Chengdu Youths Discuss Life in China

Eight English-speaking young people in the city of Chengdu, China, talk about how they get around the restrictions on the Internet (The Great Firewall), their hopes for their country, and what they want people to know about China.

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MICHELLE NORRIS, host:

From NPR news, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in Washington. I'm Michelle Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And in Chengdu in China, Michelle, this is Robert Siegel.

NORRIS: Hello. Good to talk to you, Robert. So used to having you...

SIEGEL: Good to talk with you.

NORRIS: ...right here in Studio 2A, but you're half a world away. I know that when we first planned this trip for you and Melissa, there was no thought that this earthquake might happen. And one thing that you were planning to do was to sit down with a group of young people there, something you actually did. Tell us about that.

SIEGEL: Yes, we assembled a group of eight people ages 19 to 31, people who really didn't know one another. They were brought together only by our super producer, Andrea Hsu. These are members of the generation of young Chinese who grew up in the age of reform. For them the Cultural Revolution and that was something that some of their parents had to deal with. They've dealt with a China that's much more open to the world.

NORRIS: Now, they are all college educated. How typical is this?

SIEGEL: They are a minority. If you're in college or you have a university education, as of the 2000 census you're part of, say, 3.6 percent of China's population. It sounds very small. I did the arithmetic. That's about 48 million people who fit into that group. So it's not insignificant minority.

NORRIS: Wow, the numbers there are just staggering. Now, Robert, we met some of these young people on the program yesterday. Could you tell us a little bit more them and also remind us how Rainbow got that name.

[Soundbite of laughs]

SIEGEL: Okay, well first, I'll tell you, Hwe Lee(ph) is a graduate student in environmental science and she's the only one who has taken an English name, which happens to kids who study English in school. She's also one of the two who live in the States. A man named V, he goes by the letter V Jong(ph), is the other who studied in the U.S., in Virginia. He now owns a martial arts academy in Chengdu. Rainbow Ju(ph) - his name - his Chinese name is Ju Ka(ph), and the teacher gave him the name Rainbow. He's very strapping guy. That's a slight mismatch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: He works for an environmental group. Carrie Wang(ph) and Jeremy Chen(ph) are teachers; Cecilia Young(ph), Sophie Tong(ph) and Blaire Lee(ph) are students. You will not hear them talk about the earthquake because we got together several days before it happened. And you won't hear them in this edited version talked about Tibet. I'll tell you what they said in a nutshell. They said we don't have all the facts, we Americans don't have all the facts, and China treats its Tibetans and all of its minorities a lot better than we treat our American Indians. That's a refrain one hears from the Chinese.

What you would hear here is eight bright young people who are a generation or two removed from political instability and grinding poverty. And they're talking first about what's different about the China they live in from the China their parents grew up in. And Jeremy Chen, an elementary school teacher, began.

Ms. JEREMY CHEN: Well, it's getting more peer pressure for our generation than the older generation. We have bigger pressure, but also there are more opportunities, so we (unintelligible) and compared to the older generation, there are still lots of challenges to us. Sometimes (unintelligible) but mostly we still have lots of hope and we have lots of choice. That's the things that we are experiencing now.

SIEGEL: When you said pressure, Jeremy, Carrie was nodding in agreement. Do you feel that your generation lives under great deal of pressure?

Ms. CARRIE WANG: Yes, I think in my parent's generation usually they stay in the same job in their whole life. That's quite different now. A lot of my friends, they'll be changing job. And because they want to get a higher salary or because they have to earn more money paying for the rent or, you know, the car, so it's heavy pressure here.

SIEGEL: So a generation ago they might not have a car, but now they feel they have to look for a better job in order to pay for the car?

Ms. WANG: Yes.

SIEGEL: Sophie, you agree with that?

