BEIJING — Zhong Shi, a 22-year-old student who’s studying English at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, has a different idea of political activism from his parents.
Zhong hadn’t been born when Chinese authorities brutally put down student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He also hasn’t lived through famine, drought or poverty.
But while he and his classmates may be less likely to take on the government directly than their parents’ generation did, they have one tool of resistance their elders lacked: the Internet, which has rapidly become an outlet for frustrations with the national government, social issues and even their parents.
"The Internet has given them a place to make their voice heard and their voice mean something," said Mary Bergstrom, who lives in Shanghai. She’s the author of the book “All Eyes East” and the founder of the China marketing firm The Bergstrom Group.
Paul Clark, a professor of Chinese at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said this resistance to the government was unlikely to end in out-and-out revolution, however.
Chinese youth, “like others, simply exercise opportunities as quiet resistance to the absurdities of the system, parents’ ideas, etc.,” Clark said. “There is enough virtual space out there to be able to express and share critical views of the system, school, authority figures . . . without getting into trouble.”
Michael Stanat, the author of a book on Chinese youth culture called “China’s Generation Y,” noted that as China grew in power in the international arena, this Generation Y would take the reins of the nation’s economy and its foreign relations.
“As China becomes a global player, young people will be leading new innovations, changes in China’s economy, as well as investments in the U.S. and Europe,” said Stanat, an American expatriate who’s been living in Shanghai for a little less than a year.
More than half of China’s Internet users are younger than 30. Recent studies conducted by SIS International Research, the global marketing research firm where Stanat works, show that Chinese youth use the Internet more on average than their North American and European counterparts do, Stanat said.
For Zhong, it’s a generational shift: When his parents want to send an email they ask their secretaries; when he wants to, he does it himself.
For young adults such as Zhong, the micro-blogging website Sina Weibo has become their outlet, Stanat said. The site, which was launched in 2007, has more than 250 million subscribers.
Stanat recalled an incident in 2010 in which two college students were run over, killing one of them. The man accused in her death was politically connected, and there was an outpouring of condemnation on Sina Weibo, as bloggers speculated that the government was trying to quiet news reports about the story in hopes that it would go away, Stanat said.
“The Internet is a medium through which young people can express themselves in a society that values indirect communication,” he said.
The Communist Party has started to sit up and take notice of some of these Internet protests. Earlier this year, when the party dismissed Bo Xilai, the former party head in Chongqing, Sina Weibo users posted so many comments critical of the party that the government shut down the site for three days.
The next month, Sina Weibo introduced a new user-credit system that experts suspect is a government censorship ploy. Now users receive 80 credits when they sign up, and they lose points for “untrue information, invasions of privacy, personal attacks, plagiarized content, the assuming of others’ identities and harassment of others.” Bergstrom reeled off a list of other government attempts to censor the site: deleted users, deleted posts and censored comments.
But Sina Weibo now “has too much momentum and too many users,” she said. “It would be dangerous to do anything to it.”
Chinese youth also are using the website to undermine government messages that try to disguise national events that might be embarrassing.
Bergstrom described how Sina Weibo challenged the adequacy of the official statement that was released when two new high-speed trains collided in July 2011 in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province in China’s southeast, killing dozens of people and injuring nearly 200. The Railway Ministry held a news conference to say that it was burying the trains, because they contained national technology that needed to be protected.
Sina Weibo users were unhappy that the trains wouldn’t be investigated first for possible defects, and they expressed their outrage in the thousands, posting pictures and firsthand accounts that criticized the Chinese administration’s handling of the accident.“They are able to decide what they care about and help drive those causes forward,” Bergstrom said.
Jessica Weiss, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, agreed it’s unlikely that youth will rebel in the same way the world saw in Tiananmen Square in the late 1980s.
She argued that Chinese youth, having been exposed to a hard-hitting government strategy of nationalist education and propaganda, are less politically motivated than their parents were.
The best-selling book “China Can Say No,” released in 1996, encouraged youth to embrace their national identity after what the authors – former government critics – saw as a fickle abandonment of it in the 1980s.
“The government’s attempt to distance the public from the admiration of American political ideals has to some extent been successful,” Weiss said.
As Zhong and classmate Jiyao Tang discussed China’s political future in a private room of their university building, they agreed that rejecting the nationalist system isn’t at the top of their agenda.
“We were born in the new era of China,” Zhong said.
Added Jiyao: “In the time my parents were born, the country was in total chaos. All they wanted to do is survive.”Jiyao patiently explained the importance of youth being politically motivated, while also understanding the framework within which they have to work. He said it was important to take advantage of the system of nepotistic connections known as guanxi, or “relationships between people.”
“We have to make the most of it,” Jiyao said. “The right thing to do is to try to adjust yourself to this structure. You lift yourself to a higher level without forgetting your initial wish to change things.”
But it’s this wish to change things that experts are less sure about.
“I think that there is no question that Chinese youth has the potential to change Chinese culture and society,” Weiss said. “The real question is whether they will choose to do so.”