Excited and emboldened by the wealth of information they find on the Internet, Chinese teens are breaking centuries of tradition to challenge their teachers and express their own opinions in class.
Wearing jerseys emblazoned with the names of European soccer stars, downloading weekly episodes of "Prison Break," listening to 50 Cent, and reading Japanese comic books, China's current high school generation is plugging itself directly into international culture.
And it's giving the kids ideas. Ideas that could one day transform the way this country is governed.
"The Internet has given Chinese children wings," says Sun Yun Xiao, vice president of the China Youth and Children Research Center.
Many are using those wings to fly in the face of received wisdom about how and what they should learn, and about how much respect they owe to authority. "Today students ask you, 'Why?' And if you don't have a good answer, they won't necessarily accept what you say," says Zhao Hongxia, a young teacher at a private school in Beijing. "In my day, if the teacher said something he was always right."
The "post-90" generation of Chinese youngsters, named for the year the eldest of them was born, is "very different" from its predecessors, says Tony Hu, a Beijing high school student who has just turned 18. "We have far more ways to get information," he explains. "The generation before us knew nothing about anything except studying."
That judgment may be a little harsh, but Mr. Sun, whose research institute is linked to China's Communist Youth League, agrees with its essence.
"The post-90 kids are more confident and have more experience, and they are definitely braver and readier to challenge" their elders, he says. "The reason is that they have the Internet as a way to learn things, and because a lot more of them travel. They have more ways of acquiring knowledge."
137 million online in China
Internet use in China has exploded in recent years, and at the forefront of that revolution have been young people, hungry for a taste of life outside their country's borders. In 1999 there were just four million Internet connections in China; by the end of last year there were 137 million.
More than 70 percent of Chinese children between ages 7 and 15 had used the Internet at least once, according to a survey Sun's center carried out last year. That was nearly half as many again as the 2005 figure, and the total rose to 87 percent when only urban youngsters were polled. More than half of town-dwelling children today live in homes with an Internet connection.
That gives them opportunities to broaden their minds that teachers often cannot match. "I learned from books," says Jenny Li, who now trains teachers at a Beijing college. "These kids learn from the whole world."
That makes them more difficult to teach, says Ms. Zhao. "It's harder for me to keep their attention in class," she complains, "because they already know a lot. Teachers have to keep broadening their own horizons."
If Zhao, who has been teaching for six years, finds it hard to keep up with her students, older teachers are often baffled. "A lot of teachers over 40 feel uneasy and uncomfortable with the new knowledge their students have, and their lack of control," says Yan Ming, a young teacher at the elite No. 1 Middle School in the port city of Tianjin.
Teachers are also having to cope with an evolving curriculum. A series of reforms since 1997 have edged the Chinese education system away from rote learning and towards a more Western emphasis on independent thought.
"We are moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach," says Wang Wu Xing, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Education. "If we want to produce top talent we need millions of inquisitive and critical-minded innovative talents. The new generation will develop the ability to explore things."
At the cutting edge of this drive is Tianjin's No. 1 Middle School, which teaches students up to the university entrance level. The school is experimenting this year with a history curriculum that breaks the old rules. For the first time, says Mr. Yan, students are allowed to write history essays that disagree with the textbook's conclusion about the political significance, for example, of the Boxer Rebellion against colonial powers.
"If they argue well, they get good marks," explains Yan. So far, however, this history test has only been administered at the middle school level in three school districts. "Whether they will allow this [latitude in answering the question] in the national exam [to get into university] we will have to see," he adds.
That exam is so critical for ambitious students desperate to get into China's top universities, says Wang Zhangmin, a veteran history teacher at the school, few of them dare to step out of line for fear of risking their chances of success.
That fear acts as a brake on change. Teachers at the Tianjin school, which prides itself on the high proportion of its graduates who get into the best colleges, say the pressure is so intense on elite students that they are still scared to challenge their teachers or to spend much time exploring topics outside the prescribed curriculum.
At more ordinary schools, too, teachers do not always encourage student-initiated digressions.
"We don't get many debates in my class," says Xi Haixin, a 17-year-old Beijing high school junior. "Sometimes we want to discuss something, but the teacher has too much material to get through and he drops the issue."
It is also difficult, Xi acknowledges, to hold a coherent debate when there are 50 or so students in the class, as is normally the case in China.
"Spider-Man 3": Already seen it
Even if his teachers do not satisfy his Web-fueled curiosity, Xi says, the Internet has still changed him and his generation. "I'm part of international society now," he reckons, listing the Miami Heat as his favorite basketball team, rhythm and blues as his favorite music, and "Spider-Man 3" as the best film he has seen recently. "Kids my age all listen to the same stuff and watch the same films."
"As students learn from foreign cultures they will definitely feel more global and more international," says teacher Wang Zhangmin.
How far this globalized generation will change the face of China is a matter of debate among those following young peoples' attitudes.
Tony Hu is dubious. "I'm not sure that our individualism can change the environment much," he says. "The Chinese mold has been established for many years. And if we can't change the environment, the environment will change us. We have to survive."
Sun Yun Xiao, the researcher, has greater hopes. "The sense of participation among post-90 kids is very strong," he points out. "Their sense of democracy is stronger, and this is a definite trend."
At Tianjin No. 1 Middle School, Yan Ming is waiting and seeing. "If these kids really have the chance to think differently, the impact will be the same as in the West," he predicts. "They will be more creative, they'll be better at solving problems by themselves, and they won't simply do what they are told to do."