October 26, 2021

TUNE IN, TURN ON, DROP OUT: China’s Sham Meritocracy Has Created a Burned-Out Generation: As the government pushes productivity, young Chinese are embracing cynicism.

The pleas are everywhere. Newspaper editorials urge young people to “strive in the prime of their life.” City governments team up with famous brands to encourage young people to consume more. Young couples visiting neighborhood party committees to obtain permission to get an abortion find themselves subjected to earnest lectures on the delight of childrearing.

The Chinese Communist Party is using the whole of its propaganda might to push a simple message: The young must throw themselves into work and life with a zest befitting China’s glorious “New Era.”

The party has reasons to worry. There’s a counternarrative getting in the way of its determination to turn young Chinese into good producers, whether of GDP or children. Young Chinese are curtailing their expectations and ambitions. Many of them are downgrading lifestyle choices around diet, travel, and more. They fill social media with talks of the futility of endeavoring and the hollowness of desire. And they are not ready for marriage and children, and don’t know if they will ever be.

There have been concerns around young people in China for decades, as in any society. But two factors have made the leadership there more anxious than ever to address their social and economic withdrawal: the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s upcoming demographic crisis. Although China experienced a robust economic recovery from the pandemic, the stimulus measures it had required further distorted the country’s debt-laden economy. The corrective that Chinese leaders are hoping for—a giant wave of pent-up demand from young Chinese—has yet to materialize.

And deeper trouble looms in the near future: The country’s fertility rate—the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime—stands at just 1.3, one of the lowest in the world, according to the results from the latest census released in May. It laid bare the fact that the government’s move to end the one-child policy in 2016 has failed to produce the increased number of births the country desperately needs to slow the rapid aging of its population.

But getting young Chinese to live and strive will be a heavy lift for the party. Beyond the harsh economic realities that limit their options, the pessimism and reluctance of young Chinese have deeper roots—ones that the state itself has created.

Cynicism is one of the few things that communism is good at producing.

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