With the graceful swirl of a brush, Gu Chunchan, 27, completes his memorial message for Deng Xiaoping on two 20-foot-long banners to hang at a makeshift shrine in the southern city of Shenzhen: “Your justice flows like the Hong Kong River; your soul will be everlasting in Shenzhen.”
“I have great respect for Deng,” Gu says of China’s “paramount leader,” who died last week. “He fell three times and rose up again. He taught us we can reinvent ourselves, and to adapt to create the best conditions.”
Gu mastered his calligraphy in Henan province, but he went to Shenzhen two years ago to catch hold of the south’s economic growth. Now he’s getting rich selling computers, because “information is the future of China.” He says he owes it all to Deng, who reversed Mao Tse-tung’s anti-capitalist policies.
“To most people my age, Mao is only a concept, no more than a relic,” Gu says of China’s legendary Communist Party chairman, who died in 1976. “Deng is our reality.”
Most of China’s 1.3 billion people were not alive to experience the Communist movement that produced the country’s historic leadership. Many barely remember the bitterness of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. China’s new generation was shaped by Deng, who was behind both the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the seductive fruits of the country’s economic reforms.
China’s development has brought today’s youth a sense of confidence and entitlement--along with hints of alienation--that is both envied and resented by their elders.
Li Yanping, 44, the director of a social service organization, sounds like parents everywhere when he talks about “kids these days.” But it’s not just a matter of the generation gap, he says. China is finally emerging as a world player, and he worries that its youth, now focused on money and themselves, will not be strong enough to lead it when their time comes.
“We have a serious problem of dealing with our younger generation,” says Li, a heavyset man with an easy laugh. “They’re from one-child families, so they’re spoiled, quite arrogant and unconsciously self-centered. Most of all, they’re not tough.”
Li, like many others his age and older--even Deng--was sent to the countryside “to experience real life” during the Cultural Revolution.
Li left Shanghai at 16 and spent four years in the cold northern province of Heilongjiang, and two more in Mongolia, planting sorghum and maize with peasants. He, unlike many others, had a chance to go to college after he returned and still devotes every Sunday to reading and trying to learn something new.
“We lost a lot of things,” he says of his peers, “and never made it up.”
Hua Zhuhao, 27, an entrepreneur who started his own media company last year, says his generation is learning skills that his parents could hardly dream of. The old “iron rice bowl"--the guarantee of a lifetime job--is broken, and these days so are all the rules.
Hua has had four jobs in six years and has done business in 20 cities. Last year, his start-up media purchasing company, Tendency Advertising, made about $250,000--a huge contrast to Shanghai’s average annual salary of $2,500.
“To a big company, that’s a small sum,” he says with a shrug. “But the company is only two people.”
In China, to go into business is known as “jumping into the sea,” and the virtue of people like Hua is that they have learned how to swim. Creating opportunity and navigating an uncharted frontier are talents required of any leader--as quickly as the country is changing, it is the people with vision who will be able to guide it.
Hua professes to avoid politics, but he sees the Tiananmen Square protests as a conflict between two groups who didn’t know how to harness change. The students at the square understood the opportunity inherent in chaos, Hua explains, “but I don’t think they had a clear idea of what they wanted and how to get it.”
Li Lu was a student leader during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Now a thirtysomething investment banker in the U.S., he calls the protests a “generational rebellion” pitting China’s idealistic youth against old power-hungry Communist leaders who denied the people their deserved freedoms.
“We recognize there were changes during the Deng era,” Li wrote in a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal. “But to us, liberty and the right to pursue prosperity simply are things we should be born with, neither a gift from the government nor dependent on the mercy of any dictator.”
The Tiananmen generation, he says, is studying, investing and quietly preparing to take the reins of government from unsteady, aging hands.
“No Communist leadership that alienates China’s present thirtysomethings can survive the inevitable generational change.”
Nin Chan, 24, wants to change the country not by toppling the government but by working within it.
Nin, who prefers to go by a pseudonym, looks as if he could be Hua’s business partner, with his sharp dark suit and mobile phone--not the model of contemporary communism. From kindergarten through weekly meetings at work, Nin has studied “from Karl Marx to Deng Xiaoping.” He disagrees with the popular notion that as people turn their focus from ideology to moneymaking opportunities, the Communist Party will become irrelevant.
“The aim of the party is to improve people’s lives,” Nin says as he sips cafe au lait. “It’s not contradictory. To make money you have to deliver value, be creative, be efficient and service people’s needs. It can be good for everybody, so why not?”
Nin’s assertion echoes the pragmatism of Deng--and reveals a recognition that the party needs to update old tenets to attract new, young members who are lured by less politically correct but more profitable opportunities.
But how long can China call itself Communist?
“Everyone agrees we’re in a critical time,” Nin says. “The country is struggling to reshape and redefine itself.”
With his smarts and his government salary of $200 a month, has Nin ever thought of going into business? “Well,” he says, smiling slightly, “we must remain open to change.”
Artist Zhou Tiehai, 30, graces the cover of Newsweek, his trademark smirk threatening to break through a mock-serious mien. The blurb reads, “Too materialistic, too spiritualistic.” The magazine cover is a fake, another of the media-savvy painter’s ironic tweaks at the commercialism bleeding through China and its nascent art world.
Zhou has lived all his life in Shanghai but finds, suddenly, that he doesn’t know his hometown. “It’s disorienting when you go someplace and all the buildings are torn down, or there’s a new road.” And worse, the replacements are what he calls “unthinking copies of a Western idea of modern.” He gets the feeling that this place is not China.
With his long hair, European cigarettes and penchant for nights out, Zhou is accustomed to being viewed as arrogant, self-indulgent or soft by his elders.
“Everyone knows the problems of the Cultural Revolution, but that’s 30 years ago,” he says, blowing smoke upward. “The problems we have now they don’t know about: how foreign poison is coming to China, how we feel alone in this town.” He taps his ash.
“People want a happy life, but to them, happiness means money. First you buy a TV, then a house and car, but then you find there’s no meaning in it. Someday they’ll be shocked to find [that] this is not happiness.”
* FUNERAL RITES
Deng Xiaoping is cremated after a private funeral service. A10