On the Participation in Politics of the Youth in Contemporary Chinese Cities

Duan Gang

Dr. and vice editor in chief of Social Sciences Weekly


Abstract: Based on the analysis of a related questionnaire, this article probes into some attributes of the situation and awareness of youth’s participation in politics in Chinese urban areas in the present background of China’s reform. These attributes include the split of their political participation awareness from their concrete political participation activities, their recognition of some fundamental political principles, their deep concern about China’s social problems as well as the different levels of political participation due to the imbalanced development of different regions, industries and social strata. Owing to the singleness of the channel and means of political participation, there exists certain degree of indifference to politics among the youth, which is closely intertwined with the prevalent values in certain period of time. Under the influence of economic utilitarianism budding in economic opening-up, the values of pragmatism and individualism register a large proportion among the Chinese youth. Guided by pragmatism and individualism in the reality, they tend to go to extremes in the understanding of those values. For instance, they take the negative effects of reform as the positive ones; they emphasize on their individual needs while ignoring the collective interests of the whole community. The author hereby holds that on the basis of the youth’s misunderstanding of those values, their behavior will inevitably cause the separation of the awareness from their behavior in their political participation. Hence, they can hardly form a unified force in participating in politics. Instead, they may become the negative factor disturbing China’s political development and social stability.


Political participation is a kind of activity for the common residents to participate in political life and to exert an influence on the form, the operation, the rules and the policy-making of the current political system through legal channels. The current situation of Chinese youth’s participation in politics is closely related with the background of China’s modernization as a whole. The reform and opening-up policy have enabled the economic development to play a central role in China’s social development. Meanwhile, China’s politics is conspicuously characterized by such political activities hinged with economy. Consequently, in analyzing and explaining the contemporary situation of Chinese youth’s participation in politics, we cannot go without evaluating its background.

Here “youth” refers to “the young residents with aged from 18 to 40 who live in Chinese cities”. The temporary situation that Chinese youth are confronted with is the general background needing our in-depth analysis.


I.  The current Chinese youth’s awareness in political participation

After China’s entry into the 21st century, numerous and dramatic changes have taken place in the country. Throughout the two decades’ reform and opening-up in their economy and society, Chinese people have come to realize the urgency of their political reform. The youth are the dominant participants in China’s political life, and their awareness of political participation has undergone sweeping transformation. From the Cultural Revolution to Reform and Opening-up age, Chinese youth have experienced a striking transformation from fanaticism to indifference. After a quarter century’s reform and opening-up, under the nurture of the modern western civilization and in the absorption of the traditional Chinese culture, their awareness of participation has got the following features.


1.               There is a phenomenon that the youth’s awareness and activities in the political participation appear to have split from each other. Economy and politics have consistently been the hot topics among the contemporary youth. Yet, compared with economy, currently, the topic on politics is marginalized among the youth’s discussion. Affected by the economic utilitarianism, they know the fact that in China, political participation cannot bring them direct economic returns. As a result, on the one hand, they recognize the systems, principles and functions of the current Chinese political operation; on the other hand, they, more often than not, take a pragmatic attitude in political participation. Their political awareness does not coincide with their specific political activities. Nowadays, the Chinese youth are contempt for political fanaticism prevalent during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, they are not totally indifferent to the politics in reality. In fact, they are often engaged in limited participation in politics although they are only concerned about it. It is strikingly unparallel between their political awareness and political activities. In the recent years, deeply influenced by pragmatism, the Chinese youth are comparatively more interested in economic activities around them which are profitable to them. They doubt whether real political participation can bring them true profit. Consequently, they hesitate to take part in political activities.


