China’s Last Generation


Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.

– 1 –

“We are the last generation, thank you.” 

SHANGHAI — On the third day of the 2022 COVID lockdown, my wife told me that she was pregnant. Our life in China during that stage of the pandemic was not exactly hellish, but it certainly felt like purgatory. Some days, I was able to leave our apartment building for long walks through the deserted streets downtown. Most days though, she slept or did Zoom calls while I — a compulsive planner with a need to control my reality — rationed coffee, googled recipes for cabbage and did my best to tamp down feelings of claustrophobia.

Thankfully, our son’s gestation gave us practical things to worry about. As I embedded myself into researching hospitals and preschools and diaper brands, whether to apply for him to have U.S. citizenship or Chinese hukou or both, and deciding if we would follow the Chinese 月子 (“yuezi”) customs — the traditional “fourth trimester” after birth, during which a mother rests for 40 or so days — I wondered about the China that was emerging, that he might live in. The China that our friends with toddlers were watching anxiously: the school curriculums and air quality index, the economy, the sense of a society drifting through dangerous waters. 

China these days is no doubt undergoing momentous changes — birthrates are declining, urbanization is increasing, political energy is high, the economic structure is no longer defined solely by exports to the West — but day to day and month to month, it is difficult to determine what is most significant. What would be my son’s future? And where would it be? Should we leave now or try to build a community in the imperfect society that we found ourselves in? What would be the story of our family, the soil in which my son’s life is now taking root?

– 2 – 

“Are we to witness how waves of a new human energy break through the battered walls of Old China? Or is the inner movement congealed — the soul frozen forever?”
— Osvald Sirén

In today’s China, the world of the 1950s generation, to paraphrase Marx, weighs like a nightmare on the lives of the young. The need to pay lavish pensions overhangs the state and large swathes of the economy, the politics of a previous era still dominate, and of course, the all-encompassing zero-COVID policy was explained in part as essential to protect the elderly, many of whom eschewed vaccination. Family values — China’s folk religion — are part of the imagery on government billboards advertising the “China Dream,” which is a bit jarring, since many elders being cared for today were once the youths who tore down the old society during the Cultural Revolution. The explosive tumult of China’s revolution has ossified, leaving the same old hierarchies untouched. 

In a society that is reflexively Confucian, it makes sense that the elders would be in charge. But since different generations have radically different visions of what Chinese society should be, the political monopoly of the old has given a lopsided, strange quality to the decisions that determine everybody’s lives.

China’s life expectancy surpassed that of the U.S. a few years ago, and nowhere is that more apparent than in downtown Shanghai, China’s oldest city, where the average life expectancy is 84 and almost a quarter of its residents are over 60. Due to the complicated legacy of the Cultural Revolution and its impact on housing and real estate, many of these old folks live in the city center with Chinese-style rent control — so-called “use rights” (使用权) — giving them indefinite control over apartments they don’t technically own.  

After the Communist Revolution, the mansions of the French Concession were divvied up among whoever was there to claim them — peasants, workers, soldiers. But nobody worried about title deeds, so the people who live there now just get to stay simply because they’ve been there long enough, even as their neighbors pay thousands of dollars a month for the privilege. Dust collects on chandeliers in the shabby grandeur of a lost world, even as the new world is being constructed across the street. 

In many ways, China today is a society oriented to the value systems and lifestyles of the elderly partly as a consequence of how Confucianism operates at an instinctual level. Young adults go to work, putting in the grueling hours that the economy will need to add productivity. They are expected to be obedient and orderly in the service of a generation that staged an epic revolution. 

“In today’s China, the world of the 1950s generation weighs like a nightmare on the lives of the young.”

Both in big cities and villages, grandparents occupy a key role in childcare largely unknown in the West. Every day at 3 p.m., clusters of them gather at school gates, hands folded behind their backs and clutching snacks, waiting to pick up their grandkids. When our son was born, his grandmother moved in to help us. She has been invaluable, and she is entitled to her opinions and peccadillos. When she cooks dinner, “red” songs come playing from the kitchen, surely to become the music of my son’s childhood, along with “Baby Beluga.” But my wife and I are wary of how traumas like the cultural revolution can be intergenerational. If China’s history is a never-ending cycle of conflict, we hope that our son can escape this karmic wheel.

In the political realm, tensions between generations take on the aspect of a class war. Albert Hirschman, the famed economist, suggested that, when faced with social problems, we resort to exit, voice or loyalty. During lockdown, the solution for many thoughtful friends in their 20s and 30s was a kind of mental or internal escape — a life of reading books, physical fitness, time spent in nature and of course, raising families. Many others around the nation began to talk about emigrating, using the slang term 润 — a homonym for “run,” which conveys a desperate escape. But where to, and how? 

