Book review

Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World by Zak Dychtwald 

Title: Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World

Author: Zak Dychtwald

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

For a group of 300 million people, China’s millennial generation is surprisingly anonymous. They’re often only children – thanks to Beijing’s family planning policies – and they probably don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts – thanks to Beijing’s censorship policies – but aside from that, they are a mystery to the outside world.

Zak Dychtwald, a Columbia University-educated American from the same generation, tries to fill in some of the blanks with Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World. This is not a scholarly book – it’s short on data and interpretation – but it is a fascinating anecdotal insight into the minds of young Chinese.

The book starts on an unpromising note as the author recounts his eyes-wide-open introduction to life in China, echoing every young expatriate who moves there. He also claims that everyone speaks English in Hong Kong, that China has 300 million English speakers, or that Shenzhen was a backwater before it became a special economic zone.

But then Dychtwald lets his interview subjects drive the narrative. Dozens of people tell the author their story, and while the process lacks scientific rigour the sheer weight of their voices builds up an illuminating picture.

Some of the stereotypes ring true in Dychtwald’s encounters – the academic strivers, the techies, the hard-core party supporters, the forever-young, the prematurely old – but they all have stories and are happy to bear witness to how they got to where they are, or didn’t.

For example, Bella is obsessed with her exam scores and spends 80 hours a week in the Suzhou University library; Lulu wants to get rich quickly; Jiangguo is a five-year-old already wired for success. Personal issues are also covered: Wendy got involved with an older, married man; William is gay but wants to honour his parents by adopting a child.

They are universal human tales, albeit middle and upper-class tales – there are no grocers, police, construction workers or doormen in Dychtwald’s orbit – but they are told with Chinese characteristics: heavy on education, success and doing the right thing by one’s family, peers and country.

And many of Dychtwald’s subjects are acutely aware of China’s international reputation. “China does a terrible job of presenting ourselves to the world,” a young man named Tom tells him.

“‘With the image of China in Europe, America, and the West, we just look like brainwashed young people, 1984-style governance, hair in queues…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Look, man,’ he continued, placing his glass on the table. ‘As long as you don’t make all of us out to be organ-stealing prostitutes, we’re making progress.’”

National pride, Dychtwald argues, has an impact on identity. As China continues to modernize, there is this jostling to try to figure out what it means to be Chinese on the world stage. As they grow wealthier, do these young people just want to emulate their international peers in terms of style, thinking, what’s cool and what’s not?

Dychtwald doesn’t really answer the subtitle of the book. There’s not a lot to suggest how the young generation will change China, let alone the rest of the world. They don’t want to think of themselves and their culture as inferior, so theirs is a national experimenting that’s going on with what it means to be cool with Chinese characteristics in the modern world.

Of course, China has allowed foreign influence to dictate its modern identity. Dychtwald visits Suzhou Industrial Park, a mix of new residential apartment buildings and factory headquarters. Singapore was the inspiration for this low-rise, high-technology space. Deng Xiaoping had been impressed with Singapore’s social order and tight political system.

Dychtwald has made a creditable attempt to make sense of China’s cohort of young adults, and attempted to make sense – as a foreign outsider – of their aspirations and anxieties.

He’s an enthusiastic coach, fluent in Mandarin and, at the age of 28, a seven-year veteran of this huge and fascinating country. In explaining China, Dychtwald adds his own cautious, self-deprecating rider. “While it’s impossible to understand China if you don’t speak Chinese, knowing the language does not mean you automatically understand China.”

Author interview: Zak Dychtwald

Zak Dychtwald is in Hong Kong partly to promote his book but partly because being an unofficial cataloguer of China’s young generation means spending half the year in China and half the year in his California birthplace.

“I pursued the topic of China’s youth, particularly the post-1990 generation, because it felt like a massively important, impactful group of young people who were getting little to no representation in the English language,” he tells A Plus.

Dychtwald points out older generations in China were largely motivated by subsistence questions. “How do we get enough of the necessities to take care of our family? How do we get out of poverty and away from being concerned over needs?” He says the younger generation has inherited their parents’ concern over practical issues. “Many of them are on that same mission towards financial stability that their parents began.”

But China’s youth are also far more concerned with “wants” rather than “needs”. “Not just the ‘I want an iPhone, car, and apartment’ sort of wants, though those do loom large, but the ‘who do I want to be? What do I want for myself, my family, my country?’ sort of wants as well.”

China’s youth, he says, do strive beyond material wealth. A generation of single children are living away from home in Chinese cities, with a feeling they don’t belong. “That can’t be solved with more money,” says Dychtwald. “This young generation seeks out their own tribes – be they about food, hobby-orientated clubs, or brand-centred identities – aimed at making them feel like they are part of a truly massive whole.”

He says young Chinese are not politically apathetic but “issues like voting still rank low on the priority list for this young generation, particularly as they see how little millennials around the world seem to value this political right on voting days.”

China’s youth do care, he adds, about the ability to speak their mind without retribution, the ability to access and share information, but authoritarian rule from Beijing has not driven them to an extreme reaction. “There definitely has been increased agitation in the past year and a half, especially among the upper crust with international experience,” says Dychtwald.

Dychtwald intends to focus on his Young China Group think tank. “I want to act as a bridge between China and the world,” he says. “My goal is to make China approachable. I am seeking funding for large-scale research… to compare the emerging millennial mindset in China with that of millennials around the world.”

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