In a relatively recent panel held by the Brookings Institution in April of last year titled “Understanding China’s ‘Angry Youth’: What Does the Future Hold?”, Kai-Fu Lee, the founding president of Google China, discussed his take on China’s youth.
Though completely unrelated to his day job, Mr. Lee made a number of provocative insights worth looking at further. In particular, this article will elaborate on the ideas expressed in his keynote address in hopes of creating a more well-rounded and fairer depiction of China’s youth than the term “angry youth” itself elicits.
Mr. Lee begins with a language lesson, explaining the taxonomy of the term “angry youth” found in Mandarin. The word most commonly used to refer to “angry youth” is fenqing (愤青), which comes from fennu qingnian (愤怒青年), or, literally, “furious youth”. In addition to this fenqing, there are two other fens; 粪, which means excrement, and 奋, derived from 奋斗, which means to struggle. In each case of 愤青, 粪青, and 奋年, the fens are synonymous, having both the same pinyin spelling (fen) and tone (fourth tone).
Each of these three classifications refers to a different type of youth. Mr. Lee defines the “furious youth” (愤青), as “critical, skeptical, sometimes unhappy…. They want to point out problems of things that they observe and they use the anonymity of the internet to let the silent majority have a chance to speak up.”
A more extreme version of the “angry youth” is the “excrement youth” (粪青), which Mr. Lee describes as “people who are generally gullible. They have a lack of knowledge; they don’t apply enough logic and common sense to problems. They are easily provoked. They’re impetuous, and they’re hot-headed, and they sometimes don’t just speak up but they actually take action…they sometimes have trouble separating patriotism from nationalism, and they sometimes not only want China to win, they may want some other countries to lose, and a lot of responsible Chinese journalists and authors have called these excrement youths scoundrels hiding under the pretence of patriotism.”
The third, and more realistic fenqing, is the 奋青, or “aspiring youth”. Mr. Lee describes this group as “aspiring [and] industrious…[they] are people who are objective, realistic, fair…[they have a] strong sense of social responsibility. They don’t just point out the problems, but they want to solve the problems — they want to point out solutions…they have a clear understanding of what patriotism means, that it is not nationalism, that they love their country but it’s not at the expense of other countries, and I think this is a group of constructive people I think who are going to hopefully become the pillar of society in the future….”
By and large, it seems that the “angry” and “excrement” groups are often the ones most commonly referred to whenever someone uses the term “angry youth”. This is a problem for those outside of China who do not know any better, as these two groups unfairly paint for western observers a portrait of a xenophobic and nationalist China. In fact, data from a survey done by the CASS Institute of World History Special Topics Groups, published by Stanley Rosen in the May 2009 volume of the Journal of Asian Studies, in his article Contemporary Chinese Youth and the State, suggests that the majority of China’s youth is better described as aspiring, not angry.
When asked to relate their core belief system, the survey found that 72.7% of respondents believe their personal belief system is best described as “individual struggle” compared to the 10% who “did not know” what belief system they related to, and the 17.2% who “struggle to achieve communism”.
When asked whether or not they identified with American cultural concepts, 51% reported they did indeed identify, 32% said the influence of American media was a “non-factor” and 17% said they did not identify at all. It is possible, however, that the number of those who do identify with western cultural concepts is higher, considering that 61% of respondents stated they related to liberalism, which is a western concept.
Such evidence suggests that China’s youth is far from being as xenophobic and hyper-nationalistic as some tend to let on.
So why is it that viral videos, such as the one discussed here, tend to bring out so much xenophobia and nationalist sentiment? While hard data cannot be provided to argue either in favor or against the argument that such commentators do not represent China’s youth as a whole, the 90-9-1 principle may provide some insight.
This principle holds that of everyone who interacts with something on the web, 90% purely consume (i.e. they do not interact with the content, by commenting, for example), 9% directly interact (e.g. by leaving comments on blogs) and only1% actually create content. Such a theory may provide us with some perspective on the amount of China’s youth which actually come forward to participate in such discussions.
In addition, the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which ‘people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it’”, suggests that of the ~10% who do interact with blogs, BBS forums, etc., those expressing strong xenophobic, racist and nationalist sentiment likely belong to the small “excrement” minority.
And many of China’s aging youth do have things about which to be angry: domestic issues such as a 12.6% unemployment rate for college graduates, rampant government corruption and rising house prices, and international issues such as regularly being misrepresented by foreign media. And these are issues which are not solved by toting anti-western, xenophobic slogans, but China’s aspiring youth already know this.
In conclusion, though certainly not a new idea that it is a mistake to generalize an entire generation of people based on the actions of a small minority, the continued adoption and use of misnomers like “angry youth” do a tremendous disservice to casual observers of China. By conjuring images of disturbed teens and college grads who are now stepping behind the wheel of one of the world’s largest economies, and America’s biggest challenger to its lone superpower status, such terminology only further fosters unease and suspicion in an already largely uninformed western public. With over half of America’s general public seeing China as a “major threat”, terms like “angry youth” are neither accurately portraying the post-80’s generation, nor are they helping to show the world that China has the potential to become not a major threat, but a major ally.