China’s Newest Cultural Revolution Worries Elders

Times Staff Writer

When fathers of the Chinese Communist Party mapped out the road to socialist perfection, they didn’t give much thought to green hair.

But amid growing concern that it is losing touch with an increasingly rebellious youth, the government recently announced a series of steps to bolster social, ethical and moral standards among underage Chinese.

“What they’re really afraid of is not political dissidents. It’s long hair, decadence, punks and hip-hop. That’s raising more concern than anything else,” said Hung Huang, publisher of the Chinese edition of Seventeen magazine. “In essence, China is experiencing its first real generation gap, and it’s a 7 on the Richter scale.”

Premier Wen Jiabao set the tone in late February with State Council Document No. 8 -- cited as the most important statement on youth since the Communists swept to power in 1949 -- calling on parents, teachers and the government to help strengthen and reform the virtue of Chinese minors.

The government has also banned the release of new foreign films during the school break this summer and tightened restrictions on foreign textbooks, cellphone text messaging, the Internet and racy magazines aimed at teens. It is recruiting new “upstanding youth” to serve as role models. And it is pouring money into “Youth Palaces,” the national network of after-school community centers started in the 1950s to promote extracurricular activities.


By Western standards, the vast majority of China’s 367 million youngsters are well behaved and hard working; many American parents would love to have China’s “youth problems.” Judged by traditional Confucian benchmarks, however, the younger generation seems increasingly disrespectful, out of reach and out of control.

A series of high-profile cases has put a face on last year’s jarring 12.7% rise in juvenile crime. In December, a 16-year-old Beijing high school student killed his mother for “being too strict,” then took $50 from her pocket and headed for an Internet cafe.

In February, a 15-year-old Beijing student stabbed a friend 17 times with a fruit knife for flirting with her boyfriend. And last month, a 23-year-old college student from Guangxi province was executed after killing his four roommates with a hammer over a card game.

Particularly vexing for senior party and government officials, analysts and party insiders say, is the limited traction that slogans and morality campaigns may have with a generation weaned on MTV and online games.

“The party is trying to do a little updating and repackaging,” said Victor Yuan, chairman of Horizon, a market research firm that works for the government and private companies. “But compared to campaigns by professional ad people, they still fall short. Most young people would rather watch videos.”

Young Chinese continue to join the Communist Party -- though exact figures are unavailable, reports say the trend is up -- but party stalwarts fret that they are embracing the red banner for the wrong reasons. Instead of identifying with party ideology, surveys suggest, many youngsters view the party as a networking opportunity, a sort of high-octane Rotary Club.

“I’m not interested in joining now but might consider it later,” said Wu Yue, 22, a recent Beijing college graduate who is trying to break into television. “For a lot of young people, it’s not an issue of believing in communism but getting good jobs, promotions and better pay, especially if you’re in a political environment like government or the media.”

At Vics, a trendy club in the shadow of Beijing’s Worker Stadium, the focus is on parties of a different sort. At 10:30 on a weeknight, things start to hop as young Chinese amble past the faux Egyptian mummy, down the chrome stairs and onto the red luminescent dance floor to the thumping sound of rap and hip-hop. Some won’t head home before 5 in the morning.

“I come here a few times a week for the music and the atmosphere,” Chao Xu, a 22-year-old student, said at a table crowded with whisky bottles, soft drinks and cigarette butts. “There’s concern about morality these days, but it’s not a problem with any of my friends.”

That hasn’t stopped the government from trying to create a “purified” living environment for teenagers and young adults in concerts and dance halls across the country. The Culture Ministry early last month approved Britney Spears’ first China tour, provided she doesn’t reveal too much.

“Relevant departments will carry out strict reviews of Britney Spears’ performance clothing,” a state-run news agency said. The report followed the banning of Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong’s song “In the Name of Love” because the lyrics include the word “opium.”

In May, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and local affiliates issued guidelines calling on TV anchors to stop dying their hair strange colors, wearing bizarre clothes, showing too much skin, using Hong Kong or Taiwanese accents, displaying their navels or cleavage, and wearing plunging necklines or short skirts.

The guidelines also include calls to reduce sex and violence in prime-time programming as part of a broader “clean the screen” campaign.

Zhao Mengxin, an anchorwoman on several provincial CCTV shows, applauds the policies, especially those regulating dress.

“Local television is particularly bad, with anchors wearing vulgar, mismatched clothes that look like they grabbed them from the gutter,” she said. “Being elegant is always in style, especially when young people are watching.”

The crackdown on suggestive clothing may pale beside the task of reducing media violence. China, famous for its martial arts films, has a high cultural tolerance for violence, said Miao Di, a film and television professor with the Beijing Broadcasting Institute.

Several years ago, an American civic group approached Miao’s school, voicing concern that violent Hollywood exports were tarnishing young Chinese people’s minds.

“None of the Chinese thought the American shows were violent compared to our own homegrown programs,” he said. “The Chinese people have always been very sensitive about sexuality but not that worried about violence.”

Authorities are also trying to control young people’s use of the Internet after a series of high-profile abuses, experts say.

“We’re trying to enhance our influence over young people and promote traditional culture,” said Cao Xuecheng, vice chief of the propaganda department of the China Communist Youth League.

This year, a video-game addict dropped dead, reportedly from stress and exhaustion, after playing “Legend of Mir II” for 20 hours in an Internet cafe in Chengdu. About the same time, two secondary school students in Chongqing were killed by a train when they fell asleep on railroad tracks after two days online.

In response, Beijing announced last month that it had shuttered 16,000 Internet cafes as part of a campaign to protect the nation’s children and adolescents from corrosive influences -- and, human rights activists say, to keep a tighter grip on free expression.

Non-regulated Internet cafes hurt the “mental health” of teenagers and interfere with their schoolwork, Culture Minister Sun Jiazheng said this year.

But there are plenty of loopholes. Ding Zheng, a Beijing high school student, stood in front of an Internet cafe on Beijing’s Dong Street. “This is a joke,” he said, pointing at a sign barring minors from entering. “They’ll never stop you unless a policeman happens to be standing right here. My parents don’t like me coming, but I just make up some excuse about heavy traffic and they never know.”

Liu Jia, a 17-year-old student in the Shandong Nursing School, believes there is definitely a big generation gap in China these days. But many of the things that older people perceive as threatening are survival skills for a new age, she said.

What the older generation sees as the loss of traditional culture reflects a more integrated China, she said. What elders see as brash behavior is a more confident outlook needed in a fast-paced world. And what they see as a lack of respect for elders is a healthy questioning of authority.

“Some older people might think the young are indulgent,” she said. “But I think there’s great potential in this generation. It’s a more competitive world, and if you’re too humble, you’ll lose out.”

Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.