China’s so-called “educated youth,” or zhiqing, have played an interesting role in modern Chinese history. The term generally recalls those millions of young people with secondary or university educations who left China’s cities to labor in the countryside beginning in 1953, and especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). But the plight of China’s “educated youth” today is an urgent yet overlooked issue in our country, and its implications are not yet fully clear.
Looking at educated youth in China today, we can divide them into two distinct groups. The first group, those who are privileged by virtue of their access to the resources of wealth and power, principally through their parents, have united themselves through shared privileges and vested interests. They have created their own alliance of educated elites holding leading positions in Chinese society. The second, and much larger, group have become united by their common lack of privilege. Shut outside the halls of wealth and power, this second group has formed a sub-layer of educated youths who conscientiously oppose the mainstream values of Chinese society because they have been systematically shut out. While they possess a definite degree of knowledge and experience, this group has been excluded from dominant state institutions (国家体制内), so they tend to drift without stable employment.
This sub-layer of educated youths and their maturing attitudes have far-reaching implications for Chinese society.
Let’s look first at the makeup of this sub-layer of educated youths, which can be divided into three basic types. First, there are those urban youth who were born in the city, but are unable to find work after college graduation and so drift home to live with their parents. Second, there are youth who were born and raised in the countryside, study at urban universities, and are unable to find work after graduation. Many of these permanently enter China’s cities after graduation, becoming part of what has been called the “ant tribe” (蚁族), young educated drifters living on the margins. Finally, there are those youth who were taken along to the cities as their parents went there in search of migrant labor jobs. They have grown up in the city but identify fully with neither the city nor the countryside. They too remain mostly jobless after attaining a definite level of education.
Among these three groups, the second and third are in most dire need of attention. The sons and daughters of migrant workers are especially critical, as experts estimate that they number around six or seven million, accounting for about 6 percent of the total floating population of 130 million in China’s cities. Moreover, this youth segment accounts for a substantial proportion of the adolescent population living in China’s cities.
If we look at the ideas and identities emerging within this substantial sub-layer of educated youths, we can see important patterns that clue us in to larger problems of inequality and unfairness in our society, and their longer-term implications. The green shoots of these ideas are readily visible on the internet, for example. Emerging now behind every political position, and behind every hot-button social issue, we can see sharply dissenting points of view (反弹观点), standing directly at odds with the predominant values articulated by the state.
These dissenting views arise from the disaffection and resistance of this sub-layer of educated youths. If these emotions, and the real injustices that cause them, continue to develop without relief, they could give rise to a sharp conflict of interests between a significant portion of the public and entrenched state interests.
The current pains facing this sub-layer of educated youths result from a system of exclusion (排斥性体制) in China that has accompanied economic reform and opening. This system of exclusion imposes severe restrictions on social mobility in our country, and puts opportunity overwhelmingly in the hands of the sons and daughters of the rich and politically connected.
Systemic inequality has destroyed the very idea of fairness and equality among this sub-layer of educated youths, and has set them on a path of antagonistic opposition.
It has become extremely urgent, therefore, that those in power deal with the monopolization of political and economic resources by the those with influence and power. Action should be taken to ensure that all people, particularly educated youth who have been denied opportunities, have a fair and equal chance to become upwardly mobile.
At the same time the government must work on the following issues.
The first thing that needs to be done is that we need to better understand the lives, actions and aspirations of these sub-layer educated youths. That is to say, in researching politics in our country, we must turn our focus beyond elite intellectuals. We need to look at the internal structure of disadvantaged people living in our society, and explore the real, root reasons why social conflict and disaffection occur.
We need to foster among China’s sub-layer of educated youths, who have been shut off from the benefits of opening and reform, a basic sense of identification with mainstream Chinese society. For those living in the countryside, this means identification and inclusion with their place of origin. For those living in the cities, this means identification and inclusion in urban communities. All must feel that they are a part of, accepted by, and cared for by the society in which they live.
Government leaders at all levels need to provide these youth with the same public services enjoyed by other locals, and the most important of these is the building of a social safety net.
A version of this article appeared originally at Yu Jianrong’s Blog.