China's millennials are increasingly rejecting a bustling, competitive society and instead are choosing patience, tolerance and inner peacefulness. But Chinese leaders are alarmed by the attitude which they term passive, unambitious and unpatriotic. Photo: iStock

In an in-depth article last week, China’s state-controlled Global Times newspaper said that a number of Chinese youngsters are indifferent to the communist-ruled country’s politics.

That young people in the one-party state are politically apathetic is, in many respects, unsurprising. Such a blasé attitude was reported in China as early as 2002 and it also happens in Vietnam, China’s southern communist neighbor.

During a visit to Hai Phong, the second largest city in northern Vietnam, last November and in his keynote speech at the Vietnamese Communist Youth Union’s 11th National Congress in Hanoi a month later, party chief Nguyen Phu Trong urged a stop to what he called “tiredness of the (Communist) party, nonchalance toward the (Communist) Youth Union and indifference to politics.”

Youthful apathy is not a new reality

In fact, as in China, Vietnamese young people’s apathy to the party, its organs, politics and revolutionary ideals was not new. A 2009 document previously raised this reality.

Yet, the Global Times’s Jan. 2 article, which was also published in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, is very telling as it admitted many important facts.

First, those said to be politically uninterested are mostly millennials, generally born after 1990. Identifying themselves as “Buddha-like” or “Zen-generation,” the state-run newspaper observed, these youngsters “reject a bustling and competitive society and instead choose to practice patience, tolerance and inner peacefulness.”

China’s Buddha-like youth are … unresponsive not only to their government’s politics and propaganda but also to their careers and almost everything else in life.

Second, China’s Buddha-like youth are, in fact, unresponsive not only to their government’s politics and propaganda but also to their careers and almost everything else in life. They “are seemingly fine with anything that happens to them,” the newspaper admitted.

Third, though apparently suggesting that the Buddha-like youths remain a minority compared with zealous communists, it disclosed that the number of Chinese young adults continuing to identify as Zen-generation is “ever-rising.”

These are the reasons why the phenomenon has attracted great attention in China recently. While some are receptive to it, many others are concerned about it. For instance, an academic was quoted by Xinhua, the highly-censored country’s official news agency, as saying that “the Buddha-like mindset helps keep today’s young [Chinese] people calm and flexible, which better prepares them to take more responsibilities in the future.”

In contrast, those alarmed by the growing trend, including the Global Times, regard such an attitude as passive, unambitious and especially unpatriotic. According to the highly-nationalist outlet, the Buddha-like phenomenon “has drawn concern from mainstream media and scholars,” with “[some holding] that this ‘low-desire’ mindset will eventually hold back the nation from progressing further as a rising world superpower.”

The Chinese Communist Youth League, the equivalent of the Vietnamese Communist Youth Union, is also said to have lamented the development, calling it a “total tragedy.” Global Times quoted an article on the youth movement’s official website, Youth.cn, as urging the young people to “pursue their dreams with sweat and to always fight for their family and their country.”

Lack of motivation seen as ‘horrible’

For a professor specializing in youth studies quoted by Global Times, such a lack of motivation “is horrible.” He urged, “It is time for relevant departments to make more effort to mobilize the motivation inside the young, particularly about their beliefs.”

Although the Chinese media and commentariat don’t explicitly acknowledge it, the Zen-generation’s appearance and popularity reveal the Chinese government’s failure to encourage — or even force — a number of young adults — or more precisely, an “ever-rising” number of them, to embrace its rhetoric, politics, and ideology. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, it has heavily invested in its ideological and patriotic propaganda.

The very admission that the Buddha-like youths “are not inspired by any patriotic drive or the party’s political catchphrases” is evidence of such a failure. While their leader has publicly and repeatedly called them to dream big, to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” these millennials are simply happy with being average.

What is important, but apparently missing in the current debate among Chinese mainstream media and scholars, is why their young people have increasingly adopted a Buddha-like lifestyle. This could be the topic for another article.

Whatever the reason behind this phenomenon, it can be said that, instead of holding an ambitious, hypercompetitive and nationalistic attitude, these Buddha-like youngsters tend to seek an inner peace, tolerance, and harmony. While such a calm and peace-loving posture may alarm Global Times and the like, it will calm China’s neighbors and those who are concerned about a powerful, nationalistic and aggressive China.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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