Many younger Chinese vie to join the government, eventually gaining what could be called a voice, but that takes a long time. Loyalty, in this context, can feel like resignation — bow to the status quo because there are no better options. If Chinese cities keep developing the way they are now, they may become like Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong, where housing prices, monopoly capital, competition for limited spaces in educational institutions and other manifestations of economic inequality have led to a crushing weight on society’s ability to reproduce itself. 

But what will happen when this generation takes power in the “high-income society” of the near future, which Xi Jinping has suggested will arrive by 2035? 

The book “Self as Method,” an interview of the anthropologist Xiang Biao by the journalist Wu Qi, was a bestseller in China in 2020. Somewhere between memoir and cultural critique, it is akin to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ “Tristes Tropiques” (“Sad Tropics”) for China’s post-1989 urbanites. The heirs of Chinese development, Xiang told me, are socially atomized: 

For the 1950s generation, their lives are collectively oriented, and nation-building is an overarching theme that gave meaning to many things in life. Of course, there was a lot of suffering and unhappiness, but the language and theories available to them — such as socialist ideals, nation-building agenda and historical materialistic explanation of the world — match their experiences. They, at least those in cities, can use this language to express what makes them happy, proud and angry. They can explain their experiences to themselves, more or less coherently and authentically. 

For those who are born after the 1980s, many are not only individualized in their outlooks, but also ‘atomized.’ Atomization means an individual cannot establish meaningful relations to other individuals. Atomized individuals do not have a meaningful language to describe their experiences or articulate an identity. An atomized individual no longer knows what criteria they should follow when making judgements or decisions. There is no concrete relation between the self and collectives, be the collective a family, a local place, or the nation.

Socialism, the intellectual historian Wang Hui once said, was the door through which China passed into modernity. The builder generation passed through that door, worked at that collective farm, built those cities, incurred those debts, picked up that nasty smoker’s cough. In a sense, they built modern China as a structure, from its cities to its economy and social contract. Imagine their surprise as they discover that some of the kids don’t want to live in the world they built.

At times, the generational gap between Chinese boomers — the 1950s and 1960s generations — and their children can feel wider than the gap between nations. China’s leaders sound increasingly concerned that the kids have drifted away forever. Echoing Mao’s worry that capitalism would take over once he died (a view that had some justification), the builder generation fears that young people, the heirs of reform and opening, won’t care about their struggles and pain, their heroics and favorite songs. Young people are better educated, richer, more individualistic, more alienated and fewer. They don’t feel the history of their elders as their own. Like the influencer who was censored for having a cake that looked like a tank in a live stream, apparently unaware of the Tiananmen incident, many don’t even know the history. It is just there, a fait accompli. 

This generational clash defines China’s politics. The elders have power and the youth are expected to propel the economy forward, innovating but “never forgetting the struggle.” In truth, the younger generations were born into a society profoundly more individualistic than their elders’. Their truth is different than their parents’, even if both are valid. This manifests as a political problem due to China’s “birth strike” — fewer children are being born, which will make China feel older and less energetic, and transform the raw material of economic growth: humanity itself. 

“The political monopoly of the old has given a lopsided, strange quality to the decisions that determine everybody’s lives.”

With China building out an ambitious fourth industrial revolution, some factories are hoping to replace the missing workers with robotics, big data-driven efficiencies and AI. From coal mines to ports and factories, repetitive manual labor is being automated. Without the decades-long loyalty of the older working-class generation, younger workers demand higher salaries and are prone to more transient habits. If Chinese planners have their way, it seems increasingly likely that the country’s next generation of industrial workers will be robots. 

Even as the overall working population decreases, the absolute number of urban working-age people is likely to continue rising as the countryside empties out. Seventy percent of China’s population is projected to live in cities in 2030 and 80% in 2050, up from around 63% today. So if there are 100-200 million fewer people in 2050 than today (depending on your source), that decrease will be mostly visible in the countryside. 

In the process, the culture of daily life will change — language, cuisine, family life, sense of self. Politics are downstream of culture, Andrew Breitbart observed. Who are the “real people,” the subject of politics? Currently, to China’s leaders, it’s the older generation, with their iconography of peasant life and struggle, who are “real,” while young influencers, so ignorant of China’s history, are somehow non-real. 

This will change. Demographic reality gets heavier every year.

– 3 –

“This is the vast peripheral territory that includes residents of rural villages, numerous urban-type settlements and small towns. In total, a third of the country’s population lives there, but the population is rapidly declining, which is why the populated territory is shrinking like an ice cube in the sink.” 
— Natalia Zubarevich

When the writer and academic Liang Hong’s bestselling book “China in One Village” was published in 2010, the country was about to pass a critical boundary, with more than half of the population officially urban. Liang saw China’s “median man” living in a village not unlike her hometown in Henan Province. Today, that person is probably a resident of one of China’s so-called “third-tier” cities — the ones with 1-5 million people, which China is littered with. (Perhaps you saw the median man in grainy videos from Zhengzhou’s Foxconn protests, demanding promised pay and better working conditions.)

