Liang Lu-hai is the son of a Chinese democracy activist. His father went into exile in 1988; he was born in China and raised in England. But today, he and his father find themselves back in the motherland.
His family’s struggle for freedom was a quest to escape what they saw as a narrowing reality.
Liang’s father’s decision to seek protection led to his upbringing in England. But having returned to China, in 2012, of his own free will, Liang’s come to realise that the struggle for most young people in China isn’t a political one – it’s a generational clash against the influence of parental expectations.
Before he left China, Liang’s father was an assistant teacher of law at a university in the southern city of Guilin. In the late 1980s he started handing out pamphlets and writing letters calling for democratic reforms. In those days, the winds of change were blowing hard.
In 1988, police in Guilin had arrested Liang’s father, and he wanted out. On a July night he found himself on the shore in the southern city of Shenzhen, his brother beside him, hopes pinned to the island of Hong Kong across the sea.
Using bicycle inner tubes to help them float, they swam for hours as they tried to reach Hong Kong. They made it. A few years later Liang’s mother escaped too, paying a boatman to ferry her over. But Liang had to be left behind. He arrived in England in 1994, as a boy. Eventually the three became UK citizens. Liang’s father published a book in Hong Kong and the British government granted him political asylum.
But the political struggle that the family was affected by doesn’t matter much to the youth of today in China – those born after 1980. For them, the government is an inescapable reality; the oppression they feel comes from elsewhere. They struggle to discover their own path free from the expectations of their parents.
The generation that grew up in the 1980s seemed to care more about big ideas like democracy and political freedom. To hear Liang’s mother tell it, the decade following then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 introduction of his “Reform and Opening” policies was one of looseness. She describes a hopeful, dynamic country looking toward the future. Liang’s father describes a feeling of power as young people felt empowered by new ideas and new hopes, for themselves and for their country.
Today’s Chinese youth care less. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because there was a growing civil society starting to form in the 1980s, one that was stamped out the end of that decade. But until again the people of China carve out spheres of personal independence then civil society and bigger hopes won’t have the space to develop.
In today’s China, those spheres are small, or non-existent. “You are never independent, growing up,” said Shen Bolun, a 27-year-old artist in Beijing. “How do you suddenly find it when you’re in your 20s? You have to spend another 10, 15 years.”
Shen spent three years on a personal project, which would eventually become an art installation, during which he interviewed 1,000 young people in 10 cities across China. Participants were invited to talk on camera about their deepest concerns. Rather than talk about issues like politics or government interference, they often spoke of their parents as the biggest obstacle in their lives. “My parent’s love is pressure” was a common response.
Shen admits that one reason so many young people in the videos did not talk about politics might be because of fear or a lack of knowledge about other matters. But he also believes that when you don’t hold a political view, you don’t talk about it: “I think holding a political view shows a very high level of independence,” he said.
That doesn’t mean young Chinese don’t think or talk about the big issues. In hundreds of Shen’s videos, participants talked about the education system, the meaning of marriage, social problems, and much more. But a common issue was the pressures young people face and the expectations under which they live.
Young people in China face huge pressure from an early age from their parents, and competition from their peers, in the education system, and after they graduate, the job market. Then comes the marriage market. Mothers and fathers expect their only child to do well; to support themselves and the family, avoid making bad or risky decisions, and to focus on achieving a good life. That leaves little space and time for politics. Worries about the government pale next to concerns about buying an apartment or choosing the right career.
For Chinese women, the pressure can be especially draining. Most women over 25 are under constant pressure to get married. One of Liang’s friends wanted to put her career in television before family. She hinted at pressure from her mother and shook her head when Liang asked whether she wanted to get married. Another talked about her village fiancé, the product of a relationship arranged by her parents because of her would-be groom’s good standing in the local community.
While men face less pressure to marry, they all feel the push from parents. Liang’s mother harasses him on the phone, telling him he should start thinking about making more money for family he doesn’t have yet.
There’s almost no space for young people in China. The need to compete in the professional and marital marketplaces means young people need to focus on education and connections. Their parents lay down strict rules they need to obey in order to succeed and to fulfil their filial duties.
China’s emphasis on filial piety stretches back hundreds of years. But this whole order was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, a revolutionary frenzy started by then-Communist chairman Mao Zedong. From 1966 to 1976 the youth of China were encouraged to overthrow “The Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. It mirrored the revolutions of the late 1960s elsewhere, but was far darker.
During the years when young Americans were encouraging each other to explore peace, love, and personal discovery, young people in China were denouncing their friends, teachers, and even their own family members for anything that might be interpreted as un-Maoist.
This created a paranoia and anxiety that exists to this day. It may help explain the overwhelming desire among Chinese parents to see their children succeed (even if this “success” has to follow a narrow definition), given that those parents had no chance to do so in their own lifetimes. The effect of the country’s previous one-child policy, of course, also raised the stakes – all family ambitions fell on the shoulders of one child, as did the need to support parents in old age.
As a young Briton of Chinese heritage living far away from his parents, independence is a luxury Liang can take for granted. By contrast, with almost no welfare net, an older generation to support, and a highly competitive environment for graduates, the stakes are too high and the risks too great for a young Chinese person to defy his or her parents. Disappointing your parents to pursue your dreams is a common theme in Western movies and TV shows. But you won’t see it much in China. Far more than in Western societies, the children of China belong to their parents.
For his part, Liang’s father made one great, hard choice in his life: to run. But he never made much of himself in the UK – for almost 30 years, he lived in a tiny flat in a public housing complex in west London. He returned to China after his available options narrowed.
Shen, the artist, says he often thinks about the idea of freedom. “I cannot pick where I was born,” he said. “I cannot pick gender, looks, family.” But “mentally, you can be free. The more I get to know myself, the more free I can be”.
Western commentators often talk about political freedom and independence – democracy for China – without perhaps realising the great personal independence they have enjoyed. Maybe when the youth of China are given the space to explore what matters most to them – relieved of competition, and free of the expectations of their elders – there will be a China big enough for ideas such as freedom and independence. But for now, the expectations of their parents are a much more immediate concern than the will of the Communist Party.