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Seeing through propaganda: Chinese millennials want to be heard

The Communist Party machine guns and tanks that massacred hundreds — by some accounts, thousands — of unarmed protestors at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 left “a message that silenced a generation,” American journalist Eric Fish writes in his new book China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.

As Fish illustrates through interviews with controversy-courting social activists, the message remains unchanged, despite subtler purveyors. When feminist college student Li Maizi staged ‘Occupy Men’s Room‘ in 2012 to campaign for more women’s public toilets, after the demonstration two policemen wined and dined her at an upscale restaurant, informing her at the end of the meal that “she was a smart girl with a bright future ahead of her…provided that she avoided trouble,” Fish wrote after interviewing Li.

Fish, who taught at a university in China for three years, interviewed some 30 young people in an attempt to mine the national psyche of China’s youth. The notion of millennials as the “want generation” struck Fish while he was speaking to migrant workers in the southern city of Shenzhen, whom he found to be “much more ambitious than the status quo 15-20 years earlier where most [rural workers] wanted to work for a couple of years and go back to their hometown,” Fish said at an ‘Asia Society in Queens’ discussion at Queens Library at Flushing in New York.

Fish worked for four years as a journalist in China for the Economic Observer. He is pictured here a...

Fish worked for four years as a journalist in China for the Economic Observer. He is pictured here at the Queens Library at Flushing in New York.

“I talked to one [factory worker] who wanted to learn English, emigrate and teach Chinese to foreigners in Canada or Europe,” he continued. Another spoke of opening his own factory.

But self-actualization among blue-collar workers remains blighted by a lack of social mobility. Fish writes of the scams befalling those who fail the gaokao college entrance exam, including unaccredited fake universities where students discover the non-legitimacy of their degree only after “graduating.”

Meanwhile, those admitted to college are required to undergo junxun, military training involving weeks of marching, drilling and patriotism lessons from People’s Liberation Army soldiers. “It represents a microcosm of what the government wants its youth to be: obedient, patriotic, collectivist, and thankful for the wealth that has been bestowed upon them,” writes Fish. But bartering with instructors, disobedience of stringent dress codes, and use of mobile phones during training has become commonplace, and most students Fish interviewed shrug off notions of political indoctrination.

“We’ll do what they tell us during the training, but afterwards we have our own minds,” Rachel, a 19-year-old English major, told Fish. Born into a market economy, China’s millennials face circumstances entirely divergent from their parents’ socialist upbringing – hence their expectations beyond once-supreme material pursuits of a prestigious government job, house, and car.

Especially fascinating to Fish is the clash between progressive millennials and their government. “People who go out on the street to protest in China — they have a lot to lose personally. When you think about it, at an individual level there’s not a whole lot of personal gain. You see people taking to the streets more and becoming even bolder,” said Fish.

Press freedom has become especially contentious in a nation that continues to ban Google, Facebook, YouTube and even the BBC. In 2013, Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend penned an editorial calling for constitutionalism. The original version never appeared. Reporters alleged that Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhan had altered the editorial, turning it from “a biting social commentary to an error-ridden puff piece glorifying the Communist Party.”

Hundreds of protesters thronged the streets outside of Southern Weekend‘s offices in support of the paper, while students uploaded pictures of themselves to social media holding placards that read: “Let’s go, Southern Weekend!”

Left:  There is always a force that can make the powerless strong and make pessimists believe.  Righ...

Left: “There is always a force that can make the powerless strong and make pessimists believe.” Right: “On orders to keep my mouth shut.”

Propaganda directives underrepresented death tolls in a 2011 collision between two trains in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, when lightning struck a metal signaling box. The crash threw four coaches off a 65-foot-high viaduct, killing forty. While officials instructed media outlets not to question official reports, and to promote “great love in the face of tragedy,” journalists smelt a rat. Untrained railway workers and faulty communications systems resulting from corruption at the Ministry of Railways were also to blame.

A video subsequently surfaced of officials attempting to bury one of the train coaches using backhoes. “It was one of the first major incidents in which microblogs shattered the Party’s monopoly power over the public narrative,” Fish wrote of the brouhaha that broke out online, despite Internet censors.

Raised on meritocratic ideals that sustained their parents’ generation, Chinese youth now grapple with a nepotistic job market, corrupt bureaucracies, and the world’s largest gender imbalance. Are these conditions conducive to another uprising?

Fish doesn’t think so, given the political leeway — although modest compared to some democracies — that has been achieved in recent years. “Rather than a single massive demonstration calling on the government to reform, China’s millennials will more likely push and pull on the system from ten thousand directions, very gradually – one minor conflict and issue at a time.”

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