With a population of 1.4 billion, China is not just the most populous country, it is also one of the largest. As the second-strongest economy in the world, China is setting new economic and technological standards. In its metropolises and megacities, prosperity is on the rise, with a growing middle class emerging from what used to be a society beset by poverty.
China’s breathtakingly rapid development over the last years and decades is becoming increasingly tangible and visible. And its impact reaches all the way to Germany: Duisburg, an industrial city in the Ruhr region, marks the end point of the New Silk Road, part of a global Chinese infrastructure plan worth EUR 900 billion. In other words, it is both necessary and worthwhile to take a look at things from a Chinese perspective.
Land of contrasts
China is a country of superlatives owing to its rapid development alone, yet it is also a country of contrasts – at least this image that comes to mind when looking at how China’s new-found wealth is distributed. Compared to the country’s modern metropolitan areas, in rural areas there is little in terms of visible economic progress. There is a major income divide between the urban and rural populations; accordingly, the opportunities afforded to urban and rural children and adolescents vary widely, too. The desire for “more”, and the wish to escape poverty, is driving large numbers of young people to head for the cities at a young age. As a result, rural areas are struggling to absorb the loss of their younger generations. Their populations are dwindling and ageing, much like in Germany. In other words, creating equal opportunities for young people is a topical issue for China as much as it is in Germany.
Poverty, morals, speed dating: impressions of China’s youth development plan
Since President Xi Jinping identified the young generation on his political agenda as a key factor for prosperity and a strong, growing China, the Chinese youth work sector has received a fresh impetus. The experts’ trip to China began with a presentation on China’s first medium- to long-term youth development plan (2016-2025), which was delivered by the All-Chinese Youth Federation in Beijing, a key political actor in China and the umbrella organisation of the country’s youth organisations (in China, “young people” encompass the 14 to 35 age group). Many aspects of the plan, such as social security, education, child-rearing and youth protection were familiar to the German experts, although they have a different slant in China.
However, the German delegation responded with interest and surprise to the fact that marriage and partnerships play a role in the youth development plan, too, as does “moral education”, the first point to be mentioned and an issue unique to China. This latter point illustrates that youth policy is first and foremost the responsibility of the Communist Party and is hence aligned with the Party’s needs. Key elements of China’s youth policy strategy are trust in the government system, social solidarity and a strong work ethic. The strategy is dominated by the needs of the community and by social stability. To this end, the government also helps young people to find a partner and start a family, now that the country’s erstwhile one-child policy has been replaced by a strategy to encourage families to have more than one child. During a visit to a government-funded community centre in Shanxi province, the centre’s director told the group about regular speed-dating nights where young men and women could meet. This led to some hilarity among the German delegation, especially due to the thought of a government-sponsored and -funded process of finding a life partner.
Education for social stability and prosperity
Combating poverty is currently a major issue in China. Education is considered a key factor in achieving greater prosperity and stable living conditions, a belief that became very obvious throughout the exchange.
The German delegation visited a large technology park where they learned about support programmes for young entrepreneurs. Low-cost leases on office space and grant schemes help them to get their careers off the ground after graduation. The government is an investor in the park, where young talents are busy developing innovative solutions such as biometric recognition tools.
The above-mentioned Shanxi community centre, too, was proud to present a display board with photographs of young entrepreneurs. The young men and women pictured there had in fact used the centre’s (free) computer workstations to try out their first business plans, such as coffee shops or food trucks. The community centre staff were proud to have contributed towards helping them to build a successful career. Unlike the technology park, the community centre’s services are generally open to all members of the public.
With its broad range of activities, the centre functions as a kind of melting pot, where various Chinese youth as well as social policy approaches come together. Featuring state-of-the-art facilities, the centre has a small library, study and reading areas, a screening room, multi-generation exercise and play facilities, and meeting rooms for the 16 local party youth chapters. Parents and school students can avail themselves of tutoring services, while university students can volunteer in various capacities, such as tutors or neighbourhood assistants. Through dance and calligraphy courses and cooking competitions, a multigenerational audience is given access to Chinese culture.
The teaching of Chinese values is in fact the centre’s explicit objective. Even psychological counselling is available, albeit primarily with the aim of preparing children to deal with the pressures of school life. The centre estimates that over 100 young people use the centre, which is open year-round, on a daily basis. Its services are also available to residents of neighbouring communities, too; no membership is necessary. As a non-academic institution, the centre is fairly unique in China. The fact that it is sponsored by the Communist Party is clearly evident inside; in fact, this also explains why it is so well appointed. That being said, the German delegation was very impressed by its multigenerational approach and broad range of services, which inspired some of them to replicate this back home.
The visit to a primary school in Yangqu district illustrated how emphatically the aims of the Chinese youth development plan are being put into practice. Established in 1957, the school was summarily converted to a “poor school” in 2017; today, around half of its students come from families who are on low incomes, some even living in precarious circumstances. The school’s official “poor school” status means that its students receive free access to the education system, giving all of them an opportunity to achieve the academic success that is so eminently important in China. The school even provides some employment opportunities for the parents, e.g., as caretakers. It is considered a showcase project for the implementation of the youth development plan and may be replicated elsewhere in future. It is also a good example of how the government intends to support rural development. The state runs special programmes to assist young people from rural areas to enter higher education with the idea being that after graduating, they will return to their home regions. However, these schemes tend to be limited to young people who are already high achievers in, e.g., school.
Equal living conditions for all? Conclusions
Back to the original question. What is the most populous country in the world doing to give its young people equal access to services and support? Admittedly, this is broad-ranging and complex question so it would be unreasonable to expect to find a clear answer in just five days. Nevertheless, the delegation did succeed in getting some insight into a complex political system in which youth plays a central role.
The following conclusions take account of the fact that non-formal education is not a recognisable element in China, where “education” is understood as the teaching of knowledge in academic settings, as well as of the cultural and ideological tenets of Chinese society. The little spare time that children have outside of their demanding timetables – sometimes none – is usually spent in school surroundings, too. In China, education is seen as the key to bettering one’s life, climbing the social ladder, and achieving prosperity. With this in mind, the delegation returned home having understood that while the centres, projects and strategies they learned about during the visit do not always correspond with child and youth services or even support for disadvantaged target groups in the style of Germany, they are – in the Chinese context – important elements of the country’s approach to youth work. Youth work in China is “different”, concluded a delegate later; it was not up to him, he said, to pass judgment on that. His words reflected what many of the participants felt, who returned to Germany both impressed and thoughtful.
Chinese youth is undergoing a transformation and is developing new desires and ideas about the future. In turn, this is giving rise to new needs. The Chinese government has recognised that it must take action and offer services for young people in both urban and rural areas, and has reset its priorities accordingly. Research in this area is continuing apace. The flexibility and responsiveness with which the government is implementing projects that enjoy political priority – and for which it provides funding – are impressive. This is motivated in no small measure by ideological objectives, too; the presence of the Communist Party, sometimes subtle, sometimes very obvious, throughout the delegation’s visit left barely any doubt of this. Civil society and/or non-Party initiatives were wholly absent from the programme. That said, the delegation encountered a large number of committed individuals who are working hard to open up perspectives for children and young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have limited access to (higher) education. After all, the aim is to provide prospects and prosperity for all.
Creating equal living conditions for all young people remains a remote objective both in China and in Germany. However, in the end everyone agreed that it is always worth trying, wherever in the world one may be.