To make sense of China, it’s better not to think of it as a single nation. More like three. “China One” is made up of the globalized, urban middle classes, with extremely low birth rates. “China Two” is the working classes, perhaps 30% of China’s population, who live in factory towns and third-tier cities. And “China Three” are the rural people whose population is shrinking the fastest not because their birth rates are lower, but because everybody moves to the cities. 

Many people from China Two remember China Three, from which their parents came, wistfully. In the collective imagination, China Three’s denizens are premodern, without a defined sense of self; their identity is submerged within collective experiences and memories, and they relate to the past and future through family members and traditions. (Interestingly, the word for “self” — 自我 — dates back only 100 years, and means different things to different people. Xi Jinping uses it to talk about an expanded sense of shared experience and is referring to the entire Communist Party or country; young people mean “individual” when they use it.)

Much as low birth rates on the Upper East Side don’t pose a threat to the future of New York City, low birth rates for Shanghai don’t threaten its future, since the city inhales rural people and slowly transforms them into urban ones. Urbanization continues relentlessly: By 2050, the population of China One is expected to swell to over 500 million, China Two will be in a loop of upward aspiration and China Three will have fallen from the median condition to a minority — less than 20%. 

At the same time, between 2020 and 2030, the number of people with upper secondary (high school) education and above is projected to increase by almost 100 million. Average urban household income will increase by nearly 50%, and urban households’ share of national income will go from 81% to 84%. 

The Chinese economy is fundamentally a story of China Two moving into China One, with the cheap workers of China Three serving as the raw material for growth. That labor pool is diminishing and Chinese industry is becoming ever more automated, ever more reliant on big data. Busy ports such as Tianjin and Yangshan are now less hubs of working-class life and more like games of Tetris played by white-collar engineers. Even coal mining is being automated, with Huawei engineering new robots that can do the job more productively and safely. 

“Imagine the surprise of the elders as they discover that some of the kids don’t want to live in the world they built.”

While we can all recognize by now that GDP is a somewhat silly metric, if China produces a greater amount of goods and services with fewer people working, like in a coal mine that used to have hundreds of workers and now has two engineers and a swarm of robots, then productivity per capita and therefore GDP will go up almost by definition. As big as China’s formal economy is, it doesn’t include the 39% of the population marked as rural in the 2020 census, who don’t have access to services like healthcare and education, who aren’t linked to transportation networks, and don’t consume products made by multinational corporations; as those people move to cities, graduate from school and consume more, the numbers attached to China’s economy will grow.

Memories of the China that was still animate the thoughts of the older generation. Shortly after the 20th Party Congress, Xi visited the Red Flag Canal in northern Henan, which was built by manual laborers during the Great Leap Forward. As the scholar Joseph Torigian recently commented, “Xi Jinping has an older idea about what Leninist systems are — that they are organizational weapons that encompass your entire self and personality, that your meaning in life is sacrifice to this collective.”

In Xi’s imagination, the hardscrabble peasants of the north are the “real people,” the subject of politics. At Hongqi, he said that the younger generation must “abandon the finicky lifestyle and complacent attitude,” adding: “We need to educate people, especially the youths, with the Hongqi canal spirit that China’s socialism is won by hard work, struggles and even sacrifice of lives. This was not only true in the past but also true in the new era.” These kinds of entreaties by elders to youths are recognizable the world over. 

Especially following the traumas of the pandemic, these visions of the past rarely gain purchase among the youth, whose silence doesn’t imply consent or a shared system of values. Incidents regularly go viral where older people in positions of authority are caught abusing their power in a way that signals their ignorance of educated norms, like when a dean at the Hubei Industrial University was talking loudly on the phone in the library, and a student asked her to be quiet. She went crazy, yelling and hitting him. The student and his classmates filmed it on their mobile phones, didn’t hit back, waited it out. The social contract feels under tension as it hasn’t for decades, as the younger generation increasingly feels doubts about the judgements of their parents.

As time passes and more and more young people live life on their own terms, absorbed in social media and globalized brands rather than the collective lifeways of the past, the whole of China could become like Hubei Industrial University: crazy elders flailing around, exhorting this or that, recounting their memories, while the young filter it out and politely go about their business. 

In her book, Liang reflected on what she calls a national sense of “psychological homelessness” — a feeling that change has overwhelmed institutions that for millenniums had been the bedrock of Chinese society, especially the family and the village. In a follow-up interview a decade later, her son said: “I don’t think I really have a hometown to speak of, although it sounds wrong when you say it like that. This place is where I live, I live here in Beijing, but to say it’s my hometown doesn’t really stir up any deep emotion in me.”

