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Wednesday, 1 November, 2000, 11:32 GMT
China's youth: Shaping the future
Chinese boy
More than half of China's population is under 24
By Iain Simpson in southern China

China is embarking on the massive task of counting its own population.

Some five million officials will be involved in the census-taking alone, and for the first time they have been told to count all the people living in the country.

Census officials
Some five million people are involved in census-taking alone
That means migrants and the so-called "hidden children" - not just those who have been officially registered.

There are something like 1.2bn people living in this vast country and more than half of them - about 630m - are under the age of 24.

That is more than the entire population of the United States, Russia, Canada and Australia combined.

Internet generation

It is these young people, their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, that will shape the destiny of this extraordinary land.

Chinese youth and internet
Internet has become popular among China's youth

I am not claiming that this is a complete survey, but I have been sampling opinion among a few of China's 21st-century kids.

The Tingshui internet cafe in Guangzhou is where the city's gilded youth come to link up with the outside world.

So what do they do and who do they communicate with?

Emily is 24 and works for a private trading company in the city.

"I have many friends who often go to the chat room until they find it's too boring. They want to leave the internet, but they can't", she says.

Do Hang-jon is the cafe's youthful owner. He set it up and now owns three others across the city.

He says the idea behind them was not just to link to the internet. Growing up here, he also realised that young people in Guangzhou have nowhere to go.

Chinese mother and baby
Older students call China's single children "little gods"

"As you know, the internet is quite new here in China and in 1996 it started to become popular. So we want to do something special, something new, to attract the young people.

"We just wanted it to be a place for the young people to relax, to have fun, to have games", he says.

So much for the wealthy and well-connected young.

Rural plight

Hundreds of millions more live in rural areas, where they have none of the opportunities open to their urban cousins.

At Guangzhou railway station are some of the millions of young village dwellers who every year flood into the cities looking for work.

Boy in rural China
Millions of young villagers go to the cities every year to find jobs
One man has come hundreds of miles from Jiangsu province. "There's no work there," he said, and he is hoping to find a job in the city.

He could be one of the lucky ones. But if he is not, he will be back here in a few weeks or months, heading for home with tales of the big bad city.

Like the group of men I met from Henan, who had been here for two months, but had not even made enough money to buy their tickets home.

'Little gods'

In the city, learning English is a serious business.

Every Thursday evening students gather at an open-air club to practise their English.

The talk here at first is of grammar and word use, but gradually the discussion shifts to what is really on their minds.

These students want to know how China is different from the outside world and how that world sees them.

They are also worried about the direction their society is taking.

This is the last generation of young Chinese who have brothers and sisters.

The parents of those younger than them were told they must have only one child.

The students call these spoilt single children "little gods" and say they think only of themselves.

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See also:

31 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
China begins massive census
25 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
China steps up 'one child' policy
04 Sep 00 | Business
The UN and world poverty
22 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese officials held over baby death
12 Oct 99 | World population
Population: Why we should worry
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