Why Are China’s Old and Young At Each Other’s Throats?
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2017-07-01 06:06:31

Recently, more and more people in China have been decrying the supposed loss of morals among the elderly. This discussion originates from a short video showing a physical altercation between young basketball players and square-dancing old folks concerning who had the right to use court space in Luoyang, in central China’s Henan province.

This video was uploaded onto the internet under the title “Old folks stage epic takedown of young guy” and quickly went viral, provoking a considerable amount of debate. At present, the young players have public opinion on their side: Web users mostly feel that the primary function of a basketball court is to play basketball, not to host square dances.

In addition, the video clearly shows that the fight was initiated by several elderly dancers, and that the young people seemed to retaliate only as a last resort. The conflict has made elderly people the subject of an online roast: Users have dug up various anecdotes and news stories about old people behaving unethically.

But if we make a sincere effort to understand the causes of this conflict, we can see that it’s not a simple showdown between young and old. At the time, it wasn’t only young people who were playing basketball — there were also several middle-aged and elderly people playing. And when the fight broke out between that young person and the elderly dancers, there were people on both sides who tried to step in.

Therefore, what this territorial dispute boils down to is a conflict of interest regarding the use of scarce public space in China’s cities. But why is it, then, that every time a news story centering on old people is published, we tend to jump to the conclusion that the elderly are somehow meaner than the rest of us?

The primary reason is that old people have been pigeonholed. As soon as someone mentions older Chinese women, most Chinese automatically think of news stories such as itinerized troupes of shopping tourists traveling abroad to snatch up luxury goods. We think of women hanging their underwear up to dry in the middle of the airport lounge. We think of loudmouthed ladies who run red lights and spend their evenings square-dancing. We use language like “stupid,” “disorderly,” “uncivilized,” and “petty” to describe them.

In comparison with their female counterparts, older Chinese men are less frequently mentioned on the internet, but when they are, it’s in a negative light. Examples of these stories include an old man who, when a young woman beat him to a bus seat, chose to sit on her lap; one who deliberately bumped into women at a public bath so he could feel their breasts; and another who slapped a girl on the subway. On the internet, old Chinese men are commonly depicted as randy, lecherous perverts.

Labeling is a form of intellectual laziness. By excluding old people from the rest of us, we have seemingly produced an easy justification for our actions.

Such labeling is a form of intellectual laziness. By excluding old people from the rest of us, we have seemingly produced an easy justification for our actions. However, in actual fact, we have neglected to address the issue at its root. Hostility between young and old continues to be a problem, and as public spaces are increasingly swallowed up by commercial real estate, similar disputes are bound to occur more often.

What’s more, many media outlets — especially Chinese new media — throw fuel on the flames when it comes to labeling certain social groups. These publications cater to their readers’ prejudices in a desperate bid for clicks, and are able to turn a banal news story into a war of attrition between two distinct groups.

Every time discussions about supposedly nasty old people take place in the public sphere, the people at the center of the story — the elderly themselves — are often absent from the dialogue. Take a look at the comments on microblog site Weibo, for instance, and you’ll find that virtually all of them are written by young people. The basketball court confrontation was no exception: A range of people were interviewed by the media, but no old people were invited to share their thoughts. If old people are particularly susceptible to being demonized on the internet, it’s in part because they constitute a minority there.

According to a January report on internet use in China, people under the age of 30 account for over half of all internet users — a stark contrast to the nearly 10 percent of users who are over 50. Another report revealed that 82 percent of Weibo’s user base is under 30.

When information platforms and tools of public opinion are dominated by young people, their prejudices will inevitably influence the way in which news articles are selected, interpreted, and criticized. This is because any group tends to choose to listen to opinions that jibe with their perspectives, values, and interests.

Conversations regarding “nasty old people” on the internet are not equal forums for public debate. The more adherents a group has in an online debate, the greater control that group has of the floor, with the other side often dwindling down to a few muffled voices. It is therefore hardly a surprise that the old people are cast in a more negative light.

What is interesting is that although old people are often excluded from online forums, they are still one of the more powerful voices in offline discourse, particularly in regard to their children — who are, incidentally, the same voices dominating the internet. Chinese parents feel strongly that they have the right to intervene in their children’s academic, professional, and personal lives. In the name of love, many old people feel entitled to dictate what university degree the younger generation should pursue, when they should start dating, what their partner should be like, what job they should look for, where they should live — even matters as trivial as what they should eat.

If we as a society can provide the elderly with a more stable, secure, and friendly environment, then there will naturally be fewer instances of them acting unscrupulously.

Owing to traditional notions of filial respect, the young often have no way of preventing their older family members from meddling in their lives. The internet has become a space for youngsters to pour out such grievances, like the famous “Parental Disasters” group on movie review website Douban, which has amassed over 100,000 users.

The “nasty old people” argument, then, reflects the greater difficulty of reconciling the divergent values of old and young people as these two groups have begun to vie for control of public discourse in China’s rapidly changing society. In everyday life and traditional media, elderly people’s voices are privileged over other groups. Online, however, young people have turned the tables on them. In reality, each group is really just damaging the reputation of the other.

Venting online about a group of people who don’t really use the internet is obviously a farcical coping mechanism: Because China’s elderly are largely oblivious to the complaints of younger generations, they don’t care about changing their ways. So how can we resolve or reduce intergenerational conflict?

Over the last few years, discussions in online forums regarding a lack of ethics among old people have generally centered on incidents where the elderly have blackmailed people, forced passengers to give up their seats on public transport, or disturbed the community with loud square-dancing gatherings. These incidents all hint at the same problem: the lack of a common moral code shared across generations.

Those who came of age in Mao’s China grew up in a collectivist society, one that advocated acting out of concern for others, even while simultaneously entrenching new forms of abuse. Today’s much more individualistic Chinese advocate satisfying one’s own desires before those of anyone else. These values are so deeply ingrained that it is naïve to expect a change in behavior anytime soon.

We must also remain aware that problems of public morality often feed back into the greater issue of resource allocation. If the old routinely con people into paying compensation for fake injuries, it’s probably because they can’t afford to pay their own medical expenses. If they dominate public spaces, it’s because they really have no other place to dance.

Therefore, if we as a society can provide the elderly with a more stable, secure, and friendly environment, then there will naturally be fewer instances of them acting unscrupulously in order to obtain the few resources within their control.

At this time, the only means of resolving disputes between China’s old and young is patient communication. Plugged-in young people are worldlier than their elders and have a more open-minded outlook on life. The way that many of China’s seniors think and act seems backward, antiquated, and at odds with the times. But instead of arrogantly mocking our elders, why not try to enlighten them? After all, most young people here were at some point cared for by the old; now that the roles are reversed, perhaps we should make the effort to be a little more patient.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A martial arts performance given by two elderly citizens attracts a number of young people at a park in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Jan. 2, 2016. Wei Yongxian/VCG)