– 4 –

“The original goal should have been to ‘protect the country, protect the race and protect the faith.’”  
— Chen Ming

For years, when friends and acquaintances visited Shanghai from abroad, I’d take them on walks around my neighborhood in the old French Concession. Shanghai Library, which was a dairy farm at the edge of town through the 1990s, is part of the urban fabric today. Walking past the Fuxing Road intersection, I’d take them to the hotpot restaurant where butchers slice legs of lamb next to the vegetable market where Prada once did a pop-up. There are gelato shops ($5 a scoop) next to stands selling roast chestnuts ($3 a bag) and sweet potatoes (75 cents) in autumn, hairy crabs and tangerines in spring. Down Wuyuan Road and around the corner was Shelter, the legendary nightclub in a former bomb shelter that was owned by the son of an Army general, whose existence testified to a China that was no longer paranoid and militaristic. 

Walking down Wuyuan in the other direction, you pass the site my friend Yilei used for a fashion pop-up shop, the kind of project that has become omnipresent in Shanghai today. Next door is the Avocado Lady, a shop run by an entrepreneurial family that started selling avocadoes to foreigners sometime before I arrived in 2008, and also has the Greek yogurt that my wife craved during her pregnancy. 

Across the street is the lot oddly left vacant for years that borders my office building. The Italian consulate is in there too, so the ground-floor Starbucks is always peopled with fancy gentlemen wearing nice shoes. A block over is the Huashan Hospital, which once saved my life after a bicycle accident and where Jiang Zemin, the president during China’s WTO-entry golden age, lay dying of blood cancer. 

This is China as Richard Scarry’s neighborhood, where elders living in their rent-controlled “use rights” apartments and eating $3 noodles rub shoulders with young hipsters outside expensive restaurants — dare I say … harmoniously? Here, China One’s rich urbanites meet China Two’s working-class construction workers and China Three’s rural people in food markets. 

Wulumuqi Road’s name was beamed around the world late in November, when some of China One’s bravest members took to the streets to complain about … everything. The mysterious vacant lot revealed its true nature: an immense hive of cops. I went to my office one morning as they roped off the streets, watched by massive crowds of spectators and their smartphones. A few days later, we were told, Jiang had died in the middle of the night. 

A friend wrote to me:

The last few days marks Xi’s successful transformation of Chinese society from one fully focused on money-making to one focused on politics and values. Deng Xiaoping smartly shifted everyone’s attention away from rights and freedom (especially after 1989) and onto money-making, so that even young people were all too busy making and counting money for three decades. 

Over the past decade, Xi worked hard to reorient society toward politics. But unlike money, which is tangible, quantifiable and impersonal, politics is intangible and personal and it means different things to different people. To old people, it means stability and security; to young people, it means personal freedom and human rights. This is why a society focused on politics is intrinsically rebellious and volatile.

The days of the moonlight garden are over, the party at the cocktail bar is done, Jiang Zemin is dead. Watching cops and protestors overrun Wulumuqi Road was like watching a beautiful child grow into a rebellious adult. Xi’s constant exhortations that young people struggle and find their destiny have finally paid off: He woke up a generation that was happy to accept prosperity, until that was called into question. The young are finally ready to fight for their country. But it’s not the same one that the president grew up in.

As the exhilaration and anxiety of the protest weekend wore off, the government did start to roll back COVID restrictions, and the conversation changed. So now, we figured, China was going to catch COVID. Inevitably, a lot of people got sick. People started stocking Ibuprofen. When the big waves came, nobody wanted to leave their home, self-quarantining even without a lockdown in place. 

But the waves will pass, and we’ll still be here — even the ones who leave cannot forget this place. They are tied to it by sentimentality, resentment or just social media. The young will become old, the rural will become urban, and COVID is just the first act of China’s transition into a healthcare state. 

As Xiang Biao wrote to me: 

We should also look for commonality across the generations. The younger and the older generations do share one concern: the question about social reproduction. How should we care for the elderly? Should giving birth be a priority in life? Should we be worried about the demographic decline? In public debates, we still focus on how humans make more goods and build a greater nation. Equally important is how humans nurture human life.

At the start of the pandemic, I argued with friends about which industry was likely to emerge successfully out of the Chinese COVID containment effort, in the way that e-commerce emerged during SARS. COVID has been much bigger for China than SARS, and rather than spawning a few big companies, it introduced China’s youth to their destiny. 

They might lose the battle, just like street protests and Congressional testimony didn’t end the war in Vietnam, but with time, their experience will have overtaken China’s entire national identity. The traumas of the elders have stunted the lives of their children, but also stimulated new sort of ideals, as China One’s bonsai tree generation grows upwards and outwards.