Shanghai View: Generation Gaps in China and Europe

Posted: June 22, 2011 in Whose World Order?
Tags: , , , , , ,

A post for Whose World Order? offering some thoughts to have emerged from a recent conference that I helped organize in Shanghai around the EU-China Year of Youth. Should be some more bits coming out from this soon.

Shanghai View: Generation gaps in China & Europe

Date: 21st June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: , EuWelfareYouthChinaCultural Revolution

We were lucky this week to be able to help organise a conference in Shanghai around theEU-China Year of Youth, supported by the EU STF Programme and co-hosted by theShanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). The one-day event was entitled “What World Have They Left Us? A discussion about generations between Chinese and European Youth,” and brought together a group of young Chinese and Europeans to talk about generation gaps, and what they would advise their leaders to do to address the problems these gaps create.

One major point of discussion was the expanding welfare burden that both China and Europe face, thanks to ever-growing aging populations. In both, current younger generations are paying for welfare and pension benefits that they are unlikely to be able to enjoy themselves. But in China, these problems are exacerbated by the fact that there is estimated shortfall of 30-70 million girls, due to the combination of the one child policy and a preference for male children over females. This is going to lead either to a lot of frustrated men in the future or a large influx of foreign brides (or maybe both). The one child policy was continuously raised as an issue, but no-one could offer a solution to it. Most of the Chinese participants said that they felt that the government was right to introduce it, given the over-population in China.

From a European perspective, the aging question is not a new one. It was noted, however, that while in Europe the young used to be seen as a problem and a threat, aging populations suddenly mean that they are now seen as a potential resource that must be exploited more effectively.

The other big focus of discussion was the question of values between generations. The difference in life experience between old and young in China is huge: one generation has lived through the ardors of the cultural revolution, while the younger one is enjoying an Apple-designed and Starbucks-fuelled lifestyle, and being told that China is the new superpower. As one European characterised it, China has gone from a “no culture” generation to a “Chinese culture is the best in the world” generation.

A young Chinese recalled being in Australia when the patriotic film The Founding of a Republic was screened. She described sitting in a cinema full of Chinese students, who got up when the flag appeared at the end and sang their national anthem – much to the surprise of the Australians in the theatre. The intriguing thing was that the young woman who raised this story used it in the context of being quite concerned about the extreme nationalism she noticed among her age group. Another young Chinese later launched into a rather angry diatribe about the utter loss of values amongst younger generations – his particular anger focused on the sexual amorality he saw around himself.

From a European perspective, it seemed as though the generational dislocation was less dramatic – one European participant said that he felt that his values were probably quite similar to those of his parents. Perhaps the bigger gap in Europe’s case is one generation further back – it was his grandparents’ generation that experienced the earth-shattering events of World War Two, and which often has very different values and experiences to those of their children, our parents.

In the end, one of the key conclusions was the fact that there was a homogenisation of views on the problems that younger generations face in China and Europe. Younger generations are going to be dealing with problems that are remarkably similar, and what is striking is the fact that both seem to be responding in similar ways. A bland conclusion maybe, but at the same time one that perhaps bodes well for the broader EU-China relationship, pointing towards an increasing confluence of opinion that might help the two overcome the current tensions that dominate the bilateral relationship.

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