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China's Newest Cultural Revolution Worries Elders

Shaken by the trappings of youthful rebellion, officials try to bring teens back into the fold.

July 03, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — When fathers of the Chinese Communist Party mapped out the road to socialist perfection, they didn't give much thought to green hair.

But amid growing concern that it is losing touch with an increasingly rebellious youth, the government recently announced a series of steps to bolster social, ethical and moral standards among underage Chinese.

"What they're really afraid of is not political dissidents. It's long hair, decadence, punks and hip-hop. That's raising more concern than anything else," said Hung Huang, publisher of the Chinese edition of Seventeen magazine. "In essence, China is experiencing its first real generation gap, and it's a 7 on the Richter scale."

Premier Wen Jiabao set the tone in late February with State Council Document No. 8 -- cited as the most important statement on youth since the Communists swept to power in 1949 -- calling on parents, teachers and the government to help strengthen and reform the virtue of Chinese minors.

The government has also banned the release of new foreign films during the school break this summer and tightened restrictions on foreign textbooks, cellphone text messaging, the Internet and racy magazines aimed at teens. It is recruiting new "upstanding youth" to serve as role models. And it is pouring money into "Youth Palaces," the national network of after-school community centers started in the 1950s to promote extracurricular activities.

By Western standards, the vast majority of China's 367 million youngsters are well behaved and hard working; many American parents would love to have China's "youth problems." Judged by traditional Confucian benchmarks, however, the younger generation seems increasingly disrespectful, out of reach and out of control.

A series of high-profile cases has put a face on last year's jarring 12.7% rise in juvenile crime. In December, a 16-year-old Beijing high school student killed his mother for "being too strict," then took $50 from her pocket and headed for an Internet cafe.

In February, a 15-year-old Beijing student stabbed a friend 17 times with a fruit knife for flirting with her boyfriend. And last month, a 23-year-old college student from Guangxi province was executed after killing his four roommates with a hammer over a card game.

Particularly vexing for senior party and government officials, analysts and party insiders say, is the limited traction that slogans and morality campaigns may have with a generation weaned on MTV and online games.

"The party is trying to do a little updating and repackaging," said Victor Yuan, chairman of Horizon, a market research firm that works for the government and private companies. "But compared to campaigns by professional ad people, they still fall short. Most young people would rather watch videos."

Young Chinese continue to join the Communist Party -- though exact figures are unavailable, reports say the trend is up -- but party stalwarts fret that they are embracing the red banner for the wrong reasons. Instead of identifying with party ideology, surveys suggest, many youngsters view the party as a networking opportunity, a sort of high-octane Rotary Club.

"I'm not interested in joining now but might consider it later," said Wu Yue, 22, a recent Beijing college graduate who is trying to break into television. "For a lot of young people, it's not an issue of believing in communism but getting good jobs, promotions and better pay, especially if you're in a political environment like government or the media."

At Vics, a trendy club in the shadow of Beijing's Worker Stadium, the focus is on parties of a different sort. At 10:30 on a weeknight, things start to hop as young Chinese amble past the faux Egyptian mummy, down the chrome stairs and onto the red luminescent dance floor to the thumping sound of rap and hip-hop. Some won't head home before 5 in the morning.

"I come here a few times a week for the music and the atmosphere," Chao Xu, a 22-year-old student, said at a table crowded with whisky bottles, soft drinks and cigarette butts. "There's concern about morality these days, but it's not a problem with any of my friends."

That hasn't stopped the government from trying to create a "purified" living environment for teenagers and young adults in concerts and dance halls across the country. The Culture Ministry early last month approved Britney Spears' first China tour, provided she doesn't reveal too much.

"Relevant departments will carry out strict reviews of Britney Spears' performance clothing," a state-run news agency said. The report followed the banning of Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong's song "In the Name of Love" because the lyrics include the word "opium."

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