Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Generation Snitch

How censorship, nationalism, and wealth have shaped young Chinese.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
An illustration of China's Gen Z.
An illustration of China's Gen Z.
Kongkee @ Penguin Lab illustration for Foreign Policy

When the internet proliferated in the early 2000s, Chinese millennials saw it as a window to a bigger, wider world—one in which China was becoming more integrated. Back then, many Chinese still saw the West as a model to learn from. In my high school, right as the internet was becoming commonplace, I was taught how to browse news on Yahoo, search information on Google, and find videos on YouTube. Discussions on nascent online forums were somewhat similar to those in many Western democracies: open, free, and unfiltered. Netizens would organically criticize government policies. Public intellectuals who drew attention to societal problems were applauded.

THE CHINA ISSUE: This article appears in the Spring 2022 print magazine. Read more stories from the issue, and subscribe to support our journalism.

The strengthening of China’s Great Firewall changed everything. Within a few years, free speech was first censored and then cracked down on. Dissent was no longer cool. Instead, it was seen as a weapon wielded by foreigners against China. As nationalism grew as a force and as China became wealthier, criticism of the state was seen more as a betrayal than as something that could be constructive.

When the internet proliferated in the early 2000s, Chinese millennials saw it as a window to a bigger, wider world—one in which China was becoming more integrated. Back then, many Chinese still saw the West as a model to learn from. In my high school, right as the internet was becoming commonplace, I was taught how to browse news on Yahoo, search information on Google, and find videos on YouTube. Discussions on nascent online forums were somewhat similar to those in many Western democracies: open, free, and unfiltered. Netizens would organically criticize government policies. Public intellectuals who drew attention to societal problems were applauded.

The strengthening of China’s Great Firewall changed everything. Within a few years, free speech was first censored and then cracked down on. Dissent was no longer cool. Instead, it was seen as a weapon wielded by foreigners against China. As nationalism grew as a force and as China became wealthier, criticism of the state was seen more as a betrayal than as something that could be constructive.

These trends are not just about government policy. Over time, policy changes people, too. It can shape a generation. The children in Chinese high school classrooms and colleges today are very different from what my classmates and I were like in the early 2000s. China’s Gen Zers—unlike the millennials of my era—are indoctrinated in jingoism and have a higher regard of their place in the world. For decades to come, these changes will have a profound impact not only on Chinese society and politics but the world.

Generational terms used in the United States—such as baby boomer, Generation X, millennial, and Generation Z—don’t quite match up with Chinese ones. In the West, the word “millennial” generally encompasses people born between 1981 and 1996. When I refer to Chinese millennials, the groups I’m describing are likely closest to what China calls balinghou, born between 1980 and 1989, and jiulinghou, born between 1990 and 1999. Gen Z, which in the West applies to people born after 1997, is best compared to younger jiulinghou and the linglinghou—people born after 2000.

Other than India, which has a lower median age than China, no other country has as many people under 25, the age of the oldest members of the global Gen Z. This generation of young Chinese have been taught to distrust the outside world and to be smug in their confidence that China’s system is the best. And while there’s always resistance to such ideas, those who push back against Beijing’s authoritarianism now have very few ways to show it.

These generational changes are most visible online. In 2000, when Beijing first implemented its internet censorship system, only a few websites criticizing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were blocked. Over the next few years, censorship grew stronger and stricter. A growing number of websites and apps were blocked in China, including social media platforms, search engines, and news outlets. Virtual private networks (VPNs), once common tools used to circumvent the so-called Great Firewall, became harder to obtain; Chinese citizens who managed to get them were punished. Beijing imposed strict penalties on companies that created any way of getting around censorship. Last November, the Cyberspace Administration of China drafted a new regulation that would punish individuals or institutions that provided tools such as VPNs.

Today, young Chinese aren’t even interested in what they can’t see. In 2010, days before Google pulled out of China over government pressure, people mourned and piled up flowers in front of the company’s Beijing office. Fast forward to 2022, and it would be fair to say many members of China’s Gen Z haven’t even heard of Google, YouTube, or Facebook. More tellingly, they show no interest in learning about the platforms that have defined their peers in other countries.

In 2018, the political scientists Yuyu Chen and David Y. Yang revealed the results of an 18-month field experiment on the media in China. As a part of their study, Chen and Yang gave nearly 1,800 college students free tools to bypass the Great Firewall and gain access to the open internet. Nearly half of the participants didn’t bother to use the tools. Of the ones who did, almost none attempted to browse politically sensitive information.

That’s a stark contrast with my own teenage years, when my high school teacher brought up the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in the classroom despite the fact that it wasn’t formally in our assigned textbooks. We were allowed to have an open discussion in the classroom. Later, when I went on the internet and searched for Tiananmen on China’s internet forums, I saw long threads where people engaged in heated political discussions—some arguing that Beijing’s actions were a political necessity, others that they represented a moral disaster.

That openness is nowhere to be found in China today. Any reference to Tiananmen is now scrubbed off the internet. Related words and topics are banned. Teachers who mention topics less sensitive than Tiananmen are likely to get reported, harassed, or fired. And now, it’s not just the censors doing the censoring: Netizens have taken to reporting on each other for being “anti-China.” As Yuefeng Wu, an influencer who has 2.8 million followers on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, pointed out: “In the past two years, the most ruthless people who reported and attacked each other were not those born between 1970 and 1990 … but the younger generation of the jiulinghou and the linglinghou.”