Recently, a poll on the awareness of political participation was carried out among the Shanghai youth. The result conspicuously shows that the youth tend to be pragmatic in their political participation. That poll contains the following sub-questions on reform that the youth are supposed to be interested in. A: Modern enterprise system reform; B: Medical and aging insurance reform; C: Housing reform; D: Educational system reform; E: Consumer price reform; F: Financial system reform; G: Political system reform; H: Tax reform. The result of that poll is: A: 21.13%; B: 36.49%; C: 49.23%; D: 10.28%; E: 34.12%; F: 11.51%; G: 19.32%; H: 2.98%. According to the statistics, apart from their interest in reforms related with their career and their jobs, the majority of youth are more concerned about the reforms closely connected with their daily life and their future development. The youth’s top three concerns are: Housing reform (49.23%), Medical and aging insurance reform (36.49%) and Consumer price reform (34.12%). That implies that the youth are more and more pragmatic in their political participation awareness and their concern about reforms is increasingly realistic. Hence, they are lack of a provident perspective of the overall situation.

Nevertheless, we must point out that it is inevitable for the youth to have immature, flawed and even incomplete awareness in political participation during the transformation period of China’s reform and opening-up. No country can transcend such a period on the road of development when the youth are immature in the awareness of political participation and when they are unable to understand the reality of contemporary Chinese politics.

2.               The youth basically approve of the fundamental political principles in China. Due to the increasing influence of western culture, the western politics will inevitably exert a great effect on China. However, the contemporary youth do not blindly absorb the western values any longer. Instead, they are able to have their own judgment according to China’s specific national situations.

In accordance with the poll made by China Youth Research Center, 42.3% students chose “Social stability” when they were asked the question “What are the most important two criteria for a successful state-level administration?” That figure is only 8.7% lower than number one “powerful economy” (51%). In1996, the research group of “Chinese Youth accessing to the 21st century” carried out a nation-wide poll among 30,000 youth. When asked the question “What do you think of the relations among reform, development and stability?”, 31.5% youth chose “We must take account of all the three factors”, while 38% youth chose “Stability is the basis, for only when it’s stable can we achieve reform and development”. Only 3.9% youth chose “Reform is the prerequisite for stability”. That shows the youth are fully aware of the importance of stability and they have got a profound understanding of the principle “Giving priority to stability”. Meanwhile, it reflects that seeking stability is the dominant mentality among the youth.

3.               The youth show great concern about the contemporary social problems. The problems in reality are hinged with social stability and political development. The current Chinese youth believe that social and political progress cannot be promoted in the best effective way unless some urgent problems are addressed as soon as possible. For instance, in the above poll, the youth think that the most urgent problems to be dealt with are: number one, “Punishing corruption”(54.87% youth choose it); number two, “invigorating State-owned enterprise(33.6% youth choose it); number three, “combating crimes”(29.03%) and number four, “improving social practice and justice”(21.62%). Obviously, these social problems that the youth are interested in are all essential ones affecting social and political stability. Hence, eager for a stable environment, they firmly require that great and effective measures should be taken to handle the above questions.

4.               There is a striking gap among the different regions, industrious and strata in the Chinese youth’s participation in politics. In terms of the level of the participation awareness, there exists a gap between the big and small cities; there is also a striking divergence in the requirement for political participation among different strata, group and industries. As far as the situation of political participation is concerned, the staff from cultural, educational and administrative department tend to have a stronger awareness for the sake of their jobs, advanced culture and high quality as well as their easy accession to the abundant political information in the big and medium-sized cities. By contrast, the majority of workers and the self-employed (especially the youth in the small cities) have a comparatively low level of participation awareness. In other words, the strong awareness of participation is mainly confined to some economically and culturally advanced regions or strata and to those who have a closer tie with politics. There hasn’t yet been a sound psychological foundation among the mass to enhance political participation. The residents’ awareness of this kind needs further promotion in a large scale.

II. The means for the contemporary Chinese youth to participation in politics

1.      Participation through formal organization. Currently, the youth are mostly engaged in political participation by the traditional ways of formal organization. They carry out such participation through such organization as the League of the Youth and the Communist Party of China on the principle of democratic centralism (namely, centralism on the basis of democracy and democracy under centralized guidance).Now that they cannot avoid the flaws caused by bureaucracy and administration as before, it is inevitable that participating in politics in the organization is bound to confront with inefficiency and formalism, which may bring out the consequence that such participation in politics is more superficial than substantial.

