South China Morning Post: US-China tensions may be rising, but among Gen Z, the two countries have never been more aligned

February 8, 2023

by: Euhwa Tran

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Relations between the United States and China remain at a low watermark with limited hope for significant improvement. In spite of this, young people in both countries are more like-minded than any generation before them. A monumental cultural shift is just on the horizon, stemming from technological access, economic opportunities and shared experiences.

At the end of 2022, I spoke individually to 70 American and Chinese Gen Z-ers – university students and recent graduates – as a part of a new intergenerational dialogue. The conversations provided a fascinating look into how young people in seemingly very different countries view themselves and the challenges they face.

US and Chinese Gen Z-ers have a great deal in common. Of the group I spoke with, both Americans and Chinese recognised that China’s economic development, globalisation and technology has made them more interconnected than any generation before them.

China’s rapid economic growth in recent decades has enabled its Gen Z-ers to grow up in significantly more privileged environments than their parents. As a whole, they are better educated and have had more opportunities to travel. Because they have not needed to worry about basic material needs, they are able to focus almost solely on education, career and personal lifestyle choices.

US and Chinese Gen Z-ers have grown up in more similar environments than any generation before them, watching the same television shows and listening to the same music. Their innate digital literacy opens doors to relationships with people of different backgrounds, making them more aware and accepting of cultures and mindsets different from their own.

To Gen Z, China is not a developing nation. Both American and Chinese Gen Z-ers grew up with a China very different from that of older generations. The 2008 Beijing Olympics represents their common perspective of China as an economically and developmentally advanced nation; a technologically modern society; and an emerging leader on the world stage. Chinese youths no longer see a societal gap between the two nations and thus tend to admire the United States less than older generations of Chinese.

The digital age has also given Chinese Gen Z-ers access to information outside state media. This exposure is in stark contrast to the limited information accessible to older generations. Compared with older generations, Chinese Gen Z-ers, like younger Americans, appear to be remarkably aware of equity issues and open to speaking about the challenges and gains for diversity, equity and inclusion in China.

Gen Z-ers in both countries self-identified as anxious, growing up during a time of relative instability.

American Gen Z-ers spent their formative years feeling unsafe in their schools due to gun and other violence. Largely too young to remember September 11 and the resulting patriotic unity, the nation they know is better exemplified by the political partisanship and chaos of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

This has created a generation somewhat disillusioned by the current domestic political system and less attached to the idea of the United States as the world’s number one superpower.

On the Chinese side, the current anxiety stems in large part from the pandemic and the accompanying years of lockdowns and economic downturns. These circumstances have left Chinese Gen Z-ers uncertain and even hopeless about their future.

Across the board, Gen Z-ers mourned the loss of opportunity to engage in person with their peers, particularly those in other countries.

Overall, the conversations with young people from two ideologically divergent countries locked in tense opposition sounded remarkably similar. They benefited from greater interconnectedness through technology but feel cheated out of in-person interactions due to Covid-19 restrictions.

They recognise they are more informed, but they are also more disillusioned with the state of affairs in their respective countries. And finally, they are well aware of the injustices and challenges facing society, but they remain optimistic about their ability to make a difference both domestically and globally.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, it is my hope that we can restore some lost opportunities to today’s youth, reviving existing exchanges and establishing new cross-cultural platforms that develop and leverage the unique potential of the Gen Z population.