A streak of individualism emerges in China's youth

Less than a decade since the Cultural Revolution and its notorious ''Red Guards'' swept China, the nation is still finding its 250 million youths difficult to handle.

Chinese youth workers have admitted that many of China's young people are cynical, disillusioned, and more interested in their own ideas than those of the Communist Party.

Problems ranging from lack of employment to juvenile delinquency are troubling to a government already overburdened with the feeding, housing, and management of China's massive population.

''In the 1950s, our young people were pure minded,'' says Zhang Ke, head of the ideology department of Chinese Youth magazine. ''They had absolute loyalty to, and trust in, the party. And their belief in communism was unshakeable. But today the young people are slow to believe what people tell them. They often pause and think and then decide what to do,'' Mr. Zhang said.

This new strain of individualism has thrown up a new type of national hero: a smoking, drinking, snappy dresser called Liu Sija has replaced PLA soldiers killed in action or young women overcoming adversity.

A fictional rebellious worker, Liu is the central character in ''All Colors, '' a film showing currently across China. The character, described as someone who ''sets great store by his own opinion of things and goes out of his way to oppose rigid, bureaucratic thinking,'' was recently voted the most popular character by more than 3 million Chinese filmgoers.

The same admiration for the independent Liu is reflected in the way that China's youth avoid the once thriving, Chinese Communist Youth League. For many years, the equivalent of ''the party'' for those under 30, the league has disappeared in most rural areas and is struggling to attract members in the city.

''In factories, league meetings and activities have become much less frequent and more superficial, and in most rural areas the league has ceased to function, '' Mr. Zhang Ke admitted.

According to Peking's English-language newspaper, the China Daily, many youths still have not recovered from the ''trauma'' of the Cultural Revolution, when adolescent Red Guards roamed unrestrained, terrorizing the people and looting the countryside.

''The Cultural Revolution has done irreparable damage to our youth,'' says Chi Guang, a researcher at the Chinese Youth Institute in Peking. ''The tyranny exercised by the ''gang of four'' and more recently the corruption of some of our irresponsible comrades have given some young people the mistaken impression that things are very wrong. It is difficult to hold high ideals after witnessing such things.''

According to Mr. Chi, the influence of the West has also distorted the view of young Chinese of their country. ''Some of our young people are really very naive. They see a few movies and read a few stories about the affluence of the West and decide it is paradise,'' he said.

''That is partly due to a miscalculation in our propaganda, because for a while our media spent too much time on the positive aspects of the West. Young people saw only the cars, the beautiful houses, and the color TV sets, but not the decadence or other evils of capitalism. They were led to form a one-sided picture of the West. Naturally this has made them doubt the superiority of socialism.

''In some of our young people today, egotism has developed into a malignancy. They have stopped thinking about the country's future and seem to care only about their personal interests,'' says Mr. Chi.

The Cultural Revolution, the influence of the West, and the rising unemployment as the offspring of the 1950s and '60s baby booms finish school are cited by many officials as the cause of the alarming rise in juvenille delinquency in China in recent years.

Surveys in Peking, Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang, Fuzhou, and Zhengzhou in 1979 revealed that 72 percent of all criminals were juveniles, compared to 30 percent in 1965.

During the 1980s, it is estimated that about 20 million Chinese will leave high school each year, but only a minority will be able to continue with tertiary studies. The rest will have to try to find places in the already oversupplied work force.

While economic reforms allowing peasant families to engage in sideline productions have eased the problem in the countryside, the growing youth populations in China's already overcrowded cities has become a major problem for municipal governments.

One indication of a solution being considered by the leadership came when a member of the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, Wang Zhao Guo , also an official of the Youth League, suggested that China's youth act as a ''shock force'' in fulfilling the tasks set by the NPC.

''The Chinese youth of today will carry out these tasks just as the young people in the 1950s tackled the major construction projects,'' Mr. Wang said at the congress last month. ''They will also go to work where the conditions are the hardest and act as a shock force in the new long march toward building a powerful, modern socialist country,'' the youth leader said, in a call reminiscent of Mao's ''down-to-the-countryside'' movement during the Cultural Revolution, when educated youth were forced to serve time in rural communes.

However, such drastic measures may not be necessary, according to Mr. Chi of the Youth Institute. ''On the whole our younger generation is healthy and promising. With the improvement in our standard of living and the rising interest in learning, our young people will be a great force for modernization. They are our country's future.''

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