China's 'Internet Generation' holds key to unlocking new era of political reform

Figures like lawyer Chen Guangcheng and artist Ai Weiwei make headlines overseas, but if they are ever to make real change, the country's moderate young people will have to help them. Photo: Charlie Shifflett

VIENNA, Va., November 14, 2011 ― Posting a photograph of oneself in sunglasses seems – at first glance – to be as mild a form of protest as one could possibly imagine. But in China, it might just be a sign of things to come.

On Saturday in China’s Shandong province, the blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who is under house arrest, celebrated his 40th birthday. Chen wears sunglasses and has become somewhat of a hero for defending the rights of rural Chinese against local government land-grabs and harsh family planning initiatives. Most Chinese do not know his name, but a few young Chinese “netizens” – Web users – have begun posting photos of themselves in sunglasses as a sign of solidarity.

Chen’s story has been covered by major media organizations all over the world, as have the plights of other Communist party agitators, like the artist Ai Weiwei, and the imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Western observers see these figures as courageous – and that they are. But if their calls for free expression and human rights reform are ever to be embraced, they will need help from a far more moderate generation of young people who are just now beginning their professional careers.

Approximately 500 million Chinese have access to the Web. Those netizens who are in their 20s and early 30s are sometimes called the “Internet Generation”. While their backgrounds can vary widely in education and affluence, two things unite them – their love for their country, and their exposure from a young age to an incredibly large array of information and opportunities for expression.

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China, referred to this group of people at Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate in South Carolina: “China is about to embark on a generational transition… [and] we should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies in China. They’re called the young people, the ‘Internet Generation’ …and they are bringing about change.”

I was reminded of this group of Chinese young people last week, when I learned of the passing of my friend and former colleague in Beijing, Liao Meng. He was just 31. He had risen to the position of managing editor at 21st Century, a national weekly for Chinese university students and young professionals.

As an editor at a state-owned newspaper, he could hardly be considered a progressive. He’d made his living hewing to the Party line, after all. But during the four-plus years I worked with him, I came to respect him – not because we always saw eye to eye (we didn’t), but because I came to see that he had a mind of his own, and that he was more than willing to use it.

In conversations over Korean barbeque on Tuesday nights, and over lunch in the newspaper’s cafeteria, Liao would sometimes open up to me – about pop music, Hollywood movies, journalism, and the state of his own country.

As I recall, he had turned down an opportunity to join the Communist Party. In private moments, he would sometimes acknowledge his frustration with the government’s attempts to block the flow of information to its people. In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, he assigned stories about the excitement that many American young people had for Barack Obama’s candidacy.

This was how he approached potentially sensitive topics, such as democracy: from a cultural perspective. He had long ago decided to work within the system, to stretch the boundaries, but not to cross them, since doing so would only threaten his own livelihood.

In spending time with Liao and my other colleagues, I came to understand that some of these moderate, smart, careful, and inquisitive young professionals could eventually guide China into a new era of openness.

Their familiarity with the Western world would give them the background to push for measured political reforms, should they ascend to the country’s highest places of cultural and political influence. They might just need a little nudge from behind by people like Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo.

Liao Meng’s passing may soon be forgotton by all, save those who knew him personally. But if there are others like him – and I know there are – China and the US have a future brighter than the one we see now. One day, perhaps, young Chinese will not have to put on sunglasses to see it.

I just wish my friend and colleague, Liao Meng, could have stayed around to cover it.

Charlie Shifflett spent six years in China, including four working as a writer and section editor at a state-owned weekly newspaper in Beijing. He is currently the website and communications manager for the international microfinance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia.


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Charlie Shifflett

Charlie Shifflett worked in China for six years, including four years at the China Daily-owned English-language weekly 21st Century, where he was editor of the sports and international briefs pages. He also taught English writing for two years at one of the nation’s premier schools, Renmin University.

Charlie is currently the website and communications manager at the international microfinance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia. He has a master’s in journalism from The University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Cedarville University.

He has written for China Daily, 21st Century, and the print and online editions of Washingtonian magazine.

His “Made In China” column, appearing several times a month, will explore China’s growing influence and what it means for Americans inside and outside of Washington, D.C.

 

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