The trend toward snitching isn’t just digital. According to the New York Times, more and more so-called “student information officers” are keeping records of their professors’ ideological views, flagging any perceived disloyalty to President Xi Jinping and the ruling CCP. Official documents show how these students are recruited in colleges. In Shanghai International Studies University, for example, each class has a designated snitch.

My generation of Chinese millennials knew that while public spaces were risky when it came to free speech, we could engage in classroom discussions with relative openness. China’s Gen Zers don’t have that luxury. Nor do their teachers. Xu Zhangrun, who taught constitutional law at the prestigious Tsinghua University, was detained in 2020 after criticizing the country’s response to COVID-19. You Shengdong, an international trade and economics professor at Xiamen University, was fired after students reported him for casting doubt on a political slogan favored by Xi. Tang Yun, a professor at Chongqing Normal University, was barred from teaching after a student filed a complaint against him for “damaging the national reputation.” Hunan City University teacher Li Jian was reported by a student for praising Japan in class and relegated to administrative work. The list could go on. After all, snitches are celebrated by the CCP: Last December, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League posted on Weibo praise for a student who reported on his own teacher.

“Things have changed,” said Hu, a millennial who teaches at an elementary school in Zhanjiang in southern China. She asked Foreign Policy to use only her second name. “It’s hard to express a different opinion, especially to criticize the government.” In Hu’s school, activities to praise Xi and his government are common. Mandated class songs build on familiar lyrics about how students are the children of the CCP. A concerted education campaign—with students forced to watch nationalistic movies, create their own patriotic content, and play CCP trivia games—is highly popular, not only offline but also on platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, Bilibili, and Douyin.

China’s Gen Zers are dramatically more comfortable in their current environment than my generation was.

One of the key differences between my generation and China’s Gen Z is that the latter grew up relatively rich. Average incomes in China have soared from about $317 in 1990 to $10,434 in 2020, according to World Bank data. This massive surge in wealth has inevitably led to a rise in national pride and patriotism. Perhaps as a result, China’s Gen Zers are dramatically more comfortable in their current environment than my generation was. They feel no need to read a different narrative or hear an alternative voice. Seen through this prism, it should not be a surprise that many young Chinese attribute their country’s economic achievements to Beijing’s authoritarian form of government.

This belief in China’s superior model was amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which young Chinese see as an example of Beijing’s ability to handle crises more adeptly than other governments. China’s Gen Z also fears that its working classes could be led astray by Western media outlets, making them believe their closed and censored media is better than the comparatively unfettered Western information ecosystem, which, for all its benefits, is rife with misinformation and disinformation.

Even for Chinese students who go to school in the West, the patriotic education they received as children tends to be enduring. According to research by the sociologist Henry Chiu Hail, Chinese international students often show negative reactions to hearing criticism of their home country, and such reactions are often motivated by “concerns for status, loyalty, harmony, or utilitarian politics.” There are rising numbers of conflicts between universities abroad and Chinese student organizations regarding issues that Chinese students consider as critical of Beijing.

Even so, China’s Gen Z is not robotic—nor is it a monolith. While young Chinese tend to resist seeing their country through a Western lens, they remain willing to be self-critical. On the social media site Douban, a forum named Ezu has around 700,000 members, most of them young women who identify as feminists. In the past year or two, heated discussions have taken place on the site’s messaging boards on issues such as human trafficking, domestic violence, and gender discrimination. But even in critiques of the government, users tend to be eager to express their loyalty to the country and their faith in Xi. One writer has described this phenomenon as “feminism with Chinese characteristics”—a play on the popular phrase about socialism that emerged during Deng Xiaoping’s rule.

Contradictions abound, of course. While many young Chinese criticize Western democracy, they tend to be fans of Western culture in the form of its novels, TV shows, movies, and music. China’s Gen Z is also increasingly progressive in its taste: “Boys’ love”—gay romance—is a popular genre in both books and TV dramas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that has led to Beijing attacking what it calls “sissy boys” and banning gay-themed TV dramas. Open dissent on issues that Beijing considers to be red lines is sure to be instantly censored or, more likely, punished.

Sometimes, the main form of resistance is to do nothing. In early 2021, the concept of “lying flat”—taking a break from relentless work—became popular among China’s Gen Z. Debates on the topic attracted hundreds of millions of views on Weibo, and special discussion groups were formed on Douban. On Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora, supporters of lying flat described how they believed that consumerism was a trap. There were limited opportunities to climb the social ladder, commenters said, so the best strategy was to shun the impossible goal posts set for previous generations and avoid buying a car, getting married, or having children.

The idea of doing nothing isn’t explicitly political, but in a society where the ruling party emphasizes material gain and discipline, it represents an implicit rejection of the system. Young people opting out of the rat race is not what Xi, who called on citizens to “roll up their sleeves to work hard,” wants to see.

As one would expect, Beijing cracked down on the idea of lying flat. Groups discussing the phenomenon were blocked, and articles discussing it were deleted. For China’s Gen Z, the choice is either to be all-in or to say nothing at all.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. 

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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