China’s ‘OK Boomer’: Generations Clash Over the Nation’s Future

China’s version of the “OK boomer” clash began when a famous middle-age actor praised the younger generation as if the country’s teenagers and 20-somethings were heaven-sent gifts.

“All those people who complain that each generation is worse than the last should look at you the way I’m looking at you — full of admiration,” said He Bing, a film and television star with a baritone voice, in a commercial for a Chinese online video service.

China’s young people benefit from education, travel and all the world’s knowledge, said Mr. He, over images of young people scuba diving, skydiving, kayaking, racing sports cars, playing professional online games and touring Japan, France, Antarctica and other exotic destinations.

“Because of you,” he said, “the world likes China more.”

Many in the younger generation looked at the images on the commercial of affluent, happy young people and didn’t recognize themselves. China’s biggest boom years are over, many think. China’s older generation, having amassed all the money and power, is simply trying to co-opt them with flattery.

“There are still young people in China without cellphone or internet connection,” a viewer wrote on Bilibili, the video website that made the commercial, in a comment that received more than 16,000 likes. “Young Chinese should think hard about who we are, how we are faring and what we want. Don’t be fooled by outside voices.”

China may be the second-largest economy in the world and have more billionaires than the United States, but the real disposable personal income per capita in 2019 was only $4,334, just one-tenth that of Americans’.

Chinese state media is trying to distract the youth from these realities. The Bilibili video’s message is in line with Beijing’s to the young generation: You’re lucky to live in China today, and you should shout down critical voices. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, its tabloid the Global Times and many other official media outlets shared the video on social media, even though it’s a commercial for a private internet company.

The Bilibili commercial — timed for May 4, a government-endorsed day for commemorating patriotic youth — was a sensation. It was ranked the No. 1 video on Bilibili’s own platform, with more than 20 million views for the week. On Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform, it was viewed 50 million times. Bilibili, which has 130 million users, saw its stock price rise by 11 percent in three days.

But some young people aren’t buying it. On Bilibili and other social media platforms, many wrote that the video was for the haves, not the have-nots. It also confused the freedom to consume, they said, with the freedom to make choices based on free will.

“The speech reminded me of the flattering tricks the adults played when I was little,” Cheng Xinyu, a high school senior in the southwestern city of Chengdu, said in an interview. “Like, ‘You’re so good that you certainly won’t eat that candy.’”

The video’s description of her generation’s free choices? “I just laughed when that part came up,” Ms. Cheng said.

Further underscoring the wealth gap, some posted on Bilibili’s comments section Article 1 of the Chinese Constitution: “The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.”

“We who were born after 1995 pledge that we will not follow the likes of Fang Fang,” said the most-liked comment on the Global Times Weibo post of the Bilibili video. “We will bring down those sinners.”

They argue on China’s behalf on the world stage as well, sometimes using software to bypass the censorship infrastructure for access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Their belligerence prompted some boomers to compare them to Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, with some using the mocking nickname “little pinks.”

Many boomers felt compelled to speak out.

“I’m that person who says every day that this generation is worse than mine,” Su Qing, a journalist, wrote in a line-by-line rebuttal of Mr. He’s speech. “I don’t envy you.”

Mr. Su mocked Mr. He’s contention that young Chinese people have access to all the knowledge that the world has to offer and the freedom to make choices.

“Congratulations! You have the rights to criticize the United States and the traitors. Everything else is 404,” he wrote, referring to the error message for censored web pages and sites.

“Because of your overseas online expeditions, the world knows that there are radical young people in China,” he wrote. “The world had only seen such young people in Germany in the past.”

Li Houchen, a former internet executive and now a podcast host, urged people to boycott Bilibili, saying the video is part of the “propaganda business.”

In an emotional podcast, he accused the members of the young generation of indulging in consumerism and becoming the tool and mouthpiece of the authorities, saying they had become the “henchmen” of the system by reporting people they disagree with to the authorities. “Of course, your generation is worse than mine.”

The authorities, Mr. Li said, once condemned the youths’ fixation on video games and animation. “Now they need the young people to attack the likes of Fang Fang,” he said. “They need the young people to control the public opinions, so they started flattering the young generation.”

If anything, it’s the age of uncertainty and enormous challenges, Mr. Li argued.

“Are we living in a time that rewards hard work, kindness and honesty? Or are we living in a time of lies and fear?” he added. “Are we living in a boom time, or are we living in a time of enormous challenges?”

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