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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 11:34 GMT
Young in China: From Mao to me
Young Chinese woman
Meet the "me" generation
In a series of special reports made for BBC World Service, Young In China explores the changing lives of China's 20-somethings - starting with their self-image.

It is not so long ago that young Chinese dreamed of owning a bicycle and a watch, and there were only two brands to choose from.

Now the ring tone on their mobile phone is just one of the dizzying decisions they have to make in every area of life from hair colour to jobs and sexual partners.


People now are becoming more independent - and that in itself is a contribution to society

Zhang Tao, 24
With its 80-storey pagodas of steel and glass, tree-filled parks and wedding shops overflowing with white satin, it is perhaps understandable that the people of Shanghai claim to live in "the most exciting city on earth".

As the world's oldest civilisation has jettisoned much of its past, the first generation to grow up under China's one-child policy has embraced a new way of life.

Twenty-two year-old musician Long Kuan proudly asserts the ethos of China's new youth.

"I really sincerely wish people would live hard, no matter what they do," she says.

"Whether they're rich or they're poor, or they have complicated or simple lives, I really want people to take living seriously."

Personal gratification for Long Kuan, and many others like her, is a new religion.

"What's important to me is myself," she says.

"I think the first responsibility I have is to myself. And then you think about other people.

"You can do whatever you want, as long as it doesn't hurt any other people."

Consumerism

The Communist Revolution is only 50 years old, but already both the revolution and the 2000 years of Confucian obligations which preceded it appear to have been unceremoniously stood on their heads.

No more working for community, family or nation. According to the programme's interviewees, China's 20-somethings work for number one.

Ling Jie is a 24-year-old teacher. She tells us how she is counting the days until she can move out of the tiny dormitory room she shares with colleagues and into her new apartment in downtown Shanghai.

"No more climbing a ladder up to a bunk. I'm going to have a king-size bed and my very own shower," she enthuses.

She is an unashamed consumer and is not embarrassed to admit that she believes what she buys affects who she is.

Having her own space, she believes, will do a lot for her love life, non-existent as it is within the confines of her dorm.

"I won't be in any hurry to get married," she quickly added.

"With my own flat, I don't need to make do when I'm choosing a partner."

Aspirations

Born alongside the one-child policy and the market economy, the youths interviewed demonstrate all the emotional and economic instincts of exuberant individualism.


Some people are suffering, because some dreams obviously can't come true

Wei Hui, author of Shanghai Baby

Zhang Qicai, a migrant worker in her late 20s, has been working in Beijing for 10 years as a cleaner and a nanny.

Whilst she may not have the broad aspirations of her urban counterparts, she recognises that her horizons are far wider than those of her mother, who lived all her life on the farm.

"My ambition is to have enough money to furnish my house, to bring up a child and to open a little shop close to the main road back home," she said.

"I try to encourage my husband to work hard so that we can save the money we need, but he doesn't listen."

"I could divorce him. If he doesn't get better I might," she asserts.

Fantasies

According to novelist Wei Hui, "Shanghai is a female city... The Chinese woman is changing... China is reforming and opening; the Western culture is coming in."

Her novel, Shanghai Baby, tells of a promiscuous cosmopolitan set in contemporary Shanghai, and was a bestseller until it was banned in China in 2000.

Banned novel Shanghai Baby
Shanghai Baby tells the story of a promiscuous cosmopolitan youth
Reflecting on the juxtaposition between the old Shanghai and the new, she explained her fears for the future.

"Shanghai has so many possibilities, it's become like a fairy-tale," she says

"The people who live here are very stimulated. They think, 'Oh yes, tomorrow I can become a millionaire. There are so many chances. If I take a chance, I can always be somebody.'"

But she warns, "They have too many fantasies. Some of them are not real. So some people are suffering, because some dreams obviously can't come true."

Contribution

Few of those interviewed for the Young In China series talk about building a better society or helping others.

After the socialist idealism of their parents' generation, this generation is profoundly cynical about political idealism.

Zhang Tao, China product manager for the French cosmetics brand Lancome, sums up the views of many when she says, "People who are turning their attention more to themselves - in a sense, are contributing to society."

"People now are becoming more independent, in terms of their thinking and in terms of things they're doing.

"And... (that) is in itself a contribution to society, because society is becoming more open. And people are more human than before."

You can hear Young In China on BBC World Service from Thursday 7 November at 20:30 GMT in Europe.

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"What's important to me is myself"

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