A fast changing China has produced highly different generations, although the concept of individualism is even for the generation from the 1990s mostly Western wishful thinking, argues China veteran Tom Doctorof, author of What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer at the Asia Society. Why rebels are not appreciated in China.
The Asia Society:
China’s post-90s generation tends to be seen as very individualistic compared to the collectivist conformist mindset that marked earlier generations. But you seem to have a different take on this. Can you explain?
I will boldly say that that individualism is a Western concept. Individualism is the encouragement of society to define yourself independent of society. Of course, we are all social animals and we all need to engage with society, but individualism is the encouragement to have an internalized identity, and in China, that still does not exist, even among the youngest generation. Individualism in China should not be confused with ego projection. In China, egos are big, but this ultimately means the demand to be acknowledged by society. So the way that you move forward in China — and this has been true forever and continues to be true — is through a mastery of convention and then clever resourcefulness to adapt that convention, but not rebel against it.
So the admiration for rebels does not exist in China, because when you rebel, you cross the red line into dangerous territory and risk becoming ostracized. This is very true from generation to generation. In simple terms, the willingness for young people to challenge their boss and ask a question in a hierarchal situation has not changed in the 18 years that I have been on the ground in China. So there is no youthful individualism, even for the post-90s generation. There hasn’t been that evolution. Ultimately, the desire to climb the social hierarchy remains as trenchant now as it was then, and the anxiety of not living up to expectations is as trenchant now as it was then.
But everywhere you look in China today, you do see young people expressing themselves in ways that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. There’s a huge range of opinions on all sorts of issues and all sorts of anti-conformist subcultures.
There is subcultural tribalism, but the question is, number one, does that start impacting the broader society? Does it ever begin to penetrate the mainstream? Or does it exist on a shelf out of reach? I think that it does not greatly impact the mainstream. So you don’t see an evolution of the mainstream embracin individualism.
The second aspect is, what happens when people get married and start having families and start having careers? Then you see this flirtation with self-identification tend to evaporate a little bit. And honestly, this subculture tribalism is really very small relative to what it would be in a Western society.
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