Yang Hengjun: “Discussing the post-80s Generation” (Part 1)

The following is a translation of a recent post from Yang Hengjun, a political espionage novelist and blogger. This article is part one of a series of articles he is writing about the post-80’s generation.

In this post, Yang Hengjun discusses his experience with a group of University of Hong Kong students during a recent lecture titled “Peddler of Democracy Looks Ahead to China’s Future”. Yang Hengjun discusses how his initial focus on raising issues of China’s future led instead to an exploration of the importance democracy will play in lives of post-80’s generation youths.


Discussing the Post-80’s Generation

Part 1

Every year before and after the Spring Festival and at the start or end of a school semester, standing at the Guangzhou train station you will see red-eyed parents sobbing inside train cars. Separated from their children by the glass of the window, parents weep, not wanting to leave them. Such scenes are unbearable even to strangers. However, what makes such situations more difficult to bear is the thought that the departing parents leave behind children whose faces are filled with indifference, as if the departing parents were not the child’s parents at all.

This, perhaps, aside from being something unique to the high traffic time of the Spring Festival, is a uniquely Chinese characteristic. Though I’m not sure if there is any relevant department keeping statistics of exactly how many parents have no choice but to leave their children behind in their former home towns and villages as they head out to work elsewhere, I’d have to guess that the number reaches well over 10 million.

Train stations are certainly not the only area where loved ones depart from one another’s arms. At the airport, for example, you will witness another sight: parents, heart broken at having to let their sons and daughters go, stare at the customs gate, behind which their children disappear as they leave to study abroad. The difference between these two scenes is that the parents at the train station belong to the society’s lower class of peasants, whereas the airport parents are society’s upper-class elite. The similarity: both groups of parents, for the betterment of their children, are willing to endure the pain of separating.

The two paragraphs above come from a recent discussion I had with students at the University of Hong Kong’s News Media Research Center. Perhaps only on the Chinese mainland can one witness with such frequency the scenes described above.

Yang Hengjun
Amidst turbulent change, Chinese people are pursuing a better life in hopes that they can achieve their ideals. In such pursuit, they leave their wives and children, their young and old, in villages far behind. To leave, or to stay? Although this question does not carry the same life or death consequences as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”, it does, very often, change one’s fate. This is the question I proposed to HKU’s post-80’s generation during a recent lecture.

On the tenth of this month, the lecture I held at HKU was titled, “Peddler of Democracy Looks Ahead to China’s Future”. (Terrifying, isn’ it? The content was more so, and as such this post may not be up for long.) As most of those that had been invited to attend were academic scholars and experts, I was understandably quite shocked to see that the lecture had attracted mostly young people. Due to such a turn out, I chose to emphasize China’s growth and future in the lecture.

After the lecture, I was asked more questions than I could answer. What was more intriguing, however, than the amount of questions asked, was that although my lecture was focused on discussing China’s future, the students in attendance were more concerned about discussing their own futures. Professors Chen Wanjing and Gang Qian both suggested we arrange an additional discussion, but on a smaller scale, where interested students could gather in order to continue discussing the issue at hand.

The day of the second discussion, around twenty undergraduate and graduate students came to participate. Most of these students were mainland exchange students who had come to HKU to study. In every respect, they could all be labeled post-80’s generation students of good fortune. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to hear their opinions and to offer my own advice. On that day, our discussion prompted me to write a series of blog posts centered around our “post-80’s generation discussions”.

Although this series of blog posts will indeed touch upon the issues that arose in those discussions, I will not limit myself to just those discussions. As everyone knows, most of my readers, as well as those who frequently leave comments on the blog, are young people. Of the thousands of emails I receive each year from these readers, many of them surprisingly do not raise the issue of democracy, or ask questions relevant to the content of the blog, but instead many ask questions about their lives, work and future, and hope to hear my advice.

I have to admit that at first I was a little depressed. I thought to myself, little brothers and sisters, you have chosen me to act as your adviser and confidant? I am trying to discuss with you the future of our country and the fate of our people, and instead you tell me your plans for the future and ask for my suggestions. I am a peddler of democracy not a psychic; or would you so easily have me help you mastermind some scheme for your future?

Eventually, a friend pointed something out to me: I should not at all be depressed with this situation, but instead be amused. He said, “What country’s future is so far divorced from the fate of its people that it escapes the minds of its youth? That young people are not making this connection is bullshit. The reason that your declarations of democracy and universal values attract the attention of many young people is not because your words simply move them to look upward to the stars, but because your words awaken within them a sense of self. It is precisely because your thoughts on democracy are not bullshit that they turn to you for advice about their futures. The idea of democracy is something very close to them. It keeps their feet on the ground….”

the post-80s generation
And that makes sense. As long as discussions of democracy are not simply for the purposes of academic exploration, an individual whose thoughts on democracy disinterest young people obviously has a deep flaw in his or her presentation. A young person’s disinterest in democracy cannot be blamed on brainwashing. Thinking this, I was as elated as Ah Q. But then I realized, since it was my ideas of democracy that were responsible for enticing others so that they now desired to participate in such discussions, I was now responsible for answering their questions.

The problem with this is that throughout this time I have found these questions difficult to answer. I had originally thought I saw clearly the future of our country and people. However, I don’t believe now that I have a clearer vision of this than any one else.

There is no issue more important to a country than that of the future of a country’s people. Such an issue is more important than the sum total of any one person’s personal problems. And as such, we should not be the least bit casual or hasty in discussing these issues. Especially for those young people who have fostered a fondness and respect for me, I should be more prudent in progressing with these issues. Starting today, let these posts stand as an answer and explanation to the questions and inquiries I never clearly answered in the past.

I want to thank the HKU post-80’s generation students who attended the lecture for giving me the opportunity to sit and speak together with them. I also want to thank those who were in attendance who I did not have the opportunity to sit down and speak with. I’m sure I could have learned a great deal from you as well. I especially want to thank my readers. In the following posts, I will discuss issues faced by our country’s youth during this time of turbulent change; issues which touch upon democracy and universal values.

However, before this, we cannot avoid the question asked by many of the lecture’s audience members on that day. This question, for them, is a very practical question, for they, at this very moment, are stepping on the country’s doorstep. They are the mainland students facing the first question discussed above: to go abroad and continue advancing studies, or stay on the Chinese mainland?

As a peddler of democracy, I have failed. Free democracy has not come to China. Instead, the thought of crossing Luohu Bridge in search of freedom, or crossing the Atlantic in the pursuit of democracy, has entranced the hearts of masses of youth. Instead of ideas of free democracy importing youth, it is causing them to leave.

Actually, going home or going abroad, this question can only be answered by looking at one’s personal situation. When you ask me, the only thing I can do is talk about my personal experience, and help you understand the situation abroad and at home. For example, going abroad has what disadvantages, staying in China has what advantages. And these disadvantages and advantages will differ from person to person. However, there is one point that is very similar for all, and that is that a superior person, an upward bound and hard-working person, under any circumstances, domestic or abroad, can find their own place in the world.

I hope that we can, throughout the course of these posts, find our place in the world together.

This is part one in a series. Look for part two coming soon!

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