They are not the idealistic democracy activists of 1989 — the generation of Tiananmen. Nor do they carry the baggage of the Cultural Revolution, when the young were turned against the old. They have little in common with their parents, who knew first hand the hardship of the Communist revolution. When China’s 20-somethings talk about their country and the United States, they speak with the confident, apolitical air of a peacetime generation raised in a time of rapid economic growth and widening horizons.
Filmmaker Han Jie, like many others MSNBC talked to, is bullish on China’s future.
Things are getting better, she said, and there’s little reason to think it won’t continue.
“Those of us who are around 20 years old have seen the country move forward one step at a time,” she said.
“Because twenty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution we were too young to understand.
What we know started in the 1980s when China was steadily modernizing.”
Her concern for the future is with spiritual and cultural progress, and “freedom” of the sort that allows you to wave at strangers or sing out loud on a bus.
“If I did this in China, people would think I was mentally ill,” she said. For this kind of freedom, she admires Americans.
But unlike China’s leaders, she sees no need to compete or compare on every front.
“In tourism, for instance, China could develop into the best in the world. After all, the U.S. has no Great Wall or Yellow River, so on this the U.S. probably can’t compare. And there’s no need for China to compare to areas where the U.S. is strong, just to develop its strong points.”
Jack Wu is a serious guy for a 25-year-old. He sees the country’s future as bright, ready to advance in every way. But he worries about China’s population, already close to 1.3 billion.
“China has limited resources, limited land,” he said. “If we can’t control the population, we could run into a lot of problems down the road, like disasters and famine.”
For Lu Jun, an 18 year old sophomore at Qinghua University, the problems that lie ahead for China are more immediate.
“A lot of people have been laid off in China,” he said. “The government still has a lot to do to solve this problem. This is a big country, so it’s difficult.”
Unlike students at Qinghua University a decade ago, Lu said he doesn’t really know a lot about politics. But he does have his opinions about the U.S.-led bombing in Yugoslavia, which also devastated China’s embassy in Belgrade.
“The American people are very friendly. But the government — like during the war in Yugoslavia, I think they say one thing, and do another. Also, I don’t really believe their explanation for why they bombed our embassy.”
One day, he believes, China could overtake the United States.
“I don’t dare guess on the timing. It won’t be in the next 20 years, maybe not 50 years,” he said. “But I’m sure that if we put our minds to it, we can surpass the U.S. eventually.”
Henry Wang believes that his generation won’t be using the same tools as their parents to get ahead. The environment has changed completely, he said.
“My parents’ generation had stable salary, stable jobs,” said the 29-year-old, who works for a foreign ad agency in Beijing.
“We have contracts. We have pressure to our work. And during the current Asian economic climate it’s more competitive. So, every day it’s a very heavy burden on me.”
To survive will take force of will, he said, and it will take help from outside. He brushes off questions about diplomatic conflicts with the United States, and focuses on economics.
“A lot of companies are setting up base in Shanghai. This gives our generation many opportunities to learn,” he said. “The U.S. has 200 years of nation building, but China has only 50 years. We still need to learn more and expand our minds in many aspects to catch up.”
Li Lin presents the picture of her generation’s determination and independence. Even more than 20-year-olds elsewhere in the world, they suffer from a generation gap.
“Of course we’re completely different from our parents,” said the young woman, who had come from Shandong province to meet friends for the National Day celebration.
“Some things are hardly worth mentioning — we eat differently, dress differently. And, like my father, who is already in his 60s. ... He always thinks of the country, but we think more about ourselves.”
Where will the country be in 20 years? It will be far richer, far better, she said. But what she worries about is just herself.
“I just want to be doing what I want to do,” she said. “There are so many things I want to do.”