BEIJING -- Zhong Shi, a 22-year-old student who’s studying English at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, has a different idea of political activism from his parents.
Zhong hadn’t been born when Chinese authorities brutally put down student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He also hasn’t lived through famine, drought or poverty.
But while he and his classmates may be less likely to take on the government directly than their parents’ generation did, they have one tool of resistance their elders lacked: the Internet, which has rapidly become an outlet for frustrations with the national government, social issues and even their parents.
"The Internet has given them a place to make their voice heard and their voice mean something," said Mary Bergstrom, who lives in Shanghai. She’s the author of the book “All Eyes East” and the founder of the China marketing firm The Bergstrom Group.
Paul Clark, a professor of Chinese at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said this resistance to the government was unlikely to end in out-and-out revolution, however.
Chinese youth, “like others, simply exercise opportunities as quiet resistance to the absurdities of the system, parents’ ideas, etc.,” Clark said. “There is enough virtual space out there to be able to express and share critical views of the system, school, authority figures . . . without getting into trouble.”
Michael Stanat, the author of a book on Chinese youth culture called “China’s Generation Y,” noted that as China grew in power in the international arena, this Generation Y would take the reins of the nation’s economy and its foreign relations.
“As China becomes a global player, young people will be leading new innovations, changes in China’s economy, as well as investments in the U.S. and Europe,” said Stanat, an American expatriate who’s been living in Shanghai for a little less than a year.
More than half of China’s Internet users are younger than 30. Recent studies conducted by SIS International Research, the global marketing research firm where Stanat works, show that Chinese youth use the Internet more on average than their North American and European counterparts do, Stanat said.
For Zhong, it’s a generational shift: When his parents want to send an email they ask their secretaries; when he wants to, he does it himself.
For young adults such as Zhong, the micro-blogging website Sina Weibo has become their outlet, Stanat said. The site, which was launched in 2007, has more than 250 million subscribers.
Stanat recalled an incident in 2010 in which two college students were run over, killing one of them. The man accused in her death was politically connected, and there was an outpouring of condemnation on Sina Weibo, as bloggers speculated that the government was trying to quiet news reports about the story in hopes that it would go away, Stanat said.
“The Internet is a medium through which young people can express themselves in a society that values indirect communication,” he said.
The Communist Party has started to sit up and take notice of some of these Internet protests. Earlier this year, when the party dismissed Bo Xilai, the former party head in Chongqing, Sina Weibo users posted so many comments critical of the party that the government shut down the site for three days.