By Leslie Hook in Beijing
“We will sacrifice ourselves for the people of Shifang,” reads a bold scrawl on the side of a building in the southwestern Chinese town, captured in a picture posted on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. “We are the post-90 generation.”
The small town of Shifang in Sichuan province is an unlikely place for a Chinese coming of age party. But an environmental protest, sparked by a plan to build a new copper plant, has revealed a potentially important shift in the country’s politics: youth were at the forefront of the three-day demonstration, exposing a new vein of activism in a generation seen by many as apathetic.
China’s youngest generation – known as the “post-90” generation, born after 1990 – is just now starting to graduate from university. But already they are making their mark.
“Students who were born in [the] 1990s, including my classmates and friends, took part in this incident from the very beginning,” said one Shifang high school graduate, who demonstrated alongside his classmates. Thousands of people took to the streets in Shifang where security forces used tear gas to try and break up the protests that eventually forced the owner, Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda, to cancel plans to open the plant.
Unlike the generation born in the 1980s, seen as less interested in politics, China’s post-90 children show signs of being more politically active and engaged.
The Shifang demonstrators say high school and college students played the leading role in organising and gathering support for the protests, which were joined by residents of all ages to oppose the construction of a $1.6bn copper-molybdenum refining facility. Of the 20-plus people detained by police during the protests, most were students, according to the demonstrators.
The subtle shift in generational attitudes has not gone unnoticed by Beijing.
The state-run Global Times newspaper warned about the dangers of youth-led protests in an editorial on Friday. “Among the protesters were many high school students, who have been hailed by a group of opinion leaders. Netizens even cheered those young protesters for ‘firing the first shot’,” the editorial said.
It went on to advise that: “High school students should focus on school work.”
China’s post-90 generation, many of whom are only children due to the one-child policy, tend to be highly educated, with more attending university than ever before. However analysts say there is less social mobility in China today than there was during the 1980s or 1990s, when double-digit growth and a rapidly changing economy propelled a new group of businesspeople to the ranks of the über-rich.
Today’s students, they argue, see few of those opportunities in their future, and Chinese officials worry very publicly about whether the 7m who graduated from college this year will be able to find work.
The students themselves say they protested because they love their home town. “I think it is civic awareness and strong social responsibility that encouraged us,” said a recent high school graduate. “Shifang is a small place – you can cycle across town in just 10 minutes – everyone knows each other and is fairly close. We love our town.”
The internet and the access to information that the post-90 generation enjoys have also made them more politically aware. In Shifang, students say they regularly evade government controls on the internet to “jump the wall” and access sites that are blocked, including Twitter and YouTube.
“I just want to know the truth,” said a 19-year-old Shifang student who took pictures of the riots and posted them online. “Many people don’t want to tell the truth. But I will tell it. And I think many post-90ers will do the same.”
Michael Anti, a prominent Chinese blogger, says today’s students are more outspoken than their predecessors, a sentiment echoed by other Chinese analysts. “Post-90 is the generation of social media so they embrace freedom of speech as their birthright,” he said.
Environmental causes and land rights appear to be among the favoured causes for politically minded post-90ers. Young, net-savvy students like the ones in Shifang also played a key role in the protests in the village of Wukan last year, rallying support for the villagers who opposed a land grab by local leaders.
While China’s economic growth propelled many of the post-80 generation firmly into the middle class, today’s students have grown up with some of the more negative aspects of that growth, particularly environmental degradation. And as the Chinese economy slows they often have trouble finding jobs after graduation. The combination of these societal shifts could mean that the post-90 generation play a more active role in protests, analysts say.
Back in Shifang, the situation remains tense despite a government promise to scrap the unpopular plant. Six demonstrators remain in detention and they face potential criminal charges ranging from attacking police cars to throwing bricks and flower pots at officers on duty, according to a government notice. The local party secretary was swiftly demoted in a sign of Beijing’s disapproval with how the demonstrations were handled.
Even though this small town in southwest China will eventually calm down, the post-90 protesters across China may not.
Han Han, a leading Chinese blogger who was born during the 1980s, applauded the students of Shifang and nearby towns for the role they played in the demonstrations.
“Shifang changed the way a lot of people see the post-90 generation,” he wrote.
Additional reporting Gwen Chen, Beijing