“Four Generations of Change: Chinese Gen X” – Musings from an Australian Perspective

Tianjin skyline

If you haven’t heard the ‘Chinese G X’ term before, don’t worry. It’s one made up by author Barry Li to describe the generation of mainland Chinese born between 1966 and 1976. This period of ten years is significant in Chinese history for being the years of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution is something I know bits and pieces of, and have tried to comprehend as a whole; if you’re like me and are maybe not quite familiar with its concept and policies don’t worry, my last blog briefly tracks through some of its ambitions and policies.

This passage is not quite what I expected about a post-Cultural Revolution generation. I no doubt had a stereotypical image of “Red China” fractured together with my own recollections of rural 2000s China. Instead, what we get in this excerpt of The New Chinese is a testimony from Li’s fellow Australian-Chinese friend and much of the usual stuff ensues: a better chance into university, employment with foreign companies or state-owned ones, the opportunity to emigrate, the ability to own property. However, where this excerpt turns unexpected is when Li’s friend, ‘C’, describes a “very different China from before [he] was born, a version of China [Li] had never known.”

“In the late 1980s when he was a child, C told me, China was actually a very open country. Popular western culture flooded China from the US, Japan and Hong Kong. Political debate was much freer than it is today. People liked rock music and parties. People gathered together to criticise the government and the leaders, just as people did in any western country. All sorts of social, political and religious ideas recovered from the impact of the Cultural Revolution and started to grow again. Then, when [C] was in high school in 1989, after the Tiananmen Square event, things seized up again – at least publicly.”

If this contradicted a Chinese people’s historical belief about their own country, it likely will surprise most foreigners’ view of China’s past too. Li says nothing more about this moment in history disappointingly, except that he believes that C grew up freer in his thinking and mindset then the generation later did, and that the Gen X generation still perhaps harbour these tendencies. Will this ever come to mean anything politically further down the line?


Photo taken in Tianjin, October 2016, by Dana Novales.