Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Author Alec Ash published after four years of study Wish Lanterns: Inside the Young Lives of China, documenting the life of the millenniums in China. Journalist Ian Johnson of the New York Times sat down with him to discuss how they are bringing change to China.

What can we learn from their stories?

I think they are already bringing change to China at a deeper societal level, if not on the political level, which is what we tend to read about. Han Han [a prominent blogger], who was once the spokesman of this generation, said fundamentally he was optimistic, because they are fundamentally better than previous generations. They don’t spit on the street; they don’t cut queues.

I’d go beyond that and say it’s increasingly true of young urban generations in China that they’re more liberal about social issues such as L.G.B.T., more aware of women’s rights, more intolerant of injustice and have fewer inhibitions to speaking up when they see it. They are better educated, more international in their outlook and connected online to each other.

Contrary to conventional wisdom on China right now, I’m a meliorist. I think that Chinese society is improving despite regressive politics, and I think that comes down to these new generations who are more open while they still have very different opinions from a lot of us.

How much can we generalize about people who end up in Beijing? Would we find the same thing, or something similar, if we were in Changsha or Nanchang?

I am talking about the urban vanguard because social change has so often happened in China through those groups. But, yes, when I go out to the boondocks and talk to young Chinese a step or three down the ladder, more often than not they are totally consumed by their own personal challenges in finding a job or finding a partner and have little time to think about anything else. But that’s also true of city dwellers, and I would still emphasize the same positives.

Young people in China are sometimes portrayed quite negatively, both in China and abroad.

It comes in two varieties. First, that they don’t believe in anything. They are materialist consumerists whose political consciousness has been bought off by economic growth. And second is the opposite: that they are true believers, especially as nationalists.

There’s an element of truth to both of these views, but it’s fundamentally wrong to think it can be so simple. First and foremost, let’s put to bed this ridiculous notion that they don’t care about their country. On the contrary, I think they’re deeply engaged with their country’s direction, even if so many feel powerless to change anything outside of their own lives.

More in the New York Times.

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