Ms. SOPHIE TONG: Yeah, I want to say something about my parents. My parents both grew up in countryside in China. And actually I'm the first college student from my family - big family. And my father is a navy soldier and he works in Beijing. And in Beijing you must have an automobile, and it is kind of hard for him because he doesn't earn a lot money compared to some Beijing local people, and he is also paying the mortgage to buy a new apartment. And my mother, who didn't receive very high education, she's now working in the army just as a officer. And she also always complains about her life. And actually she is now investing money in the stock market. But this year the (unintelligible) situation is getting worst in China. So...

SIEGEL: The stock market is going down. It's been a bad year on the market.

Ms. TONG: Yeah. And - but she saw many people earn money, so she invested money in the stock market without any knowledge about it. And I'm not happy with her about it. So there are a lot of changes.

SIEGEL: A lot of changes.

Ms. TONG: Yes.

SIEGEL: What - I'm curious about hearing what your hopes are for your country and what you - how you hope China will change in the coming years. What do you say? Cecilia, what - are you hopes for China?

Ms. CECILIA YOUNG: My hope?

SIEGEL: Yes.

Ms. YOUNG: The stock market, (unintelligible), because my mom invested in it too. And I think that Beijing could hold the Olympics very well.

SIEGEL: You hope the Olympics go well.

Ms. YOUNG: The most important thing is I hope when the (unintelligible) that's all.

SIEGEL: You hope it will be sunny for the opening ceremonies.

Ms. YOUNG: Yeah, because I heard about recently the climate is abnormal, so that's what I hope.

SIEGEL: Carrie, what are your hopes?

Ms. WANG: I hope that China can maintain a very fast development in economy, so that, you know, I and my husband can live a better life...

SIEGEL: And you'd like the stock market to go up also?

Ms. WANG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: You'd like that to happen?

Ms. WANG: Although I didn't invest in the stock market.

SIEGEL: Blaire, what are your hopes?

Mr. BLAIRE LEE: I just want to talk about the education problems in China. And as you know, in China - we are very good at educating elites well. But for the majority the standards haven't been high enough.

SIEGEL: Jeremy, what are your hopes for the future for China?

Mr. CHEN: Well, as I am a teacher, I do concern about our education situation. I hope that our country will put more concern to the education, especially the pre-school education. Yes.

SIEGEL: V, your hopes for China in the future?

V: Just as I'm a martial arts instructor, I'm more concerned about people's physical health.

SIEGEL: But V, you can be very fit and in good shape, but you know, the air in Chengdu - a mayor of New York City once said he didn't like to go out of town because he didn't trust breathing air that he couldn't see. This is when the air was more polluted there. The air in Chengdu doesn't look that healthy to me and...

THE V: Well, I say what doesn't kill you will make you stronger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Rainbow?

Mr. RAINBOW JU: Okay. In short, I want to do something about the environment, because when I see the documentary of the "Planet Earth" by BBC, or the "Inconvenient Truth" by your former vice-president Al Gore, I was so touched. And today, in China, because China has become bigger and bigger, it's really a big country, plays very important role in the world, so we've been called like an international factory. So China has lots of problems, like environmental issue. So as a Chinese I really want to improve it, slow down and solve this problem.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Rainbow. And Hwe Lee, Cecilia, Carrie, Blaire, Sophie, Jeremy, V, and Rainbow, thank you all very much for talking with us today.

GROUP: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And one thing Americans might expect to hear that was notably absent from this discussion, Michele, was any mention by them of democracy. China's educated elites don't express much confidence in what the uneducated masses might actually vote for. Since the earthquake, I've exchanged e-mails or phone calls with all of these eight young adults. Some gave blood. Rainbow ran relief supplies to the disaster area. They are all safe, sound, and like me, still in Chengdu.

NORRIS: Well, you're in Chengdu just for a matter of hours; you're going to be heading back tomorrow. Please get back safe, Robert.

SIEGEL: Will do. Bye-bye.

ADAMS: That was my colleague, Robert Siegel. And in Washington, I'm Noah Adams.

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