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Encouraged by her new boyfriend Wang Ning, a keen snowboarder, Vicky decided earlier this year to take up the sport as well. To prime for it, she went to a mall in south Beijing that specializes in pricey, imported skiing gear. She chose a gleaming new snowboard made by the Colorado company Never Summer, emblazoned with colorful, psychedelic paintings of butterflies. Along with gloves, goggles and other paraphernalia, the new gear set her back about $700. When asked about the wisdom of spending a small fortune on equipment for a sport she may never take to, she says, "I believe you have to be fully prepared and equipped before you decide to start a new hobby." Besides, she adds, "even if I don't like skiing, think how nice [the gear] will look in the hallway of my apartment. Guests won't know that I don't use it." Vicky smiles to signal she's joking. But she's dead serious when she explains, over coffee at Starbucks, her lack of interest in politics. "It's because our life is pretty good. I care about my rights when it comes to the quality of a waitress in a restaurant or a product I buy. When it comes to democracy and all that, well ..." She shrugs expressively and takes a sip of her latte. "That doesn't play a role in my life."
People like Vicky and her friends represent the leading edge, the trailblazers for a huge mass of young, eagerly aspirant consumers. All over China, young professionals like these banter about blogging, travel and work-life balance. ("Work hard, play harder," says Vicky several times, repeating it in case she isn't heard.) If they can't afford to blow $700 on skiing gear, they want to be able to soon.
And so for China's leaders, placating the Me generation is seen as critical to ensuring the Communist Party's survival. By 2015, the number of Chinese adults under 30 is expected to swell 61%, to 500 million, equivalent to the entire population of the European Union. From issues of grave consequence to trivialities, the government has made clear that it will do whatever it takes to keep the swelling middle class happy. In Beijing, for example, newly prosperous residents are snapping up automobiles at a rate of 1,000 a day. The number of vehicles on the capital's sclerotic roads has doubled in the past five years, to 3 million. (By comparison, there are about 2 million vehicles registered in all of New York City.) But despite a grim pollution problem (Beijing air quality is among the world's worst) that could embarrass China during next summer's Olympic Games, the central government has made no move to curb vehicle purchases through regulation or taxes. And that, in turn, has made it harder for governments in the developed world to make progress in getting Beijing to do more to fight climate change.
That's just one example of the long-term impact of the government's focus on the Me generation. In an article in the official mouthpiece People's Daily published in February, Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that economic growth should take precedence over democratic reforms for the foreseeable future, a period that he appeared to indicate could stretch to 100 years. And yet for all its machinery of control, the party is vulnerable. Senior cadres from Wen on down have acknowledged in public that growing unrest in the provinces, as farmers clash with police over expropriated land or official corruption, could threaten the party's grip on power.
As a result, China's rulers face a dilemma: the very policies that cater to the urban middle class come at the expense of the rural poor. So far the government is erring on the side of the rich. In March the government pledged to address problems plaguing the country's peasants, such as access to medical treatment and schooling, health insurance and the disparity between urban and rural incomes. And yet a relatively small portion of the budget was set aside to address the concerns of the peasantry, with the bulk of spending still concentrated on stoking the booming economy.
Even more telling was the passage of what was widely viewed as one of the most important pieces of legislation to be put forward in several decades of reform: the revised law on property ownership. Pushed through despite objections from old-line conservatives, the law for the first time gave equal weight to both state- and private-ownership rights. But a look at the fine print shows that the law only protects things dear to the rising middle class: real estate, cars, stock-market assets. Farmers, on the other hand, will still be unable to purchase their land and instead will be forced to lease plots from the government.
If left unchanged, such policies could exacerbate China's rich-poor divide and create conditions for tumultuous social upheaval. The test for China as the Me generation grows bigger, richer and more powerful will be whether it begins to push for the social and political reforms that are necessary to ensure China's long-term prosperity and stability. How likely is that? Though they're not exactly clamoring for free elections, members of the new middle class have shown a willingness to stand up to authority when their interests are threatened. Last October police in Beijing attempted to enforce rules limiting each household to a single, registered animal no taller than 14 in. (35 cm). The drive sparked a rare public demonstration by hundreds of well-heeled Chinese, mostly young dog owners. Within a month, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, President Hu Jintao had intervened, ordering the Beijing authorities to back off. It was the first time most Beijingers could remember a public protest drawing a direct intervention by China's top leader.
It was hardly Tiananmen, but a small triumph for free expression nonetheless. And if the West hopes to see China become democratic as well as prosperous, it will have to find ways to encourage modest breakthroughs like these, rather than expect sweeping change. At the Gang Ji Restaurant, where the dishes have been cleared and fresh fruit and more tea brought in, the mood is reflective. "We are lucky compared to our parents," says Maria Zhang, who works as a membership manager in one of the capital's most exclusive clubs. "My parents had nothing themselves. They lived for me." Wang Ning, the snowboarder who runs his own successful advertising company, agrees. "We are more self-centered. We live for ourselves, and that's good. We need to have the strength to contribute to the economy. That's our power. The power to contribute. That's how our generation is going to help the country." China's future will be defined by whether they realize that democracy can help China, too.