Only 30 years ago, when China’s state-owned enterprises began the uncertain process of market-oriented reforms—resulting in large closures, downsizings, and mass layoffs—the employment outlook for young people in China promptly clouded over. The world that they once felt was opening wide before them suddenly filled with redundant workers. After years of slow growth and rising prices, many college students found themselves on the cusp of graduating without jobs.

Disillusioned with the government’s assurances about a brighter future, they began massing in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 after the death of Hu Yaobang, the popular former party leader who had tried to undo the mistakes of the Mao era and pushed for education reform. Joined by thousands of disaffected laborers and urban professionals, they demonstrated against the continuation of a political regime that seemed to be choking their potential with yet another round of economic experimentation.

Past experiments under Mao to modernize industry through an effort of sheer willpower, or to re-engineer the nation’s collective political consciousness, had blighted several generations. Their children and grandchildren inherited the setbacks of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The protests of 1989 consequently galvanized the discontent of millions in China who, comparing their situation with America’s ease and prosperity came to believe that their hopes and expectations could only be realized through a Western-style liberal democracy.

Today, China’s post-1980 generation, made up largely of those who went through adolescence in the 1990s and 2000s—known as the balinghou—is the first in the history of the People’s Republic to come up amid relative socio-economic stability. With a life experience shaped by the successes of those economic reforms, this generation has grown self-assured in its future. Ideological struggles seem all but forgotten.

To the Western world, China’s balinghou is, for the most part, simply a case study in the demographics of consumption. Multinational corporations sponsor research into their “attitudes towards life” abstracted in the statistical terms of mobile phone and internet usage, savings rates, and spending habits. Practical materialism, it seems, in both the East and West, has displaced political ideas.

There is a gulf, more than a gap, separating China’s balinghou from previous generations. China’s young people today have never known foreign invasion, civil war, or starvation. Nor have they experienced being “sent down” to the countryside to toil on the land. Instead, millions have come up from the countryside as migrant workers to pursue city ambitions.

The quickened growth and development of three decades has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty. More than that, it has put disposable income in the hands of a large proportion of young Chinese for the first time since 1949. It has allowed record numbers to attain a higher education, to enjoy a better livelihood and to travel to far-off places. While they still have to compete for jobs, perhaps more strenuously than before, they have been taught that unemployment is an issue of economics, not politics. And for that reason they generally no longer see themselves as victims of the state.

A recent study conducted by Telefónica-Financial Times found that 93 percent of Chinese millennials are optimistic about their future, compared to only 67 percent globally. Confident that Beijing has put their country on track to self-sufficiency and inexorable growth, they show greater concern for recreation, health, and environment problems. Conversation amongst young Chinese today, which twenty years ago would have inevitably turned to politics, is likely to gravitate to other topics such as education, personal relationships, fashion, or the newest smartphone.

It is as if China, after 30 years of economic revival, made possible by the struggles and mistakes of the Mao era, has finally come of age.

The communist party encourages this sense of optimism. In 2009 it funded an epic all-star propaganda film titled The Founding of a Republic to mark the 60th anniversary of the socialist state. The film’s theme is the war of liberation against China’s corrupt Kuomintang-led republican government by Mao’s army, beginning in 1945 after the Second Sino-Japanese war, and culminating in the proclamation of the PRC in 1949, which is portrayed as a new beginning.

The Founding of a Republic was an unprecedented box-office hit in China. It was eclipsed only a year later by Aftershock, another state-funded film directed by one of China’s finest directors, Feng Xiaogang, and produced in partnership with IMAX.

Aftershock is about the repercussions of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which took a quarter of a million lives in Sichuan. The film opens with a scene depicting the quake using special effects rivaling Hollywood, then settles into a heart-rending melodrama following the life of a girl whose mother leaves her for dead in order to preserve the life of her brother. Only after becoming a mother herself, 32 years later, does she understand her mother’s choice and find it in herself to forgive.

Some consider Aftershock a political allegory. In one interpretation, its message is an expression of the people’s forgiveness of the communist party’s past errors. A natural disaster substitutes for the devastation wrought by the Great Leap Forward, which claimed tens of millions of lives, and the ordeals of the protagonist represent the nation’s coming of age.

