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Understanding China's youth through social media

updated 12:08 AM EDT, Mon October 10, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yang Lan is a television star and media entrepreneur in China
  • Her career got started when she competed in audition with a thousand other college women
  • She says today's young generation in China faces economic, social obstacles
  • She says China's youth will transform the country and be transformed themselves

Editor's note: Yang Lan spoke at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, U.K. in July. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to ideas worth spreading, which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Yang Lan got her start in an audition two decades ago when she beat out 1,000 other young college women for a spot on television. Today she is a TV star and media entrepreneur in China who says her shows have been watched by more than 200 million people per week. An ambassador for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she's often called China's Oprah.

Yet while Yang Lan is an example of the opportunity available in China, she told the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in July, there are also daunting obstacles to progress for many younger people.

Start with the gender disparity: Under China's one-child policy, "because of selected abortion by families who favored boys to girls, now we have ended up with 30 million more young men than women."

TED.com: Understanding the rise of China

China's population is aging, and young people are expected to support their parents financially. In the cities, college graduates can start their careers earning about $400 a month, but the average rent is above $500. Young couples who want to buy an apartment would need 30 to 40 years of earnings to pay for it.

A migrant worker force of about 200 million people is caught between the city and the countryside, working long hours at low pay. Income inequality in China, she said, is greater than in the U.S.: "The bitterness and even resentment towards the rich and the powerful is quite widespread. So any accusations of corruption or backdoor dealings between authorities or business would arouse a social outcry or even unrest."

TED.com: Hans Rosling on China's rise -- how and when

A good way to gauge the feelings of Chinese youth is to read what they say on microblogs, which she described as the Chinese version of Twitter. "And because, as you know, the traditional media is still heavily controlled by the government, social media offers an opening to let the steam out a little bit. But because you don't have many other openings, the heat coming out of this opening is sometimes very strong, active and even violent."

Environmental issues animate the conversation on microblogs. Polluted air and water and poisoned food are among the issues. "All these things have aroused a huge outcry from the Internet. And fortunately, we have seen the government responding more timely and also more frequently to the public concerns."

Still, with all the challenges, she said young Chinese adults are well educated and are coming up with creative solutions. Among them, a "naked wedding" which doesn't involve nudity but does forgo a ring, a party, a house and a car. Microblogging is enabling people to find missing children and to rescue animals.

And Yang Lan is upbeat: China's younger generation is "going to transform this country while at the same time being transformed themselves."

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