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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 20:26 GMT
Twenty-something in China
Former Beijing correspondent Carrie Gracie has explored the aspirations of China's youth for a BBC series called Young in China.

The Shanghainese say Shanghai is the most exciting city on Earth, and you can see their point.

Eighty-storey pagodas of steel and glass; tree-filled parks which come off the back of a lorry; wedding shops overflowing with white satin; and 14 million people who have a sense of their own destiny and the wealth, energy and discipline to realise it.

"No more climbing a ladder up to a bunk. I'm going to have a king size bed and my very own shower," 24-year-old Ling Jie told me. She is petite and animated, in a sleeveless lilac shirt and cream calf-length trousers.

Hip-hop dance lessons in Shanghai
Most young Chinese just want to have a good time
"That's my apartment," she announced proudly, pointing through the cranes towards a 30-storey concrete shell in downtown Shanghai.

Ling Jie is counting the days until she can move out of the tiny dormitory room she shares with other teachers from her school.

She thinks having her own space is going to do a lot for her love life, currently non-existent in the confines of her dorm.

Hence her plans for a king size bed.

Living space

I've been living in China on and off for almost 20 years now, and I can't help reflecting that at Ling Jie's age, her mother would have been dressing in blue cotton and building the revolution.

Back then, the only hope of having a room to yourself was to get married and cheat your way up your employer's allocation queue with presents for the boss.

In the past, the space in Chinese culture to be yourself was very narrow.

Obligations to family and society always came first. But in the quarter century since the introduction of the market economy and the one child policy, much has changed.

A couple cuddling in a Beijing street
Sex before marriage is becoming increasingly common

As I see it, Ling Jie belongs to China's 'me generation'.

Their mission - and they're quite unashamed about it - is looking after number one and exploiting every opportunity that life has to offer. Whether it's work, sex, food or fashion, they go at life with huge exuberance.

Few seem prepared to spend time worrying about social justice, the environment, HIV/Aids, political legitimacy or any of the other big pressing issues their country faces.

The activist

Chen Guangcheng is one of the few in his generation who is different.

"See how clear the water runs now," he tells me.

I'm standing on a bridge looking at a broad but shallow stream with poplars lining the banks and white geese paddling. Chen Guangcheng cannot see how clear the water runs because he is blind. But it is his triumph nonetheless.

"The paper mill was just upstream. They were pouring all their untreated chemical waste into the river. The water turned dark brown, the colour of soy sauce. There were no fish any more and if any of us went swimming we'd come out with red rashes all over. It was a long long battle to get it closed but we've done it," he said.

These 20-somethings are an extraordinary generation, exhilarating for their optimism, their openness, and their determination to be happy; frightening for their impatience with the past and its victims

Guangcheng is a farmer. His family have been growing maize and peanuts in this village in north-east China for as long as they can remember. It is a poor place. It has only had electricity for 15 years, telephones for five.

Because of his blindness, Guangcheng was not allowed to go to school until he was 17.

A decade on, he has made up for it by going to university and teaching himself law. Now he has returned home to campaign for the rights of other disabled people - in fact to campaign for anyone whose rights are being flouted by the local communist bosses.

The others I interviewed for the series were much less engaged.

The only politics they have in common is that of national identity. Patriotism is something the 'me generation' embrace with enthusiasm.

From farmers to authors, journalists to detectives, they all count off reasons to be proud - China reaching the World Cup finals for the first time, entering the World Trade Organisation, and winning its campaign to host the Olympics.

All told, these 20-somethings are an extraordinary generation, exhilarating for their optimism, their openness, and their determination to be happy; frightening for their impatience with the past and its victims.

Some day they will get bruised by life. Perhaps they will turn reflective and develop some politics worthy of the name.

But right now the freedom to dye their hair blonde, travel the world or have a king size bed seems much more compelling.

Young in China was broadcast on Thursday 27 November at 2000 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

Chinese youth 'unfit for army'
09 Mar 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Inside China's 'Me' generation
06 Nov 02 |  Business

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