Those who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s had their life experiences shaped by revolutionary Maoism. Many never had the opportunity for a higher education. Those who did likely had their studies curtailed when they were forced into the countryside to learn the wisdom of the proletariat. Afterwards they witnessed China’s economic reforms and reintegration with the world following decades of self-imposed isolation.

If the children of the Cultural Revolution, among them China’s newly appointed president, despair the political apathy of today’s urban young people, they are not altogether unhappy to say farewell to revolutionary politics. The party, of course, is in no hurry to reinvigorate class consciousness. The contradictions and excesses of some of its own at the top, who have literally embraced the maxim attributed to Deng Xiaoping that “wealth is glorious,” appear in many eyes to have divorced the party from the proletariat it was supposed to represent. From a classical Marxist or Maoist viewpoint, they would require uprooting.

The party’s claim to political legitimacy is now largely a question of economic stewardship rather than grassroots representation. The socialist state, acting as the driving force behind marketization, believes that its proficiency in guiding economic reforms serves the universality of interests in China better than any other political configuration, at least at this historical juncture.

The parents of China’s millennials, for their part, invest heavily in their children’s education. Education has been regarded as a means of social advancement in China ever since the advent of the Confucian system of imperial examinations more than a thousand years ago. Spending on education now accounts for roughly 4 percent of China’s GDP. It is not unusual for some parents to lay out one-third or more of their household income to put their children through college. Expectations are, naturally, high.

But how will the continued economic slowdown in China affect millions of new college graduates? Amongst this group, unemployment is rising. Of the seven million or so students to graduate this year—a record number—only a third have found jobs in their field of study. Unemployment or underemployment in this cohort has not been so high since the years leading up to the Tiananmen tragedy.

Could Tiananmen happen all over again? It is a question that Chinese officials are acutely aware of. The party, which has spend more than 20 years studying the causes of the “June 4th incident,” even while disallowing public mention of it, has become worried that graduate unemployment could re-politicize the younger generation, provoking another crisis at a time of economic and social fragility. After the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, then-premier Wen Jiabao told students at Beijing’s University of Aeronautics and Astronautics: “Your difficulties are my difficulties, and if you are worried, I am more worried than you.” Wen confidently announced that the government was taking steps to deal with the problem.

Nearly five years on, the problem has only deepened. A recent editorial in People’s Daily sounds a different note. It suggests that students are making life hard on themselves by holding onto expectations that are simply too high. “Their aspirations are seriously different from their fathers’ generation: they were born in an age of the Internet; they embrace internationalization; they want development and fairness,” it reads. “All in all, they are not simply looking for a job...the problem for university graduates now is not to find a job, but to find a good one.”

Policymakers nevertheless hope that a new round of economic reforms will take the pressure out of the situation. China has embarked on its second industrial revolution, beginning the process of lifting industry up the global value chain by incorporating more science and technology into the manufacturing process. While automation and mechanization require fewer workers, new industry will employ more college graduates. China is also working to create a climate in which Chinese consume more of what they create. Beijing hopes that this will multiply jobs in the white-collar services sector to absorb surplus graduates.

To reduce reliance on export-led growth, China has to continue the process of urbanization while simultaneously rebalancing the workforce and better aligning the education system with the needs of a changing economy. The nation transformed itself into the world’s industrial center by turning peasants into a cheap labour force in the coastal and urban areas, but in doing so it has precipitated a crisis in rural China. Colleges in major cities are now offering cash and additional training to graduating students who return to their hometowns in rural areas to work.

It would be difficult to imagine how China’s balinghou might weather a protracted economic downturn. While not possessing the same revolutionary inheritance of their parents’ generation, they are by no means resigned to the acceptance of fate, to things as they are. It would be a mistake to think they do not possess the same will to action and could not trigger widespread political disturbances on a scale comparable to 1989. Even now they participate in small-scale public protests against environmental degradation, corporate abuses and political corruption at the local level. In one way or another, China’s balinghou appear set for a psychological revolution. It is anyone’s guess what direction that might take in a country whose history is the history of one struggle succeeding another.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2013 print edition.

Photo by tinabasgen (cc).

Paul Nash
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.