Today's date:
Summer 2008

China's High Schoolers: Pro-American Consumers or Nationalists?

Aventurina King is an NPQ correspondent in Beijing. Recently, she put her ear the ground to discover what's up with China's young elites.

Beijing — "In America, I can buy a gun from black people," said San Yun in slurred Chinese, "then as soon as they take my money, and I turn my back to them, they'll finish me off."

I told him that sounded like a dream.

San Yun's thin, sharp features froze. A beat, and then: "I have a dream!" he began preaching in heavily Chinese-accented English.

As though on cue, Sam, another Chinese high schooler with a round face, stood up, crossed his hands in front of his heart, and dramatically intoned: "I have a dream, that one day all the children will play together." The end of his sentence was drowned in the cheering of the 17-year-olds.

They were seated around me, sipping on soda mixed with whisky (moments before, San Yun had produced a full Jack Daniels' bottle from his backpack). We were in Waiting for Godot, a café off a dusty boulevard in central Beijing. Like its tens of other Western-themed competitors, Waiting for Godot caters to Beijing's growing expat community. It serves pricy cappuccinos and tuna fish sandwiches, provides free Wifi, and its large-flat screen TV shows war pictures and psychedelic art.

Chinese students mostly hang out in karaokes or lower priced fast-food restaurants, but the group gathered around me this sweaty Friday afternoon came from wealthier families. They were attending nearby top high schools and their parents had connections with the United States and Europe. San Yun and Sam are both being sent to the US for college, an expensive endeavor that few Chinese families can afford.

"Yeah, Martin Luther King," said San Yun, looking up from his iphone, "that tree top bird (a Chinese saying describing a trailblazer), he was really great."

Western, especially American, culture is pervasive among Chinese youth, and even more so within this favored group. San Yun loves Eminem, Will Smith and black people ("I just knew from the beginning, instinctively, that black people were really cool"). Two younger girls gasped at the mention of Cinema Paradiso and Friends. The group easily rattled off American fast-food chain names. "If only I could eat Papa John's everyday, I would be in heaven!" said Sam half-jokingly.

Despite their adulation of Hollywood high school parties and gunfights, the afternoon's banter showed that the group hadn't fully adhered to Western culture, politics and social values. Their liberal thought process was often cut off in contradictory ways by an automated nationalism. Many young Chinese have become fervent patriots as a reaction to unrelenting foreign criticism of Tibet and media censorship.

"China is a much more egalitarian society than the US," said San Yun, who had seen footage of American policemen acting racist on, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. "There is no racial discrimination here."

I asked about women in the job market.

"Women aren't discriminated against," said Sam, "the employer is just going to doubt your skills if you are a woman. If a man and a woman go for the same job, the man will be chosen."

A few other younger students who had been playing with Rubik's cubes in a corner moved to the table. I asked about Japanese people, a sore spot given the war crimes that haunt Sino-Japanese relations.

"Japanese people are fuckers, it's just in their bones," San Yun replied. "Such a small piece of land and it still has to attack China! They deleted all mention of the rape of Nanjing from their textbooks."

"Taiwan has also changed its textbooks," said Wang Ying, a small 16-year-old girl with a soft voice, timid smile and close-cropped hair. With her cell phone, she took a picture of an Apple logo that had migrated from San Yun's forearm to hers.

"Japan is strong," continued San Yun, "but the only reason it's strong is because it copies others. It stole Chinese culture, Chinese characters."

I asked the group about Chinese politics.

"The politicians are all really good people," said Sam, "but the system isn't good. For instance, in the US, you have more than one candidate; in China, you have only one candidate. If he doesn't get over 50 percent of the representatives' votes, then the chairman will ‘work' on them. He'll tell them whom to choose, and they'll choose him."

"There's a lot of corruption, I can't tell you about it," said San Yun.

"China has problems that will take a long time to solve," answered a tall, thin girl to his left. "Every political party has its own way of solving things. Having only one party ensures stable development."

Song Yichang, a soft-spoken junior nervously fiddled with his unfinished Rubik's cube. "There are too many people in China to have a general election," he said. "Most of the times, at the top, the person who is elected doesn't reflect who the people want. But people are still very satisfied."

I asked them what problems China had.

"We don't know," said Song Yichang. "The press broadcasts only good news."

Wang Ying said, "It's OK, there are some things which you can take care of secretly, that way they don't make people worried unnecessarily."

The afternoon marked the beginning of the four-day Duanwu Holiday, commemorating a poet's suicide 2,000 years ago. Grateful for this short break in the midst of their stressful Chinese high school studies, Wang Ying, Song Yichang and two other students told me about the traditional Zongzi, flavored rice paddies wrapped in bamboo leaves, that they were going to eat on their Monday off. Before leaving, Wang Ying took a picture of me with her cell phone and handed me a Rubik's cube as a parting gift.

Meanwhile San Yun had already invited out the other half of the group, including me, to go dancing that same night. "But I've got something to do tomorrow morning," a girl complained. San Yun replied, confused: "Who spoke about doing anything in the morning?"