards, the system will reward them with what they deserve.

The education system had the additional advantage of security, or so it seemed to young Chinese while they were in school in the 2000s and early 2010s. The economic boom, by then two decades long, gave them reason to expect that the strong work ethic they acquired in school would be fairly rewarded with bright careers and generous salaries in the future.

Their faith in meritocracy manifested in the massive increase in higher education enrollment, which jumped from 4.13 million to 26.25 million between 1999 and 2015. Guided by the government’s ambitious development plans, young Chinese who took the route of higher education gave up the freedom and agency they might have had as migrant workers and devoted themselves to learning the skills that they believed would give them an edge in the new economy. This was still a minority of people: While the undergraduate enrollment rate for high school graduates is much higher nowadays, at over 50 percent, the majority of those who drop out do so long before graduating high school, or even sometimes middle school. But they were also a prominent and celebrated group.

The real world is not what the system promised them. The number of college-educated workers far outstrips the white-collar jobs that are available. Those with jobs struggle to make do with salaries that are a fraction of those of their Western counterparts, in cities where housing prices rank among the world’s highest.

Many young Chinese find themselves spending as many hours working as they spent studying in the busiest years of school. And there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Looking ahead along their current paths, many realize they will never be able to afford an apartment—widely considered a prerequisite for marriage in large cities—and gain a foothold in the urban middle class. Then the exhaustion from the long rat race begins to set in.

Young Chinese were not wrong to believe that education has the potential to open doors to a better life. What they did not foresee is that the sudden surge of college graduates led to a glut that deflated the overall value of a college degree, while the government’s preferential treatment of universities widened the difference in quality of the education they offer. As a result, those who do not reach the top of the education ladder are unable to reap the benefit of higher education.

According to an analysis of Chinese higher education based on Chinese scholarly literature published in January, more than 70 percent of China’s higher education enrollment consists of students who are the first in their families to attend university. Yet 90 percent of those students cluster in local universities whose revenues are a fraction of national universities championed by the state. Most of them ended up joining the ranks of low-income graduates who settle for a subsistence-level life in cities.

Economic hardship is a familiar story for young people everywhere. In the United States, it has sparked widespread demands to address the structural injustices at the root of the problem. While the Chinese state would never allow such calls to gather steam, young Chinese who speak about their difficulties are by and large not directing blame at the party-state system either. Instead of challenging the status quo, they withdraw into themselves and try to cope with their disappointments through irony and humor.

This should not be a surprise: The education system works to maximize praise for the party and minimize any discussion of the way economics, politics, or society shapes lives. On top of that, it had drilled into young Chinese through ruthless competition the understanding that the system never fails to reward talent and hard work. Now those beliefs combine to uphold the myth of meritocracy in the minds of young Chinese by blinding them to society’s failure to fulfill it. The psychological consequence of their false belief can be painful: It leads many young Chinese to conclude that, just as there was no excuse for flunking a test in school, there is nobody they can blame for life’s setbacks but themselves.

Tuning in to online discussions where young Chinese share their struggles, one senses widespread confusion. Looking back on their major steps, they cannot understand where things went wrong. Many of those young Chinese came from humble backgrounds and thought of themselves as the beneficiaries of the government’s expansion of higher education. They began to gather in online groups with such self-mocking monikers as “Small-town test machines” to commiserate with one another. These groups quickly attracted tens of thousands of members before they were shut down by censors.

Others have decided that such reflections are futile, reasoning that all their hard work up to now has got them nowhere anyway. Instead, they decide to embrace their downtrodden existence. If nothing else, this attitude allows them to bear their lot with dignity.

“I have not been working for two years, and it feels great,” a former factory worker with the online username “A kind traveler” confessed in a blog post in April. “I can live like Diogenes,” he wrote, referring to the Greek philosopher who famously spent his days lying in a dirty tub in the sun, and concluded, “Lying flat is the only truth there is.” Since then, tens of millions of young Chinese have echoed his sentiment, expressing their desires to “lie flat.”

An understanding of the causes of their struggles might provide young Chinese with courses of action to improve their situations or to dispel their fatalism. Without such understanding, they have no handhold to pull themselves out of their existential paralysis, the state’s handwringing notwithstanding.

Then there is the pandemic. Elsewhere the shock has led young people to reexamine long-held assumptions. In China it only seemed to cause the youth to double down on their faith in the government-backed playbook and the importance of playing it safe: Among last year’s Chinese college graduates, preference soared for stable, low-stress jobs in state companies and the civil service. A record number took the graduate school exam, more than double the number from 2016.

The Chinese state understands the urgency of rousing the youth into productive action. But it is in a self-inflicted double bind: How does it summon agency and self-motivation from a generation it had told from a young age to follow the state-written script?

If the state were to scold young Chinese for their lack of ambition, it would sound callously indifferent to their struggles and risk turning their despondency into discontent. If it were to overinflate their hopes with bright promises and fail to deliver, the state could finally touch off the deep frustration that lies beneath their passivity.

Media outlets tried to offer young Chinese a mixture of gentle validation and insistent prodding. “It cannot simply be assumed that ‘lying flat’ is an act of laziness or cowardice,” China Women’s News said in an editorial published on July 15. But, it added, “Some youths are still charging ahead in the face of hardship. … That is what living in the real world is all about.” A poster promoting Chinese athletes in the Tokyo Olympics put it more succinctly: “A tip of the hat to the ordinary, a loud cheer for the exceptional!”

These are hardly unfamiliar words to young Chinese. They have heard similar sentiments from such figures as Jack Ma, an English teacher-turned-celebrity entrepreneur whom many of them used to idolize. But in recent years opinion has turned: Now his blithe optimism is considered out of touch, and his superhuman work ethic pointless.

Late last year, Ma’s tale took on a different moral even for his most loyal admirers. The highly anticipated public offering of his fintech company was unexpectedly called off by authorities, and the e-commerce company Ma co-founded was under antitrust investigation. On social media, there was endless speculation about which of Ma’s public comments or business decisions made him run afoul of the government. The truth perhaps lies deeper: In a country that allows only one center of power, ambition and independence can only go so far.

Helen Gao is a writer based in Beijing. She writes about the cultural and social impact of Chinese authoritarianism. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic and the New York Times.
 Twitter: @Yuxin_Gao

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