So, this was my third time to Shanghai. The first visit was nearly 13 years ago now–a whirlwind 4.5 day trip to present an invited talk at the 5th Annual Yangtze Development Forum in 2002. The second was a decade ago as part of a Freeman Foundation-funded trip with my colleagues in the Political Science Department at Wittenberg University. Each time I have been struck profoundly by the contrasts apparent on a daily basis between traditional and modern China. But, with a decade elapsing since my last visit, the degree of evident change is staggering, and was immediately apparent to me within the first few days of my arrival. As Evan Osnos relates in his excellent book Age of Ambition, China’s last 15 years have seen an enormous unleashing of individual capitalist fervor, and the concomitant emergence of what has come to be called the Chinese Dream. This can best be described as a kind of frenetic version of the American Dream characterized by a sense of desperate striving on the part of the younger generation of Chinese who hope to achieve a significant measure of economic success all the while fearful that their freedom to strive is merely quixotic and could vanish as quickly as it emerged.
In a remarkably frank conversation with one of my students, I suggested that her peers in the United States, the millennial generation, were concerned about a work-life balance that tipped the scale of priority toward life rather than work. Choosing less remunerative jobs and professions in order to achieve a higher quality of life and leisure was a common value among American millennials today. After considering the implications of that suggestion, she frowned deeply, shook her head, and said quite emphatically, but clearly sadly, that all her peers cared about was achieving a high level of financial success, intimating in the way she chose her words that this was not necessarily something she liked, but to which she had become resigned.
In another revealing conversation, a well-traveled, highly-educated young woman in her ‘30s, referred to her generation (born in the 1980s) as “The Lucky Generation” and to her parents’ generation (born in the 1950s) as “The Unlucky Generation.” For her, her husband, and many of their peers, there has never been anything but opportunity and a seeming boundless ability to explore the world unrestrained. This sense of mobility was instilled in her at an early age when she was one of very few Chinese children to receive a visa to participate in a middle school educational exchange program in the United States in the 1990s. Very shortly after that, the Chinese government opened up the visa program for those trying to study abroad so much that close to a 98% approval rate was experienced in the early 2000s. As she sees it, there has been nothing that she has not been able to do, while her parents, who got caught up in the Cultural Revolution have memories of going hungry and jobless for months at time.
As the Chinese government abandons its 1-child policy, and its economy slows down, I can’t help but wonder how these Chinese Dreamers will fare in the months and years to come. As for my students, I wish them well.