OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16
The Ranks of Revolutionaries
John Stanmeyer for TIME.
Yxue Lei, a 24-year-old geology graduate major at Beijing University, surfs the internet in his dorm.
Hooked up, fired up and liberated by the Internet, China's 'Generation Yellow' is laying the groundwork for change
By TANG HAISONG
Looking for Work in All the Right Places: Finding jobs online
Strolling down Shanghai's boulevards, one sees well-dressed young Chinese constantly talking on their mobile phones, switching easily between English and Chinese. They jam the city's Western-style bars and discos, even on weekday nights. They work at Internet startups or at Western firms. They are ambitious and confident. They are the models for Generation Yellowthe rising middle-class in China, aged 18 to 35and they are the future.
Tens of millions of Chinese fall into this demographic, though most are obviously not as fortunate as Shanghai's gilded youth. As a rule, they are more pragmatic, educated and cosmopolitan than their parents. Unlike their communist predecessors in Generation Red, Generation Yellow are forward-thinking and full of confidence, if somewhat disoriented by the lack of an overarching belief system in China. They are different not only in the opportunities that have been made available to them, but also in how they think and act. And the Internet has played no small role in those revolutionary changes.
The explosion of Web usage in China has given this generation a uniquely powerful tool. Nearly 80% of China's approximately 20 million Internet users are part of this age group. Most of them browse the Web for information and use e-mail to connect with friends both inside and outside China. This has brought them closer togetherand closer to youth elsewhere in the world. Whereas their parents could get their news only from the sterile government-regulated media, today's Internet users can read about events that don't appear in the official press. This has made them far more attuned to what is really happening both at home and abroad.
Individually, these kids have eagerly adopted bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messaging and personalized home pages to express themselves. The importance of this phenomenon cannot be underestimated. Unlike their counterparts in the West, many Chinese are uncomfortable saying what they really think in office meetings or in other public forums. They worry too much about saying the wrong thing or embarrassing themselves publicly. But with the Internet, even the most timid can express their thoughtsand gain a hearing far beyond the audience they once would have had.
At my company, Etang.com, our 250 employees are encouraged to use our online bulletin-board system to communicate ideas and suggestions. They can pitch in a comment either anonymously or with their name attached. When we were soliciting ideas for how to revise the Etang home page, we received some of the most helpful and innovative suggestions via the bulletin boards. Engineers who are generally reluctant to speak up in meetings contributed some of the most valuable ideas, on everything from the color and layout of the new page to how to make the site more navigable. Knowing that their ideas have helped create a successful product makes people more eager to be associated with a company; it promotes a sense of ownership and pride in their workmanship. People can say, "I did that with my idea." Or, "I was inspired by your idea to think of things in a different way."
This potential for the Internet to encourage democratic and free ways of thinking is one of the most important tools available to Generation Yellow. It allows our staff in places as diverse as Boston, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to discuss ideas without worrying about time differences or regional priorities. Faxes are too impersonal. Teleconferences can be too public for shy Chinese. But e-mail is the perfect medium for frank and interesting intellectual exchange.
Already this new confidence has spurred an incredible wave of entrepreneurialism among Chinese youth. Chinese American Jerry Yang of Yahoo! is suddenly a bigger hero than most rock stars. Overnight, Sohu.com founder Charles Zhang and Netease's William Ding attracted more press coverage than Hollywood celebrities. They are the icons of this generation. Young urban Chinese are no longer satisfied with good jobs at reputable multinational companies. Instead, they've flooded the mainland with an estimated 15,000 Internet start-ups since the beginning of this year alone.
Like me, more and more of the founders of such companies are mainland Chinese who have gone to the West to study and returned home. In combination with those who have stayed behind, they have begun to transform Chinese business culture with much-needed technology and professional management skills. Generation Yellow entrepreneurs have a more global perspective, one that will be exceedingly useful once China enters the World Trade Organization. They are not afraid of failure, and they do not easily give up.
This undaunted energy and new thinking cannot help but remake China. Right now e-commerce is a joke on the mainland. But in a few years, China will most likely have completed a national electronic payment system and an improved distribution and logistics system. The country already has 51 million mobile-phone users, and as wireless technology develops, China will soon have one of the world's largest groups of wireless Internet users. Plus, the purchasing power of Generation Yellow will have doubled or tripled by the year 2003. The development of broadband technology and China's accession to the wto, in combination with rising disposable incomes, will make China one of the largest online markets in the world for products dealing with travel, finance, education, media and entertainment.
Just as important, though, is how the Internet is transforming relations among kids in China. Formerly, matchmakers paired up young couples, and families wielded immense power over potential lovers. In many cities the Internet now performs the same service in a far less domineering manner. Two of my colleagues married after having met in a chat room. One lived in China and the other in Boston, but they were able to transcend the geographic distance through e-mail. China is a vast country, and any tool that bridges those distances is a valuable thing for young people. That's what will ultimately unite them as a generationand sometimes, Cupid willing, as individuals.
Tang Haisong founded Chinese Web portal etang.com
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