Chinese officials are keen to make the country's younger generation feel fortunate for what it has, and it isn't difficult to see why.
The post-90s generation is the least happy among all age groups in China according to research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, followed by the post-80s generation.
Many face stress related to housing issues, education, healthcare, employment, excessive exposure to social media and identity crises.
While the Chinese Communist Party has been able to contain dissatisfaction among mainland youth it is wary of the example set by Hong Kong, which was roiled by months-long, student-led protests.
Step in actor He Bing, a representative of China's “Front Wave” (older generation) and the star of a viral video titled “Back Wave” (后浪) that aims to celebrate the supposedly free culture and bright future of China's youth.
Released on China's largest animated video sharing platform Bilibili in time for Chinese Youth Day (May 4), the video was republished by a plethora of state affiliated media outlets.
In the four-minute clip featuring footage of urban youth culture and adventurous, cosmopolitan lifestyles, actor He tells the younger generation:
那些口口聲聲「一代不如一代」的人，應該看看你們，像我一樣，我看著你們滿懷羨慕 […] 科技繁榮文化繁茂城市繁華，現代文明的成果被層層打開，可以盡情地享用。自由學習一門語言學習一門手藝，欣賞一部電影去遙遠的地方旅行。很多人從小你們就在自由探索自己的興趣[…]你們擁有了我們曾經夢寐以求的權利，選擇的權利，你所熱愛的就是你的生活。你們有幸遇見這樣的時代，但是時代更有幸遇見這樣的你們。[…] 你們正在把傳統的變成現代的，把經典的變成流行的，把學術的變成大眾的，把民族的變成世界的。[…]因為你們這個世界會更喜歡中國，因為一個國家最好看的風景, 就是這個國家的年輕人。[…]
Those who complain that the next generation is worse than the earlier generation should take a closer look at you, like I have. I look at you and feel envy. […] You can enjoy advanced technology, diverse culture and prosperous city life. The fruits of modern civilization have been unpacked for you. You have freedom to learn a language and a skill. You can enjoy a movie or travel far. Many of you began exploring your interests from a young age…you enjoy the kind of rights that we dreamed of — the right to choose. You love your way of living. You are lucky to meet the era, and the era is lucky to meet you. […] You have turned the traditional into the modern, the classic into the popular, the academic into the mass, the national into the global…Because of you, the world will love China more, because a country's most beautiful scenery is its young people…
Young internet users smelled paternalistic propaganda straight away.
They noted that the liberal, cosmopolitan culture depicted in the video was applicable only to a minority of young people, chiefly those who inherited wealth from the emergent business class (Capitalists), or politically powerful (Red) parents.
One typical comment on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, pointed out that not everything is better for young people:
Actually we all wish that we are living in the time when when can still afford an apartment. Many people don't feel that they live like “back waves”…
Infiltrating the subculture
The video's appearance on Bilibili — posted by the website itself — is notable.
The platform is considered China's most popular youth subculture website with 130 million monthly active users. Bilibi was listed on the U.S NASDAQ stock market in 2018 and is keen to rival more mainstream Chinese video platforms like Tencent Video. The majority of its audience was born after the 1980s and tends towards Japanese, Korean and American popular culture.
The China Communist Youth League established its official channel on the website in January 2017 and has been actively appropriating the youth community's subculture in its political propaganda ever since.
That move came amid the emergence of a new generation of online patriots, dubbed Little Pink, who boost state narratives and conflate freedom with the boom in consumerist culture.
State-owned outlets that republished “Back Wave” included the People's Daily and China Daily, while posts hailing the success of younger generations soon proliferated on Chinese social media, using the “Back Wave” hashtag.
But despite strong orchestration from party loyalists, the video triggered strongly negative emotions among some viewers.
According to a social media analysis report published by online media outlet The Paper, around half of the comments under the People Daily's republication of the video were negative.
Name-checked prominently in critiques of the video were “Chinese Chives” (韭菜) — a vegetable that grows like wild grass and can be harvested by farmers regularly without much effort.
Originally used as a metaphor for Chinese who kept losing money in the stock market, the “chives” moniker has since been used to describe ordinary citizens that live happily, despite lacking human rights and suffering exploitation.
The ‘Chives’ strike back?
Many users responding to the Youth Day video viewed themselves as part of a “Chives Wave”, rather than a “back wave”.
One tech blogger described the video as “poisonous Chicken soup”:
The wealthy ones are the back wave, the poor ones are “Chinese Chives”. Some said the video “Back Wave” is a declaration of youth. The content is rosy but not realistic, glorious but not touching. In reality, how many young people can afford to live like this? The content does not capture the general social reality. Criticism of “Back Wave” is a moment of awakening for Chinese young people — it is a resistance against “poisonous Chicken soup”.
Shit, it is so difficult to be in the “Chives wave”. We keep being harvested by the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In the future, we will be harvested by the privileged “back wave”. Life is so difficult.
A “Back Wave” parody soon went viral on Bilibili. It replaced He Bing's speech with a description of the “Chives Wave” — a generation that enjoys being exploited.
Below is a version published on YouTube:
你们拥有了我们曾经彻底消灭的权利，被剥削的权利，你们没有发言权，[…] 你们有幸遇到了这样的时代，但是富二代们更有幸他们遇见了这样的你们，他们看见你们满怀敬意，向你们的愚昧迟钝致敬，你们正在把自己的钱变成老板的钱 把社会的变成资本的， 把对的变成错的 ,把白的变成黑的， 红二代在海外的千万个房产有你们添砖加瓦， 红三代开着奔驰大G在紫禁城撒欢，每一脚的油门都有你们的贡献，你们把自己的身体变成了老板所席卷的996 ICU的躯壳…
You have the rights that we have eliminated — the right to be exploited. You don't have the right to speak out. […] You are lucky to be in this era and Second Generation Rich are happy to meet you. They pay tribute to you, to you being naive and dumb. You have turned your own wealth into the wealth of your boss, turned the social into the capital, turned right into wrong and white into black. You have contributed bricks used for the construction of millions of overseas properties owned by the Second Generation Reds. You have contributed the oil used in the Benz owned by the Third Generation Reds who are racing outside the Forbidden City. You have turned your own bodies into 996 (9am to 9pm daily, six days per week) working machines which will eventually end up in an Intensive Care Unit.
Other parodies have emerged since, including this one about the Hong Kong protests for freedom and autonomy:
The debate surrounding the Youth Day video reminded some Chinese netizens to reflect on the genuine meaning of freedom and rights.
@CalvinChiu, a mainland Chinese tweeted:
— Calvin Chiu (@CalvinChiu19) May 11, 2020
The production quality of Back Wave is excellent. We the youth have freedom to travel, but why are there no mentions of other freedoms? We the youth have the right to learn different languages — do we enjoy other rights? Youth in China has been locked up by properties and vehicles and does not care about politics. This is sad. We have to struggle for our rights, not sit there and wait. Youth in China should yell out — we want freedom of press!