Alumnus Alec Ash's closely observed study of China's millennials offers a provocative portrait of a fast-changing society.
Author Alec Ash (Corpus Christi, 2004) with Dahai and his family at Chinese New Year
By Olivia Gordon
Alec Ash is making tea and toast in his father’s north Oxford kitchen. The young Beijing-based writer is back in Oxford to promote his new book, Wish Lanterns, which traces the lives of six millennials in modern China.
And he’s a chip off the old block. His father, the political journalist, historian and Honorary Chair of St Antony’s College’s European Studies Centre, Professor Timothy Garton Ash, made his name in the 1980s, reporting on the breakdown of communism in Europe. Ash interviewed young Chinese people on his travels, whose lifestyles are very different from that preached by the Communist party
Now Alec (Corpus Christi, 2004) is following in his father’s footsteps, reporting on what life is like in the new China as it trades 20th century communism for what Ash describes as ‘authoritarian capitalism’. ‘It wasn’t conscious that Dad is my writing role model, but in a way, Beijing is my Berlin,’ Alec says. ‘When I first read his books, it planted the germ of an idea of going to one of the remaining communist countries.’
After growing up in Oxford and graduating with a degree in English Literature, Alec first journeyed to China on a teaching exchange programme which sent him to ‘the middle of nowhere in western China’. A year later, Ash went to Beijing to learn Mandarin. ‘There I became interested in my generation of the young Chinese people all around me,’ he says.
Ash was born in 1986 and says: ‘I was struck by how radically different the Chinese people my age were from their parents, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. The generation gap was more a chasm. Their children are natives of this totally new China with no memory of Mao or Tiananmen Square. To me they felt like a transformationally different group, and I was keen to understand them better. It helped that I was the same age and could speak the same language.’ Ash with Lucifer on the curb of his friend’s guitar shop
Ash spent four years following six young Chinese citizens from different backgrounds and regions before writing up their life stories so far in Wish Lanterns. The result is, as he puts it, is a ‘narrative deep-dive in which a reader can get an impression of what it means to be young in China today’.
There are 320 million young people in their teens and twenties in mainland China – the same population as the entire United States. What sets this generation apart from other millennials around the world, Ash says, is that in China ‘the competition is incredibly intense’. The only-child policy meant ‘a lot of pressure from your parents and grandparents…it can be a real struggle to get ahead.’
An interesting example is the Chinese education system. ‘The Chinese equivalent of A-levels is the Gaokao – it’s a very high-pressured exam to get into the best universities. The Chinese equivalent of Oxford might only take one in 50,000 students,’ Ash notes. With a soaring population and rigorous academic expectations, it is extremely competitive for Chinese students to get into Peking University, which Ash explains has a similar prestige to Oxbridge – and so, he says, increasingly Chinese students choose to apply to Oxford, Harvard or Yale as a perhaps easier option.
Despite its challenges, says Ash, this generation is defined by its individual aspirations, entrepreneurship, optimism and ambition (ideas encapsulated in the title ‘Wish Lanterns’). ‘It’s only quite recently in Chinese history that a student can pursue any dream they want to,’ he stresses. ‘Young people have ever more diversity, subcultures and options, when just 30 years ago your work was assigned and so many aspects of your life were dictated by group dynamics rather than individual aspirations – you needed permission from your work unit to get married or have a child.’
There is still repression for young Chinese today, of course. As a journalist, Ash himself hasn’t got into trouble, but says a few friends ‘have got a bit close to the red line, by organising, by having events, by talking on social media about issues as innocuous-sounding as smog and the environment, or migrant worker rights’. He says: ‘If you’ve been involved in any activity the state dislikes, there’s no real safety net. The environment in China is not a good one for free speech.’
Ash, who has now lived for eight years in Beijing, where he teaches English Literature, experienced a level of culture shock on his visit to England this autumn. ‘China feels a lot more lawless on a street level than England,’ he says. ‘If I ran a red light on my bicycle in Oxford I’d get some raised eyebrows; in China you can run a red light in a car with a police car next to you. It feels a lot less controlled; it’s still a developing country. It’s only when you cross the line – which is often nearer to you than you think – that you realise China is still a police state.’
Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash is published by Picador.