2.      Participation through informal organization. Some youth choose to participate in politics by joining in non-governmental associations or China’s democratic parties which have kept a sound ties with Communist Party of China. These participations are carried out by certain means too. Unfortunately, people haven’t attached great importance to these channels and the effects of such participation is very limited.

3.      Participation through the internet. At present, this channel is very popular. Due to its “individual” feature, the internet has provided the youth with certain freedom to express their ideas as they like. However, for the lack of laws and regulations concerned, and for the lack of checking and distinguishing the information, it is easy to cause misleading. Consequently, on the one hand, the youth can express their political views on the internet; on the other hand, it is highly possible that the youth may not shoulder enough responsibility for their remarks and they make lose their way in the process of growth.

Due to the singleness of their political participation channel, the youth are lack of interest in participating in politics. They tend to be indifferent to it in certain range. A recent poll shows that only 10% of the youth say they like participating in the learning of political theories.

III. The analysis of the contemporary Chinese youth’s values in Political participation

1.      Pragmatism affects the youth’s political participation and political evaluation.

The youth’s understanding of politics is still very superficial and, by and large, their evaluation originates from their private interest. On the one hand, this kind of tendency results from the immaturity of their character; on the other hand, it is closely related to the negative influence of “economic pragmatism” and “utilitarianism” in their mind. In terms of social problems, they try to view and understand them realistically and try to evaluate and consider them based on their own direct interest. Yet, they are comparatively uninterested in the study of political theories. Consequently, their recognition to politics is very direct and superficial. A poll carried out to all members of the society shows that 32.9% chose “I don’t like them very much” and 23.4% chose “It’s hard to say” when they were asked: “Do you like all kinds of elections?” Obviously, the youth are not very interested in the form of political participation only because it does not bring them direct interest.

2.      Individualism is very conspicuous among the youth.

Recently, China Youth Research Center held a poll among about 10,000 youth from 10 provinces and municipalities. When they were asked: “Are you concerned about the domestic and overseas political events?”, 18.3% youth chose “It is hard to say” and “not very much”. When they were asked: “Do you take part in all kinds of elections?”, 23.4% youth chose “It is hard to say” and 32.9% youth chose “not very much”. When were asked: “Does the government publicity have great influence on you?”, 22.1% youth chose “It is hard to say” and 19.4% chose “very limited”.

The transformation of China’s society from planned economy to market economy has a direct and great influence on the younger generation’s awareness of political participation. They appreciate and accept without discrimination the western culture popular among the western youngsters. Ignoring China’s national situations, they simply have a comparison between China and the western countries, and they consult and follow the western standard of life. They even blindly copy the individual-oriented western values. As the principle of collectivism has been challenged and the value of individualism has been accepted gradually, the mobilized and forced political participation is more prevalent than voluntary political participation. The youth do not have a strong awareness of participation and political indifference does exist in certain range. Meanwhile, there is a great variety of irrational behaviors in the society, such as the worship of the falungong cult, which have seriously disturbed the smooth operation of the political and social system.

3.      The absorption of pluralism in values and the acceptance of relativism in world outlook

Because of the pluralism in modern society and diversity in reality, great change has taken place in the youth’s values. The steady influence of all these values has all the more discouraged the youth’s enthusiasm for Political participation. They even go to extremes to believe that it is an ideal attitude to keep a distance from politics. Under the influence of relativism, it has become the youth’s value that “Whatever is OK”. Meanwhile, the pluralism of the youth’s values results in the different understanding of political participation. Hence, they can hardly form the same community, identity, point of views or discourse. That may exert a negative influence on political participation. Currently, the increasing diversity of the youth’s values may give rise to their plural political mentality and views which make it impossible to form a dominant trend of thought. In a sense, the diversified political recognition and awareness will affect the youth’s political attitude and the stability of their political tendency. As a result, the society cannot have a strong cohesion in the process of development, and it cannot form a powerful political force to promote the all-round reform in an effective way.


About the author: Duan Gang, Dr. of Economic philosophy, vice editor in chief of Social Sciences Weekly. He is devoted to the interdisciplinary study of cultural philosophy and economic philosophy, and his publications include many influential papers, such as On the Rejuvenation of the Tradition of Economics Values.