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Chinese youths build cultural revolution amid economic struggles

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

LAWRENCE – In some of the world’s biggest cities, in the world’s most populous nation, a significant segment of Chinese youths today constitutes an “ant tribe” of powerless, rootless workers, primed for exploitation by the global system of neoliberal capitalism.

“Tiny Times” is the most popular Chinese youth-culture brand today, starting as a book trilogy by a young author and turning into a series of blockbuster movies, TV shows, comic books and video games.

This dialectic between big and small is one of the themes running throughout a new book by University of Kansas researcher Hui “Faye” Xiao, “Youth Economy, Crisis and Reinvention in Twenty-First Century China: Morning Sun in the Tiny Times” (Routledge, 2020).

The first thing an American has to understand about China today is its turn to a post-Fordist economic system, said Xiao, associate professor and chair of the KU Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures. China tried to move up the global value chain by switching from “made in China” to “created in China,” Xiao said, to meet increasingly sophisticated and diversified consumer demands on the global market, rather than Henry Ford’s one-size-fits-all production line.

“This led me to focus on the three main themes threading throughout my book: youth economy, crisis and reinvention, which are all interconnected with each other,” Xiao said. “Youth economy refers to the new post-Fordist economic mode that is capitalizing on young consumers’ increasing purchasing power and their desires for self-expression and pleasure, as well as on the transmedial creative labor of young writers, filmmakers, media workers, cultural entrepreneurs and even their zealous fans. Moreover, it also repackages youth itself as its most profitable commodity for sale through networked technologies and media to meet the increasing demands of the fastest-growing segment of the cultural market both in China and across the world. In other words, market segmentation and product proliferation and differentiation are essential new strategies of the unprecedented commercial success of a youth-oriented cultural industry.”

“This embryonic post-Fordist creative economy generates enormous new opportunities for younger generations and promises them a dream of joining a global creative class that obtains financial gains and upward mobility with their marketable intellectual and creative labor. Meanwhile, its neoliberal model is invested exclusively in optimizing market coverage, profit margins and individual competitiveness, which also accelerates the division, differentiation and fragmentation of youth demographics along class, gender, ethnicity, educational and regional lines.”

The avatars of today’s Chinese youth economy, Xiao wrote, are the writers Guo Jingming and Han Han. Born without siblings during China’s population-controlling one-child policy era, they are the best examples of a rising Chinese creative class consisting of young best-selling writers, filmmakers, digital technology and media workers, and cultural entrepreneurs “whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content.” 

As for “youth crisis,” we return to the ant tribe. Xiao didn’t invent the term, but she brings it to Western attention in her book.

“As a result of the global economic recession and rapid expansion of college enrollment numbers, the rate of unemployment and underemployment has increased sharply, even among college graduates,” Xiao said. “In the meantime, the marketization of social services, decreasing institutional support, rampant corruption, cutthroat competition starting from kindergarten and escalating social inequalities in a radically stratifying society have combined to crush the younger generations’ dream of embourgeoisement. Rather than joining the global creative class with their intellectual power developed via meritocratic education, more and more young college graduates have been driven into the urban ant tribe, or the massive labor army that mainly consists of college graduates who drift on the peripheries of big cities with low-wage and often temporary jobs and dismal working and living conditions.”

“They are very small,” she said. “You feel you are so insignificant. This meaningless existence – scattered, isolated and powerless, exploited in this capitalist system. And I think probably that is also the feeling that you can sense here for Amazon workers.” 

“But they still have this hope for a better future. They hope if they work hard enough, if they can endure all the hardships of today, probably they can get a better life for tomorrow. So now you have this Chinese version of the American dream for this group.”

But not all Chinese youths are solely pursuing individual economic welfare. Xiao concludes the book with a section on reinvention by focusing on young feminist activists who are trying to bypass the state censorship to achieve the gender equality that Mao promised and largely delivered upon, but which has been set back by resurgent Confucianism.

“You have groups of young people who want to work on social issues like gender equity, and they started a me-too movement in China,” Xiao said.

Employing the products of youth culture, the young feminists she writes about have invoked the power of cuteness in an anti-sexual assault poster with manga (comics) aesthetics, posting it online and printing it on sandwich boards and carrying them around cities. In other words, they employ “the power of cute” to create new forms of feminist action and civil engagement that resorts to the guerrilla war strategy and decentralizing social media (in contrast to centralized mass media) to initiate gendered resistance from the margins to achieve a series of small, but specific, goals of gender equality.

Hence, Xiao sees the young feminist movement as hopeful, and she wanted to conclude her book on a note marking younger generations’ “social and political and also cultural agency in making the world a better place.”

Photo: Young feminist activist Zhang Leilei carrying a manga-style poster in front of the Guangzhou TV tower. Credit:  Courtesy of Zhang Leilei


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