Recently, the Oxford English Dictionary named “youthquake” its word of the year. Defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,” the compound word refers to the political awakening of young voters who played major roles in deciding election results in France, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand in 2017.
While Oxford primarily looks at events in Europe and America when choosing its word of the year, “youthquake” proved a fitting choice in East Asia as well. In Taiwan, young people played a crucial role in passing a marriage equality law in May. In South Korea, President Park Geun-Hye’s resignation was closely tied to polls showing 90 percent of young people had lost faith in her. Meanwhile, in Japan, after a 2016 revision of that country’s Public Office Election Law lowered the voting age from 20 to 18, there was a rise in the number of first-time voters during the 2017 election cycle.
Despite the youthful push for change, most young Chinese are frequently depicted in the media as despondent and apathetic. When the country’s teenagers and 20-somethings appear in the headlines, it is usually alongside buzzwords like “pre-midlife crisis,” “empty nesters,” and so-called “sang culture.” We are told that young Chinese have lost the will to fight, abandoned their aspirations for the future, and forgotten how to dream big. Naturally, this lackluster attitude extends to the political realm.
But such representations of young people don’t tell the full story. If more callow generations seem uninterested in political and social change, it is due to the crushing pressure of college entrance exams, finding work, and buying homes. When they do occur, youthquakes in China tend not to resemble the phenomenon in Europe or the U.S. Instead, one of the most important outlets for rebellion in China is satire.
Imagine, if you will, the classic satirical Chinese youth: Let’s call him Xiao Li. To his boss and coworkers, Li is an ordinary young man. He arrives to work on time, rarely speaks up, and barely interacts with his coworkers. While no one would call his work subpar, they would be hard pressed to see brilliance in it, either. After work, he rarely goes out with his coworkers; despite being single, he prefers to stay at home and order takeout before settling in for an evening watching dramas with his cat.
Li posts occasionally on social media, but rarely appears as the introverted loner he is in real life. Safely hidden behind his online pseudonym, Li becomes someone else altogether. He pays close attention to current events and news that impact the public. His account on the microblog platform Weibo is a mixture of reposts and biting comments on issues of the day: In a post on rising housing prices, he might argue, tongue firmly in cheek, that skyrocketing costs are a way to encourage youngsters like him to work harder. On a particularly hazy day, he might comment on the smog’s rich palette and the way its taste lingers pleasantly in the mouth long after breathing in.
Satire targets the orthodox, the mainstream, and the authoritative. The satirist uses irony and sarcasm to undermine seriousness, deconstruct officialese, and mock the mainstream. When you are prevented from speaking freely, satire becomes a means of indirect expression.
With satirical online personas, Li can challenge authority. Outwardly, he may seem obedient, a man who does what society demands of him. In actuality, he is rebellious and rages against social injustice. One or two such individuals can be called outliers, but when countless numbers of them don their screen names and congregate online, they become a force to be reckoned with.
Chinese millennials have a firm grasp on the power of the internet in shaping our discourse. Whether it’s the nationalist pinkos that emerged from China’s message boards or the steady stream of child abuse allegations at the country’s pre-schools, online discussion can put the whole country on alert, forcing the state to respond.
The Chinese youthquake is forged by online satire on a monumental scale. Youngsters use the cover of anonymity, burrowing into the nooks and crannies of the internet. When the social environment is more relaxed — often while a story is still developing and officials are considering how to handle it — satirists rapidly emerge, and when the situation becomes tense they scatter.
However, compared to the youthquakes of the West, the power of satire in China remains subdued. Most posts are merely diversions that are not matched by social activism in the satirist’s offline lives. Their lives remain governed by mainstream values: They still buy homes when it’s time for them to buy homes, and still suck up to their bosses when they want a promotion. For these individuals, satire is a way to relieve frustration. In this sense, it actually has little effect on the established sociopolitical system. By the time Xiao Li finishes complaining on the internet, his anger has dissipated and he is no longer motivated to push for further fundamental change.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: E+/VCG)