How the post-90 generation is transforming the country

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The digital revolution has transformed all lives in China, but it has most deeply affected the post-1990 age cohort, which is made up of ‘digital natives’ (Hulianwang Yuanzhumin). Like their counterparts elsewhere, the digital natives in China were born during an era of widespread commercial use of computers, and they grew up alongside cell phones and the Internet.

As prominent Chinese sociologist Li Chunling, author of the new book “China’s Youth”, emphatically emphasizes, the Internet has become “involved in all aspects of young people’s lives”. In turn, the massive generational cohort born in China in the 1990s, totaling around 175 million people, fundamentally changed the country’s social structure, social space and social ties.

The distinct characteristics of the digital Chinese natives not only reflect these extraordinary changes, but will also reshape the country’s future trajectory as this generation comes along. For the outside world, a better understanding of this group is an urgent task, given that the Middle Empire now has more influence over the global economy and regional security than at any time in modern history.

Impact on social structure

China’s age group after the 1990s (jiulinghou), alongside even younger age cohorts, includes both the top consumers and contributors to social media platforms and new digital devices. For example, in 2017, around 85% of TikTok (Douyin) the subscribers were young people under the age of 24. WeChat (Weixin), launched by Tencent in 2011, claimed around 938 million monthly active users in 2017. WeChat usage among young people was extremely high, penetrating almost 100% of urban professionals in their 20s and early 30s.

The preponderant role of the post-90 age cohort in the digital realm has altered Chinese social relations, which for thousands of years were based on a strict kinship hierarchy and shared geographic origins. In the traditional Chinese social structure, even during the most rebellious periods, such as the May 4 Movement and the Cultural Revolution in the 20th century, young people were generally guided by mature adults or the elderly from their families and society. in general.

But in the digital age, young people are “their own flagship”, and they have occupied the forefront of the telecommunications revolution. More often than not, the post-90 age cohort guided their parents and grandparents to keep abreast of the times. Huge changes in the distribution of information have implications for the structure of family and society. Members of the post-90s generation tend to adjust and adapt their lifestyles, behaviors and perceptions while keeping pace with a rapidly changing digital world. On the whole, they are likely to see themselves no longer as creatures of the country’s past but as creators of its future.

Expansion of social space and the virtual sphere

Before the advent of the Internet, there had always been two fields of public opinion (yulun chang) in China: one was the field of official public opinion and the other was the field of private public opinion. But the former dominated the latter due to the ubiquitous nature of the official media in the country.

With the upheaval of traditional media through the Internet and its applications, the expansion of the field of public communication and public opinion is accelerating. Webcasting, as a new medium integrating multiple media, such as social media, news and commentary, games and sports, film and television, and performing arts and broadcasting, has become particularly popular among young people in China. The total number of streaming viewers increased from 343 million in 2017 to 562 million in 2020.

According to a report published in China’s Youth Studies in April 2018, most webcasters are from the post-90 age cohort (78%), and over 80% of those who watch live broadcasts are also from the post-90. Webcasting, with its distinct characteristics of self-expression and interactive nature, low barriers to entry and lack of hierarchy, and the spontaneity and randomness of live broadcasts, has transformed the generation. post-90 into a social force for change. In a way, the focus of youth public life and social interactions has shifted from large public spaces within the system (such as plazas, parks and auditoriums) to small private spaces, which can be spaces. completely imaginary virtual ones.

Younger cohorts of Chinese internet users are gaining their knowledge and understanding of the world more easily and faster than previous generations. Despite government censorship and difficulty accessing information due to the Great Firewall, young Chinese today often find ways to break these constraints and expose themselves to information from around the world. . Some have had direct experience abroad through travel and study abroad. According to a recent Financial Times report, Chinese millennials (in which the post-90 group plays an important role) currently make up two-thirds of all Chinese passport holders.

Many Chinese students have taken online programs offered by American universities, and some have studied in the United States. In 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 34% (or more than 360,000) of international students on U.S. college campuses were from the People’s Republic of China. In 2013, there were more than 30,000 Chinese students enrolled in high schools in the United States, representing 46% of the total number of foreign students in the country. As never before in Chinese history, young people are more integrated, both online and offline, with the outside world.

New limits for social relations and public demands

When it comes to social connections, the internet has reduced the distance between people and has a profound impact on ways of interpersonal communication and engagement. According to a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the social circles of urban professionals are now 10 times larger than they were before social media. Meanwhile, social identity and group feeling shared in virtual space can also become a new medium for networking or a trigger to incite mass incidents.

Various interest groups and vulnerable social groups have often improved their networking through digital means. In recent years, they have launched a series of large-scale online protests on controversial issues, including economic inequality, environmental degradation, food and pharmaceutical security, women’s rights, child protection and human rights issues. animal rights.

A growing social acceptance of different lifestyles and sexual orientations has emerged among the country’s youth. According to a 2016 United Nations Development Program report, featuring a survey conducted by Peking University sociology professor Wu Lijuan, less than 9% of those in the post-90s said they would reject a gay child. In comparison, 13%, 28% and 35% of the cohorts after the 1980s, 1970s and 1960s, respectively, held the same point of view. A good example of the impact of social connection facilitated by mobile internet and apps is Blued, currently the world’s largest gay dating app, which was founded in China in 2000. With a user base of some 24 million people in China, Blued has created a digital ecosystem to serve the LGBTQ community.

Chinese youth are using social media to support sexual minorities and reach out to the general public, negotiating effectively with the party-state. In the spring of 2018, large numbers of young Chinese internet users rallied against authorities after LGBTQ-related content was wiped from Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms. They denounced Weibo’s censorship as a marginalization of homosexuals that undermined the legal decriminalization of homosexuality. Eventually, Weibo republished these documents.

The intragenerational differences of China’s digital natives, the intriguing relationship with the Chinese authorities, anxieties and ambitions, and views on the country’s role in the world reflect an important development that should catch the attention of observers of China. this rapidly changing country.


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